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Roberts, Benjamin Ebenezer (c1858 - 1925) and George Henry (c1865 - 1941) SHOEMAKERS NOT THATCHERS

Roberts, Benjamin Ebenezer (c1858 -1925) & Roberts, George Henry (c 1865 - ?)

John Roberts was born in about 1791 and was an agricultural labourer. Perhaps more surprisingly his wife Alice Page from Bythorn, who he married in Ringstead on 2nd August 1830, is described in the 1851 Ringstead Census as a “Church Sunday School Mistress”. One cannot be certain but one would imagine that this meant that she could read and write. They had five sons, William, John, William, Thomas and George between 1831 and 1842. Their first born, William, died at only eight months old but, as was often the case, a later son was also given the name.  All are shown as shoemakers in the 1851 Census. George, the youngest is only nine years old but he is already learning his craft. John, at 17 the eldest, is not living with the family but is lodging with another shoemaker, John Pearson and his wife, presumably as an unofficial apprentice. 

Shoemaker 1780

(With kind permission of Northampton Museums and Art Gallery)

The younger John was married just two years later in 1853, at the age of nineteen to Letitia Phillips, who was a year younger. The children followed quickly with almost all working in the shoe trade. Elizabeth, born c1854; Owen, born c1856; Benjamin Ebenezer, born c1858; John, born c1860; Alice, born c1864; George born c 1866 and finally Herbert, born c 1868. All are in the shoe trade in the 1871 and 1881 censuses, including the girls, except for George who is in 1881 a “Railway Employee”. (In 1891 he is a Midland Railway Station Master at Asfordby in Leicestershire where, later, his nephew Alfred Roberts held property).

The shoemakers, like the tailors and miners, were always known as a radical, freethinking part of the working class population. In the book Captain Swing which looks at the agricultural riots of 1830, the authors compare parishes with and without shoemakers and conclude: “The average riotous parish had from double to four times as many shoemakers as the average tranquil one”

If we look at the figures from the Censuses for Ringstead we find that there were some 36 shoemakers in 1841, 79 in 1851, 145 in 1861 and 186 in 1871. We must be careful in overstating this doubling of shoe workers every ten years in the early Censuses. Some of the increase is due to the lack of information on those who were not heads of families in the 1841 Census. Certainly some of it is due to the movement of women and girls from lacemaking, which declined very rapidly from 1851 to 1861, although only 35 female show workers are recorded in the 1871 Census. There was a great increase nevertheless mainly based on the production of army boots and shoes. Some of this increase seems to have been the result of the various strikes in Northampton culminating in the ones of 1857, 1858 and 1859. The introduction of machinery, especially in the closing process where a form of sewing machine was introduced in November 1857 led to workers fearing for their jobs and strikes were held. The shoemakers refused to work on any boots and shoes that had been "closed" by machinery. At first there was no trade union but the men belonged to benefit clubs to help see them through hard times. In April 1858 The Northamptonshire Boot and Shoe Makers Mutual Protection Society was established with the main objective of preventing the introduction of machinery and to protect,, equalise and raise wages, as far as possible.

The writer of an 1860 report on the strikes, coincidentally a man called John Ball, a common Ringstead name, criticised the action but did concede that: 

It is, however, undeniable that the improvements in machinery, when rapidly introduced into any branch of trade, sometimes deprive workmen and those depending on them of their daily bread. 

Of course daily bread must be taken literally here. The strike ultimately failed and many men left Northampton seeking work. The writer of the report estimated some 1500, mainly young men, left the town. There was a movement of some of the shoe making production to the Leicester area which had accepted the new machinery, often in larger factories. There was also a movement of the “coarser” boots and shoe manufacture into the smaller towns and villages such as Raunds and Ringstead. In these cases much of the work was “outwork”, based on piece work with comparatively low rates. 

Well into the twentieth century much of the work in the Ringstead area was done either at home or in small workshops. In his novel, The Feast of July, H. E. Bates writing of the end of the nineteenth century,  based mainly on the Higham Ferrars and Rushden area, talks of the two-storey sheds behind the cottages where the shoemakers worked. His heroine sees one such first-floor workshop for the first time.

She looked round the small oblong white-washed shop, with its crowded benches under the cobwebbed leather-dusted windows; the rolls of kip and calf and belly leather and the untidy mess of tins and sprigs and eyelets and brass tacks and wax-end. A glue pot was cooling on its burner. You could smell the hot breath of it and with it the close dark odour, almost the stench, of leather. 

Certainly Ringstead had such workshops attached to cottages as can be seen from the various sales in the Northampton Mercury (e.g. 19th December 1868 "Sale of cottages with shoe-makers shops")

This is South Place Works, Long Buckby in the early Twentieth Century but does give some of the atmosphere of a workshop and little has changed in the last one hundred years

With kind permission of Northampton Museums and Art Gallery

Others did not have that luxury and would work in the living room or in one of the bedrooms. This was particularly true for the women doing the “closing” which involved mainly sewing. Doris Watts speaking of the early years of the twentieth century in Rushden remembers:

Mother was a “boot finisher” and I can see her now in my minds eye in that little back room of our house in Cromwell Road finishing a boot that was strapped on one knee and with the other foot tapping the cradle that had a baby in it. It was a wicker cradle on rockers. Women in those days with boots and babies all in one small house had a very hard time. It was drudgery.

We must remember that in the Rushden area it was less likely to be the heavier, military boots that dominated the Raunds and Ringstead production. Incidentally Doris remembers her mother telling her of when her mother planned to marry her father, a Roberts.

When my parents planned to marry, Dad asked Mum where they should marry. The Roberts were brought up Ringstead Baptist but moving to Raunds became Wesleyans. The Raunds Baptists were known at Ringstead as a quarrelsome lot; in Raunds they were known as the “Chosen ones”. Mother said that they would like to be married at Rushden Church, where her mother had been christened. To mother’s surprise my father replied that he was broad minded himself “but had Grandfather been alive he would have forbidden it”.

In the early nineteenth century there had emerged entrepreneurs who acted as middle men and they began to organise small workshops where the clicking (leather pattern cutting) was done and they put out most of the other processes to home workers. In Raunds and Ringstead it appears that the workers would go to the factory to collect the work and then also take it back when finished. The middlemen had in effect become the factory owners. 

We do know that in 1867 there was only one major factory in Raunds, Wm. Nicholls & Son, because of a letter sent by a shoemaker to the Co-operator. Isaac Burton writes:

.....Raunds is a large village containing about 2,500 inhabitants, who are chiefly occupied in the shoe trade, but all under the control of one employer, who resides in the place. He keeps a grocer and draper's shop, and if you don't spend your money at his establishments, you must go and seek fro work at another village about four miles distant.

Underneath the letter is an article, Serfdom in the Shoe Trade, by Daniel P. Foxwell who, as a result of this letter went to Raunds and spoke at the Temperance Hall, trying to get the workers to form a Co-operative society.  Isaac Burton may have expected that Mr Nicholls did not read the Co-operator but word got back and a few weeks later his indignant rebuttal of the accusations was printed, although he does not deny the statement about the "company shop". Incidentally I have found Isaac Burton, born about 1835 in Raunds in the earlier censuses but in 1871, the census after his letter appeared, his parents and siblings are there(his brothers wrongly transcribed as Barton) but Isaac has disappeared. I cannot find his name again in the following censuses. Thee are many possible explanations for this but, perhaps, there is a story to be told

It is important to remember that shoemaking was not a single, uniform craft. Some master shoemakers made bespoke shoes by hand and did all the processes in their own workshops. Increasingly, most only did part of the process with the clickers being the aristocrats of the workforce. Their skill in cutting out the leather to produce matched pairs and to get the maximum from a hide was vital to the quality and the profit from boots and shoes. The clicking was the first to be organised into workshops and factories because of the space needed and the importance of it to the whole process. 

An article in The Boot & Shoe Journal in 1887 described the factories in Raunds, some of which appear to have had all the shoemaking processes within their four walls. He describes the factory of Messers W. Nicholls, for example, as "admirably arranged....The machinery which is of the best description, is driven by a gas-engine. The firm also curries the upper leather required and the whole factory is noticeable for completeness in every respect." Nevertheless he goes on to say:

Commenting on the army trade generally, I look upon Raunds as the centre of the army-boot-and-shoe making in Northamptonshire and the village of Raunds reminds me of the old days when scarcely anything but hand work was in vogue. The prices paid for closing and making are far from extravagant. The closing of army bluchers is done by hand throughout, and occupies the female workers in the village. For closing bluchers the sum of 31/4d., on an average is paid per pair. A man must work hard to make ten pairs of boots per week and there are many who do not make eight pairs, yet the inhabitants are generally an enterprising class of people, thrifty and industrious, comparing favourably with operatives in the trade elsewhere.

If we look in the Art of Boot and Shoemaking: A Practical Handbook, which was published in 1885, it describes many machines available for the shoemaking processes. These include the Upper Skiving Machine, The Rand Turning Machine, The Sole Moulding Machine, National Closing Machine, Welt or Forepart Stitching Machine, Mackay Heeling Machine, Inside Nailing Machine and Blake Buffing Machine. Many are like Victorian kitchen devices and are hand-powered mechanised processes. Raunds and Ringstead, however, tended to remain a cottage, outwork industry, reliant on the military's insistance on hand sewn boots.

Our shoemaker, John Roberts, has died before the 1871 Census, well before his fortieth birthday. His widow, Letitia, at 36 is living on Shop Street, on “Parish Relief” Her oldest daughter, Elizabeth, now 17, is doing “shoework” and Owen (15) and Benjamin (13) are both apprentice shoemakers. She has four other children who are ten or under and are at school. It must have been a very difficult time for Letitia. Next door lives John Barritt and his wife Rebecca. He is a shoe maker and shoe agent. Perhaps after all there were still small middle men who put out the work and collected it again for a commission. On the other side of her lives Sarah White who is fifty, also a widow, with two children. She is trying to make her living as a seamstress. All around are other shoemakers and their wives. We can only hope that she was helped and supported by the community in her hour of need.

By 1881 she was living in the High Street and is housekeeper for her family. Times are maybe a little better because Benjamin, John, and Herbert are all shoemakers and Alice is a shoe worker. As we have said, George, at fifteen, is the exception and is a railway employee. All her family will be bringing money into the house. If she feels unwell, Emma Kitchen is only a few doors away and she can help her because she is a vendor of patent medicines. Many would have had laudanum in them to dull the pain.

Letitia married John Smith in 1884 and the1891 Census finds her living in Rushden with John who is a "Cemetery Caretaker" and by 1901 they are in Stanwick with John now a general labourer. Her children are all elsewhere. She dies in 1909 aged seventy-five.

We cannot follow all the Roberts family lines so we will select two, Benjamin Ebenezer, son of John and Letitia, and George Henry, not his brother, the railway worker, but the son of Thomas, John’s younger brother. These two cousins carried on as shoemakers but the industry went through increasingly difficult times as the nineteenth century drew to a close. In fact, initially, many Raunds and Ringstead workers resisted unionisation because they had always made their own rules as to when they worked. Most would have initially echoed the words of an Ithlingborough shoe worker on the union's policy of speeding up the move from hand outwork to mechanised factory production:

The men do not thank the Union for doing so, they do not want their liberty meddled with, as they have shops to work in, and leading men will not go with their sons into such places as they know they will be. Some will leave the Union if they do not stop such interference.

(Boot & Shoe Journal 10th December 1892)

It was a common practice to drink heavily at the weekend (“fuddling”) and then take Monday off. It was known as Saint or Snobs Monday. It is no coincidence that Raunds had a Coffee Tavern a Temperance Band and a strong Rechabite movement. It was recounted, many years later, by Major Henry Attley that the Roberts were a musical family and Benjamin played the flute and had a fine baritone voice. They were also staunch non-conformists and his younger brother. John, was a well known local organist.  He also built organs in some of the local chapels. Mr Attley remembered "blowing the organ" for John and particularly one occasion when his attention wandered and the pressure dropped. "Blow, boy, blow!" John hissed at him as loud as he dared without the congregation hearing

The new unions saw the outworkers as undermining the rights, conditions and wages of workers in the factories. At the 1894 Conference of The National Union of the Boot and Shoe Operatives, a Stafford delegate complained about a navy contract being given to Raunds because non-union workers undercut the rates.

The Reverand A. C. Neely, who was the vicar of Denford-cum-Rngstead, writes a poem some thirty years later about the Hand-sewn Boot makers of Ringstead in 1896. He tells of the first-floor workshop, reached by a ladder and of their disdain for "machine-mades". he also tells of the hard work of making the boots:

“Hard work?” Why, yes, of course it is. Just try to pull this thread.

Can’t manage it? I thought not. Try something else instead.

Hammer this bit of leather, on this iron, on your knee,

It don’t hurt me a blessed bit – but you just try and see!

“Don’t want much of that” you say? Ah! You haven’t learnt the trick,

I’ll tell you about it sometime. Can’t learn it all so quick.

You’re right, it is hard work, sir and more than that, it’s Art

To do it all yourself like, and fit in every part.

The missus sews the tops, of course, but then that’s not so tough,

But if you had a day at that, you’d say you’d had enough.

Ironically, in view of what was to follow some ten years later the shoemaker is against strikes, although there is a hint of reservation:

“Did we go on strike last summer, when the chaps in town were out?”

No bless you, we don’t want to strike; we get on best without.

I’m not going to say, though, that many would refuse

(If they chanced to get the offer) sixpence more a pair of shoes.

We also hear that any boots which were rejected by the War Office for minor defects were sold locally very cheaply and the good vicar had invested in a couple of pairs himself. He also liked to go to the workshop and sit and talk to the shoeworkers about "all sorts of things".

At this time it was a campign in Egypt which they had made boots for but  it was the larger conflict of The Boer War at the turn of the century (1899 – 1902) which came to the rescue of the industry, especially in the Raunds area which was heavily dependent on military orders. The orders flowed in and the agreed price for making a pair of boots was met by the War Office and the factory owners. Once the war finished, however, the orders dried up and the contractors tried to undercut each other to try to secure the diminishing orders. Suddenly the shoemakers’ wages dropped as even the Ringstead Britannia Co-operative Society, which had been formed in 1891, cut costs to secure business.

                          Taken April 2010 by author (no longer a factory)

This led to a strike of the army boot and shoe makers and to the Raunds March of 1905 where 115 men (selected from the 300 who volunteered) marched to London to petition the War Office and Parliament. The views of the Union and the local workers were as one. Well nearly! All this is covered in J. Betts’ excellent book which anyone interested should read. I will just quote from The Times of May 15th 1905 to show what a considerable event this was at the time:


                                    THE RAUNDS STRIKERS IN LONDON

A demonstration organised by the Social Democratic Federation in support of the Raunds bootmakers who are on strike, was held in Trafalgar-square yesterday afternoon; and an audience of between 8,000 and 10,000 persons was addressed by Socialist and Labour leaders from three sides of the plinth of the Nelson column. The deputation of strikers assembled under the Charing-cross railway arch about half-past 2 and were there joined by contingents from Socialist and Labour organisations. A procession was formed and, headed by a brass band with twenty or thirty banners unfurled, the men marched to the square, where they met with an enthusiastic reception from the crowd. One of the 115 men who have marched from Raunds, a cripple who walks with a crutch, headed the strikers as they marched into the square to the strains of the “Marseillaise,” and was loudly cheered............ The crowd was the largest which has been seen in Trafalgar-square for some years and it showed its practical sympathy with the strikers by throwing coins, not unmixed with silver, upon the plinth for their benefit. In this way a sum of about £10 was collected. 

But what of our two Roberts’ cousins? Some twenty of the marchers were from Ringstead including over half the brass band that accompanied them on the journey. Most were young men but Edward Bird from Ringstead at 59 was the oldest marcher. There were no Roberts on the march but the conflict split the family. As we have seen from the more recent Miner’s Strike of the 1980s bitterness can brew up in communities when some go hungry and others continue to work. George Henry tried to carry on collecting his work from the factory in Raunds in defiance of the strikers and violence ensued. 

Insert pieces from newspapers on court case March 1905 

It appears, although as yet I have no proof, that George Henry was the only one in his family who was a strike breaker. Certainly, his own younger brother, William, appeared on behalf of one of those accused of violence against George. Was it all quickly forgotten after the march or did it make George a pariah in the community. David Saint has reported that George was a church man unlike the rest of the Roberts clan who were non-conformists. He also says that George ran a welfare club to help members get health care but that his great nephew, Paul, insisted that he was a narrow minded bigot and he had never heard anyone say a good word about him.  There is no real evidence in the official records except, perhaps, a hint in the 1911 Census in that Benjamin's children are all put down with one christian name but George and Mary's all have two listed. Does it mean nothing at all, is it Mary's influence, or or is it evidence of someone the locals would see as "putting on airs and graces".


Thomas Amos of Long Buckby (early Twentieth Century)

With kind permission of Northampton Museums and Art Gallery

All we can be sure of, is that in the 1911 Census, Benjamin is described as a “Handsewn Army Bootmaker” and George Henry is also a “Handsewn Army Shoemaker.” After George, however, is added the word, “Unemployed” Was this an indication that George was frozen out by the community. On the other hand Benjamin has a son, called George too, who is a shoe hand and also unemployed. Perhaps it was just the difficult times in the shoe industry a few years before some help came from a terrible source. I say some help because the War Office, gave a mortal blow to the area when they announced that for the first time men would be going to war in machine-made boots. The handsewn craftsmen were now in desperate trouble and in 1922 the local papers told of their plight. (piece from Northampton Mercury to be inserted)

Benjamin died aged 67 in 1925 and was buried on 21st September 1925 in Ringstead Cemetery. George Henry lived to be 76 and was also buried in the Cemetery on May Ist 1941. That part of the cemetery has been levelled into green anonomity and no headstone marks either grave

One of Benjamin’s sons, Alfred, was not able to follow his father into the craft. He was too short-sighted to do the work and was later said to have worked in Palmer's Grocery Stores in Raunds. In 1911, aged 19, he was a grocery assistant in Oundle, boarding with a widow and her elderly sister. He moved on to Grantham, married and had two children, one of whom was a clever girl called Margaret Hilda Roberts who made him one of the most famous shopkeepers in England. My Uncle, Dennis Ball, told me that he saw her, a very well dressed little girl, visit her uncle “Barrel Roberts” in Marshalls Road, Raunds. Terry Collins has kindly commented below to confirm that "Barrell" was Harold Roberts, brother of Alfred and that he lived on th eopposite side oMarshalls Raod at number 58. One wonders if her Great Uncle George’s views and his experiences in 1905 had some effect on Margaret Thatcher's  attitude to unions nearly 80 years later.

 House in Carlow Street said by Wilfred Roberts to be where Benjamin and his family lived

His workshop was at the back (house presumably much altered)

Chronicle & Echo 1975


Although not strictly in the nineteenth century the Raunds March, as I have said, could not be omitted. Queen Victoria died in 1901 and there followed the Edwardian postscript before the modern age blasted the world apart. In 1902 the Ringstead Band played for the celebrations in the village for the coronation of Edward VII. Below is a picture of the band, many of whom were, three years later, on that historic march.



 The band included many from the Mayes family. From the Back:

Back Row in the middle, holding a trombone, is Len Mayes; the two men on the left of the second row down are Benny and Ernest Mayes; the man, second left, on third row down is Harry Abbott Mayes. On the right of the front row, lying down, is Bill Mayes who later emigrated to Australia.

Behind him on the right is Benjamin Ebenezer Roberts

Photograph by kind permission of Vivienne Marshall, great-granddaughter of Harry Abbott Mayes

Perhaps as we look at Benjamin and the others in the photograph we can see something of what H. E Bates was describing in his autobiography:

The impression I chiefly gain from the recollection of those shoemaking men is not exactly one of coarseness; they lack the sheer belted belching muscle and guts of what used to be known as labouring men; they do not exhibit the beer-spitting swagger I remember of navvies, bricklayers or those wild-eyed drovers of cattle I sometimes used to see drunk and rosy-eyed, on Midland market days. Their roughness is of rather different order, and I find it difficult to describe. If I use the word rude, in the sense of uncouth, the impression will be a shade too strong. Nor are they loud; nor, in Rupert Brooke’s words, excessively “black of mouth”. Nor are they as forthright, or as blunt or as self-opinionated as Northern men. The impression I really get is of a dry, droll, unshaven independence and it is not at all an unlikeable quality.



 Censuses 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911

 Captain Swing. E.J. Hobsbawm and George Rude Lawrence and Wishart 1969 pps 181-182

The Art of Boot and Shoemaking: A Practical Handbook. John Bedford Leno (Crosby Lockwood and Co. 1885. Reprinted in Kessinger Publishing's Legacy Reprints)

 The Location of the English Shoe Industry. Harald Rydberg. Geografika Annaler SeriesB vol47 part1 1965

 Raunds Bootmakers March to London Centenary 1905 – 2005. J. R. Betts. Pub Graham J Underwood

 Account of the Strike of the Northamptonshire Boot & Shoe Makers in 1857-8-9 by John Ball (Report of the Committee on Trades’ Societies appointed by the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science 1860. (John W. Parker and Son, West Strand)

Shoemakers in Northamptonshire 1762 – 1911: A Statistical Survey. Hatley, Victor A. & Rajczonek, Joseph(Northampton Historical Series No. 6 1971 (Northampton Central Library)

Shoemakers in Northamptonshire. 1871 Authors as above. (Reprint from Northampton History News June 1983 with 1871 Census figures) (Northampton Central Library)

"Some Northamptonshire Villages. Raunds." The Boot & Shoe Trades Journal 21st May 1887 (Northampton Museum)

Saint Crispin's Men. A history of Northamptonshire's shoemakers. Albert V. Eason (Park Lane Publishing 1994)

The Times. May 15 1905

The Co-operator 1st June 1867 page 394 (also reply of 15th July 1867 printed in Rance Reviewed Summer 2004)

 The Feast of July.  H. E. Bates (Michael Joseph 1954)

 The Vanished World; An Autobiography.  H. E. Bates (Michael Joseph 1969)  Shoe making terms explained.

Boots on the March.  David Saint

Chronicle & Echo 8th February 1975 "Northants Roots of Mrs Thatcher" by Stanley Worker  The Papers of Baroness Thatcher LG., OM., FRS. Ref THCR 1/9

My thanks to Rebecca Shawcross, Shoe Resources Officer at Northampton Museums and Art Gallery for her help with research and the illustrations.

My thanks also to Sara Sharman for checking in the Ringstead Cemetery Register on the death of Benjamin and George Henry



Reader Comments (4)

I found this very interesting. My Gt Gt grandfather started his married life in Rinstead He was George Warner marrying Elizabeth Weekley. George was in the shoe trade all his life dying at the age of 99.

March 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Lee

Found this by chance whilst looking for some raunds history. Extremely interesting and I believe that if it hasn't already been confirmed, "Barrel" Roberts was none other than Harold Roberts, Alfred Robert's brother. Harold lived next door to us at 58 Marshalls Road, Raunds.

March 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTerry Collins

Hi Terry

Thank you for replying. I was not sure if it was correct and it is good to know that it was true. I used to visit my grandparents Jack and Eunice Ball who I think lived at 63 Marshalls Road in "the Colony" on the opposite side of the road to the Coggins Factory, They both died in the 1950s when I was a child.

Many thanks


March 8, 2015 | Registered CommenterDavid Ball

Isaac Burton is my third great grandfather on my mother's side of the family. He moved to the United States around 1870ish, and eventually settled in Charleston, South Carolina with his family. He continued as a shoemaker in the states. We knew he was from Raunds and that he was christened in the John Wesleyan Church in Higham Ferrers. It is exciting to have seen his words in print!

September 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTracey Huff

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