Save our sole: Should more be done to revive Northampton town centre's shoe history?

It takes eight weeks to manufacture a pair of Trickers boots, which are hand made in St Michaels Road.
It takes eight weeks to manufacture a pair of Trickers boots, which are hand made in St Michaels Road.

Northampton is home to the best shoe makers in the world. But unless you, or your family, have played a part in cobbling history  – how would you ever know?

The finest remains of Northampton’s boot and shoe heritage can be found around Lower Mounts up to the Racecourse, Abington Square and down to the Billing Road.

Six million pairs of shoes are made every year by 30 UK factories with a value of 400m.

Six million pairs of shoes are made every year by 30 UK factories with a value of 400m.

But as shops are shutting left right and centre in our very own high street, isn’t it time we put our best foot forward as a town and boost tourism through our rich shoe making history?

“You come to Northampton and what’s telling you this is the centre of the world for shoe making?” says Tricker’s managing director Martin Mason.

“You’ve got to look really closely... The Boot and Shoe Quarter – you wouldn’t know you’re in it. What’s the first thing you see? A factory that’s been derelict for over 20 years.

“If this was Italy there would be boot and shoe festivals every year, there would be bunting around the town, a celebration, people would be so proud of it.”

1,000 pairs of shoes are made in the factory weekly by 96 Trickers employees.

1,000 pairs of shoes are made in the factory weekly by 96 Trickers employees.

What do we do now?

Irritated by negative comments and a lack of solutions, Steffans Jewellers’ Wes Suter has come up with an idea to revive the town centre.

Through his ‘put your best foot forward campaign’ Wes hopes to attract shoemakers into the town centre where he hopes they would open factory outlet shops.

“I’ve had the idea in my head but now is the perfect storm to get it rocking and rolling,” said Wes.

Tricker's factory played host to some of the Kinky Boots film scenes.

Tricker's factory played host to some of the Kinky Boots film scenes.

“I want to get shoe manufacturers in the town.

“There are empty units in the town and they have got a product that attracts people in.”

Northampton Borough Council offers a ‘town centre vacant unit grant’ which is available to businesses that meet certain criteria and have a sound business plan.

These businesses could receive a grant of up to a £10,000 and the council may consider increasing the amount in exceptional circumstances.

I takes 260 individual processes to make a pair of Trickers country boots.

I takes 260 individual processes to make a pair of Trickers country boots.

He added: “We have to got to try and stem the leak and I think the start of this is putting our best foot forward and lobbying the council for the money to help the manufacturers.

“I think the other thing is the council haven’t yet realised that the big corporations don’t care about Northampton, it’s just another number to them [corporations].”

But forget trying to fill Abington Street’s empty shops with individual retail giants – that time has come and gone, Martin Mason added.

“If you said: ‘right, Tricker’s, do you want to open a shop in Abington Street on your own?’ it’s pointless.”

He suggests if all Northampton shoe companies could open near the shoe museum, in a beautiful heritage district, with immersive tourist experiences such as a mock factory, then he would give it a shot.

“I’m talking big here, I’m talking about really bigging up the town and promoting itself.

Tricker's was founded in 1829 in St Michaels Road.

Tricker's was founded in 1829 in St Michaels Road.

“It needs a big vision for the town.”

He also added that more should be done to lure international tourists into the town centre after they’ve done their rounds of the factories - but instead, they just hop on a bus and leave.

Rob Purdie, executive director of Northampton town centre BID said: “The BID and the town centre businesses we represent have always felt very strongly about celebrating Northampton’s rich shoe industry.

"It’s not a new idea but it has become more apparent with all the recent town centre developments just how passionate people are about our town’s shoe heritage. Perhaps this is an opportunity for all the key town centre partners to commit to some really achievable projects – it has to be a collective effort.

“It might involve working with the borough council and the heritage group on more signage and historical facts for example, and we would of course be delighted if local shoe manufacturers would consider opening shoe outlets in the heart of the town centre as their involvement is crucial.

"How the BID works collectively with others to make it easier and more attractive for them to do so is something that should be seriously considered – pop up shops that would give them the ability to trade on short or long-term temporary basis is one idea.

"Most of our BID projects are driven through partnership working so we would fully support any collaboration to better maximise our town’s fantastic shoe history.”

Councillor Tim Hadland, Cabinet member for regeneration, enterprise and planning, said: “We are keen to work with our business community to develop a high quality boot and shoe heritage offer and have already introduced new Boot and Shoe Quarter signage with a view to further promote the area.

“We have an active dialogue with the boot and shoe manufacturers in Northamptonshire and would welcome the opportunity to work with them to explore a retail offer in the town centre.

“We continue to receive interest from developers and investors and recognise that the town needs to diversify its offer, with more emphasis on heritage, housing and quality events to attract visitors and utilise the many strengths the town has.”