Shoemakers in Settle

Maureen Bottom


 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 
All crafts have their legends and that of shoemaking is no exception. Many of its traditions have to do with the character of the shoemaker himself, his independence, patience, obstinacy even and his philosophical turn of mind. Also remarked upon is the frequency with which shoemaking seems to have been a dynastic craft, son (or daughter) succeeding father or mother for generations. This tendency must have been true of many crafts in the past; it is only because the weavers, spinners, stockingers and their like were absorbed in the mills and factories many decades before shoemakers were, that their dynastic traditions are forgotten. Independent shoemaking families, on the other hand, are still within living memory, if not actually alive and well and living in Settle.

Shoemaking has always been one of the most important trades in terms of numbers of craftsmen, shoes coming high on the list of necessities after bread in terms of consumption (1). There would be several shoemakers in every town and most villages would house at least a cobbler (for mending or bodging together worn-out shoes into wearable ones). Working in their own homes well after many of their neighbours were in mills and factories, they retained their reputation for being solitary workers and yet this can never have been entirely true. Most craft workers before the late 18th century worked in family units, the wife being called upon to perform her share, in shoemaking by "closing" or stitching together the uppers, the children waxing thread as soon as they could co-ordinate hand and eye. A master shoemaker might employ journeymen and apprentices, who from the age of thirteen or fourteen would live in and learn the trade for seven years; at first doing little more than boiling up the ingredients for the wax but always watching to learn the skills of the craft. The journeymen might live elsewhere and act as out-workers but generally three or four men would be working together in the crowded "shop" in a room of the cottage or at the top of the garden. The "shop" would always have light to work by; candles or, later, gas and there would always be warmth because, however bright the day, the candles or gas would be needed to heat the irons used for finishing soles and heels. Then the wax would be melted down and plunged into cold water to solidify it, leading to a steamy atmosphere. Folks who brought shoes for repair or came to order new ones would linger for a chat or to smoke a pipe and exchange the latest news. "My grandfather's shop was never empty", says Jim Nelson of Settle (2) and others remembering the past in other small towns say much the same (3).

When shoemaking did become industrialised, which only happened very slowly during the second half of the 19th century, shoemakers showed their independence by refusing as long as possible to work in factories where they would be subject to rules and regulations, expected to arrive and depart at specified times and not as the fancy took them. They were also noted for taking things easy at the beginning of the week and then, as the weekend approached, working late into the night to complete orders (4).

Jim Nelson can trace his family back through his father and grandfather, Titus, to his great-grandfather, who came to Settle in the 1840's because he knew that with the building of the railways there was a large male working population in the area which would require an almost endless supply of boots. Before that there would have been the canal builders and lead workers, although by the 1840's most of them would have moved away, the lead workers with wives and families often emigrating to America or the not-so-distant mills of Lancashire (5), leaving many tradesmen bereft of customers. The shopkeepers who hung on no doubt found some prosperity again with the influx of railway navigators.

Perhaps, too, that's why my own ancestor, William Tennant came to Settle and set up as a shoemaker. It's not known when he arrived but he was certainly there in 1841 aged 28, where the census records him at No 102, Market Place. He had come from Westhouse, where his father, also William, was also a shoemaker and he, in his turn, had come from Clapham where his father, also William, was also a shoemaker. Clearly, once a young man had served his apprenticeship there was no room for him to set up as a master in a village where his father had his workshop. The William who went to Settle must have established himself there by 1841 since he employed his brothers, Richard and Christopher, aged at that time 17 and 13, as apprentices. He is recorded as being there still in 1851 when he employed three men but by that time Richard had set up business in Kirkby Lonsdale and Christopher was about to marry a gardener's daughter from Giggleswick and move to Lancaster where he opened his first shop in Market Street.

By the 1850's, although mechanisation and the subsequent removal of the shoe industry to factories was still just in the future, the practice of providing ready made shoes as opposed to made-to-measure ones was well established, (it had been well established for over a century in parts of the East Midlands). A master shoemaker acting as "clicker" cut out the parts of the uppers from the skins. This is a highly skilled job as skins vary enormously in their flexibility and quality and are not at all predictable like cloth with its warp, weft and bias. He then put out the job of "closing" and divided the "bottoming" and "finishing" among his journeymen so that, in effect, it was "mass production", with each man or woman contributing a single skill to the finished article. This must have provided the bread and butter work for many shoemakers and continued through the 1850's and '60's with the introduction of sewing machines for "closing", often provided for out-workers in their own homes. By the 1880's and '90's the capital outlay required for the more sophisticated machinery finally forced the workers into factories. There was still, during this period, a steady call for hand-made bespoke shoemaking from those who were able to afford it and it was not until well into this century that the master shoemaker had to make the decision if he had not already done so, to become a retailer of factory made shoes. It was almost a "Hobson's Choice" (6) although he might decide to work as a "clicker" in a factory.

There were some twenty shoemakers and apprentices in Settle in 1851, but although we can guess that Oates of Kirkgate, Brakell and Preston of Duke Street, Tennant in the Market Place, Parkinson of Back Lane, Nelson of Chapel Square, Whittam and Armistead were all masters, we have no means of knowing from the census which of the journeymen worked for whom. Discounting the apprentices the number per head of the Settle population in 1851 was slightly above the national average (7).

The Nelson family remained in Settle and is still there today. Christopher Tennant prospered as a master in Lancaster, where he employed nine men and two women in 1881. One of his sons opened a shop in 1892 in Ilkley, where he was still making boots at the outbreak of the first world war, though by the 1920's he was concentrating on retailing and his elder son followed him into the business.

Sadly he was the last shoeman in this branch of the Tennant family, though his shop, under other ownership for some years, is still a retail outlet for shoes in The Grove, Ilkley.


1.    Henry Mayhew. Labour and the Poor. Letter no 32 Morning Chronicle February 5, 1850. London.

2.    I am indebted to Jim Nelson of Settle for giving me the benefit of some of his recollections.

3.    Cumbria Federation of Women's Institutes. Cumbria Within Living Memory p63 "The Shoemaker".

4.    I have also read this about potters and glass makers and suspect that it has been applied to other craftsmen and women too!

5.    C S Hallas "Migration in 19th C Wensleydale and Swaledale" Northern History Vol. 27 1991.

6.    Popular play by H Brighouse, first produced in England at the Apollo Theatre, London June 1916 and reviewed in The Shoe and Leather Record for July 7, 1916.

7.    J H Clapham. An Economic History of Modern Britain 1932. 11. States that there were as many adult males occupied in shoe making as in the cotton industry in 1851 but this does not hold good in Settle where there were over 70 in cotton to 20 in shoes.

Select Bibliography

J Swann. Shoemaking. Shire Publications Ltd.

Aylesbury 1986. J Swann. Shoes. The Costume Accessories Series.

Batsford. London 1982. J Thornton. "From Cottage to Factory" The Shoe

Show, British Shoes Since 1790. Crafts Council

1979. W R Mitchell. A Popular History of Settle and

Giggleswick. Castleberg. Giggleswick 1993. A M Hill. Settle in the Middle of the 19th Century.

Settle Tithes and Census. North Yorkshire

County Record Office Publications No 14.