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Exploring the history of the shoe industry in Leicester
Tony Wadsworth's shoe last
Shoe lasts were used to mould leather into the correct position to be tacked

As part of the 'History of the World' project, BBC Leicester presenters are choosing objects they own which have a significant story behind them.

Morning show host Tony Wadsworth selected an item of personal importance to him that also reflected one of Leicester's historical industries.

His object is a shoe last; a wooden block used as a mould by cobblers.

During the mid 19th Century, shoe manufacturing was a key industry for the city's economy.

Tracing the last history

Tony's last was given to him by his sister-in-law one Christmas, after she spotted it in an antique shop.

Tony Wadsworth holding the last
Tony loves antiques and was given the shoe last as a Christmas present

The last was clearly marked with a Leicester brand, but in the past he has been unable to trace its past further than this.

To find out more about the last's history, Tony enlisted the help of Rosemary Coe, the secretary of the Earl Shilton History Society and a member of the Barwell Bits and Shilton Snips Heritage Group.

She described Earl Shilton and Barwell in the mid 1800s, when residents largely worked in their own homes making hosiery.

With hard times brought on by the 1860s cotton famine and various social reforms, the villagers looked towards of thriving boot and shoe trade in Leicester for work.

The city companies started sending 'basket work' to the villages; various tasks that would be completed in people's cottages and returned to Leicester by carrier once completed.

"I'm extremely proud of the heritage and all the people who worked in the industry.

"In Earl Shilton and Barwell it was just absolutely incredible and in the 1930s there were as many as 45 shoes factories in the two villages."

Rosemary said that even the city shoemakers were often just working out of their home, which may indeed be the case of James Knott who lived on St. Nicholas Street in the 1800s.

A simple shoemaking guide

To make a shoe leather was first cut around a pattern using a clicking knife.

Rosemary said 'clickers' were known as "the gentlemen of the trade" and dictated if orders would make profit based on how many shoes they could cut our of one skin of leather.

Tony's shoe last

The cut-out would then be passed on to the machine room, where largely women would sew the material together.

The leather would then be draped over the last and the 'tackers' would attach the sole. When completed the last would be broken in half so it could be pulled out of the shoe.

"Ironically enough, because these were used in the boot and shoe industry, in the ladies industry in particular, the last didn't last very long.

"Obviously fashions change and so once the particular order had been completed and they no longer needed that particular last for a ladies show, it would be discarded.

"And with the factory owner's permission, the workers were allowed to take them home."

Rosemary came from, and married into, a shoemaking family, and remembers using old lasts as firewood in the 1960s.

"I mean it's sacrilege, but who would've thought then that the boot and shoe industry would die? So, none of us have saved many of these artefacts."

Last conclusions

Although not dated, it is likely the shoe last dates from the shoe industry heydays of the mid 19th Century.

It is a size one frame, so is likely to have been for making children's shoes.

Tony said it was amazing to think how many shoes may have originated from his last, and of all the children who may have walked round Leicester in them.

Tony Wadsworth presents from 09:00 to 12:00, Monday to Friday, on BBC Leicester - 104.9FM, DAB Digital, and online.

If you missed his show, you can listen again for seven days on BBC iPlayer


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