The life of my shoemaker ancestor

Joseph Turner, was my great (x3) grandfather on my maternal grandmothers’ side. He was born in Darton, Yorkshire on 26 December 1820[1] to Joshua Turner and Sarah Turner (nee Crossley), being the sixth child of eleven (six girls and five boys). He was baptised on 4 February 1821[2] at All Saints Church, Darton, Yorkshire.

In 1881 Darton was described as a “parish and village and station on the Lancashire and Yorkshire railway, 3 miles north-west from Barnsley, 8 south-west from Wakefield and 12½ east-south-east from Huddersfield”[3]. Joseph’s father, Joshua, was a tenanted farmer[4]. When Joseph was a child there was an endowed school in Darton for both boys and girls which was a free school set up by George Beaumont in 1688[5]. There was also a Sunday school. This meant that education would have been available to Joseph as a child, although I have no documentary evidence to confirm whether he did attend school. I have searched the online catalogue for school records for Darton in this period on the West Yorkshire Archive Service website[6] and there do not appear to be any records available.

What I do know however is that Joseph did not follow in his father’s footsteps and become a farmer. It may be that his parents wanted more for Joseph (and his siblings) and he may have gained some form of education in between no doubt helping his father on the farm. In 1841, at the age of 20, Joseph is listed in the census returns as living at Anchors Yard, Knottingley, Pontefract, West Riding of Yorkshire where he is, a shoemaker’s apprentice, living with Charles Abson, Shoemaker. Given his age, he would by this time have been coming towards the end of his apprenticeship. Apprenticeships for skilled workers were 7 years, usually ending at the age of 21, thus he would have begun this apprenticeship at the age of 14 (in 1835). Apprentices worked under a master. Charles Abson is not described as a master shoemaker, however given Joseph appears to be living with him at the time the census was taken it is most probable that he was Joseph’s master.

Having searched the West Yorkshire Archive Service catalogue again in various ways, I have not been able to find a record of his apprenticeship indenture unfortunately but not surprisingly. Stamp duty was no longer payable on apprenticeship indentures and there was therefore no longer a central record for apprenticeships. It is not known therefore how Joseph chose this trade and/or his master was found.

It is unlikely this was a parish apprenticeship as they were usually entered into within the child’s own parish or a neighbouring parish (with anyone who would take them and they were not necessarily taught a trade). Knottingley is about 25 miles north east of Darton where his parents stayed until their respective deaths and not a neighbouring parish. However his father was a farmer, a notoriously fluctuate business and farmers were often found in poor law books as being in receipt of some assistance at difficult farming periods, then it is not beyond the realms of possibility, although parishes where not usually able to afford the high premiums skilled masters often demanded. Charities often then stood in and provided the financial assistance to enable those from poorer families to enter trade apprenticeships. These records would be held at West Yorkshire Archives Service. A search of their online catalogue does not find any obvious records available[7] and as I live 200 miles away I am unable to visit the archives at this time.

My instinct however is that this was more likely to be a private agreement between the parents and the Master, his parents perhaps wanting a better life for Joseph. It may be that Joseph’s parents advertised for a master to apprentice Joseph, or that they answered an advertisement place by Charles Abson, seeking an apprentice.

Knottingley is described in1881[8] as “a township and ecclesiastical parish formed from the parish of Pontefract….3 miles east-north-east from Pontefract and 171 from London, situated on the south bank of the navigable river Aire”. It was an important inland river port until 1699 when the river Aire was made navigable up to Leeds. However its main industry until well into the 20th century continued to be boat building. There remains a joint station at Knottingley for the Great Northern and the Lancashire and Yorkshire railways (after this section opened in April 1847).

In reality there was poverty, squalor and disease, with a lack of adequate drainage and sewerage facilities, and polluted and insufficient water supply. Anchor Yard where Joseph was living and learning his trade from 1835 to 1842 was a densely populated area between Aire Street and Back Lane/ The Croft, where the problems were particularly acute with open gutters, cesspools and refuse heaps.

“Knottingley also had a reputation for hard living. With over 40 liquor outlets in the town vending their wares to a motley band of ‘outsiders’ such as mariners, commercial travellers and transient visitors, all supplementing the demands of the local inhabitants, there must have been some lively times at Knottingley during the mid-nineteenth century.”[9] Aire Street, was a major shopping street, with for example, bread bakers, drapers and tailors, a currier, shoe makers, a nail maker, a basket maker and a whitesmith as well as housing the traders families and many mariners and their families.[10]

Shoemaking was an ancient local hand craft with most villages having their own shoemaker. A shoemaker was also sometimes known as a cordwainer. Shoes were “made to order” for individual customers. It gradually grew into a cottage industry with workshops or “factories” breaking the shoemaking process down and sharing the process between different people: for example, “clickers” who cut around the shoe pattern, “closers” or “binders” who sewed the uppers[11] of the shoe together, “blocker” who shaped the instep and “riveter” who attached the sole to the uppers. This was particularly the case in towns which were rapidly growing as a result of the industrial revolution.

By the time Joseph was an apprentice there was some mechanisation with machines being adapted to making boots in particular as a result of the increased demand for boots during the Napoleonic war years (1803 to 1815) however it was not until the late 1850’s when mechanisation lead to the start of shoemaking factories being opened (see later) and Joseph as an apprentice shoemaker, would have been trained in the art of making shoes and boots by hand. He would have received training in every stage of the shoemaking process:

  1. Constructing the last – the wooden shape around which the shoe would be shaped;
  2. The pattern would be made;
  3. The parts of the leather uppers would be cut out using a clicking knife[12];
  4. The leather uppers would be sewn together;
  5. The complete upper would then be moulded round the last;
  6. The leather soles and heels would be attached to the uppers[13];
  7. The complete shoe would then be finished by trimming, polishing and removing it from the last.

He would acquire knowledge of leathers, leather tanning, Fatliquoring (using fats and oils to soften leather), deglazing, washing, and preparation of leathers for dyeing dyeing, finishing, colour restoring preparations and processes; leather cleaners and polishes, leather cements and glues, removing spots and stains from leathers, shoe and leather oils, greases, and waterproofings.

The process of making a pair of shoes would normally take around twelve to fourteen hours to make a standard pair of boots, no doubt as an apprentice, at least in the beginning, it would have taken Joseph much longer. He would have been taught to use the tools of the trade including:

  • A tranchet (knife);
  • Lingels (thread);
  • Lasts (the shoe moulds);
  • Awls (piercers);
  • Shoeing horn;
  • Nails

Shoes were traditionally hand made with leather, however in the 1840’s a new material for soles of boots and shoes was available known as Gutta Percha[14]. In 1851 the material was promoted by Thomas Horlock, a shoemaker from Uxbridge[15]:

“You are now just left to the alternative to take it and turn it to your own account, or let it alone, for it will be used, and if you will not meet promptly the wishes of the public, there will be plenty who will, and you will be left with your last and stool to make whatever else you can of them. The great secret of success in life is to take advantage of circumstances as they rise, it is this that gives one man the start before another; and so you will find in the present instance, those who come first will fare best”.

This maybe a material Joseph trained with or later used to sole the shoes he made. Horlock’s book explains how to use and work with the material. However it is unlikely Joseph read this manual as I do not believe he could read or write (see later).

I am sure he would have worked very long days even more so given that he was living and working with his Master. In return for his apprenticeship, Joseph would not have been paid in monetary terms, but would have been provided a roof over his head, food to eat and clothing to wear all at the expense of his master.

When entering into an apprenticeship indenture, there were usually a number of rules relating to conduct which the apprentice agreed to obey, including for example, not to steal from their Master, not to reveal any trade secret of their Master, not to visit taverns, inns or alehouses (thus it is unlikely he took advantage of the “over 40 liquor outlets in the town”) or undertake any gambling and not to marry during the term of their apprenticeship. We know therefore that Joseph had completed his apprenticeship by October 1842 as he married Ann Lockwood on 19 October 1842 at St Edmunds church, Kellington (with Whitley).

Kellington was and still is a rural village about 3 miles east of Knottingley, described in the 1881 Kellys directory as five miles “from Whitley Bridge station on the Wakefield and Goole branch of the Lancashire and Yorkshire railway, 6 miles north-east from Pontefract, 6 miles north-west from Snaith and 6 south-west from Selby”. St Edmunds church dates back to at least 1185 and its gate posts are under a protection order having been built in 1698![16]

Ann was the youngest child of John Lockwood and Ann Lockwood (nee Shillito), having an older brother and sister. Ann was born in Kellington in 1817[17], being baptised at St Edmunds church on 27April 1817. Her father, John, was an agricultural labourer. No occupation was listed for Ann in the 1841 census before she was married.

Joseph and Ann’s marriage certificate describes Joseph as a labourer and suggests neither Joseph nor Ann could write as they have made their marks with an “X” rather than signing their names. This would suggest that Joseph did not in fact attend school as a child, neither did Ann. It is interesting that he is described as a labourer, suggesting he was an unskilled manual worker. On completing his apprenticeship he would have usually been known as a journeymen. It is likely therefore his occupation has been incorrectly described by the vicar and as it seems neither Joseph nor Ann or their witnesses (who also made their mark with an “X”) could write, then it is probable that they also could not read and were therefore unable to confirm the details on the marriage certificate were correct.

He could not be known as a master shoemaker until he had his own apprentices, a system usually regulated by guilds, although their powers had diminished by the mid 1800’s. I have not been able to find any records for any local shoemakers/cordwainers guilds, I believe the nearest to Knottingley would have been either:

  1. The Cordwainers guild of Leeds established in 1661[18]. I cannot find any other information about this guild and it is likely membership was restricted to those shoemakers actually working in Leeds.
  2. The Company of Cordwainers of the City of York dating from around 1272/3[19]. However Joseph could not have been a member of this guild as it actually ceased in 1808, according to an article in the York Press newspaper[20] ran out of money!

I have therefore not been able to establish whether Joseph was a member of a guild, however in the 1871 census he is described as a Master Cordwainer. I will come back to this later.

At the time of their marriage Joseph’s address is given as Barnsley so it may be that he moved back home briefly after he completed his apprenticeship, or again this could just be an error by the vicar: if Joseph was asked where he was from he would probably have said Barnsley as that was his home town (where he was raised). Following their marriage Joseph and Ann lived in Whitley. By 1851[21] they were living at Whitley Thorpe and Joseph is described as a shoemaker. By this time they had four children: Sarah Ann aged 8, Hannah Marie aged 6, William Lockwood aged 3 and Joshua John aged 1.

Ann’s parents lived next door to them and her cousin next door but three from them (he was a Teasel[22] grower)! There were 46 families living at Whitley Thorpe, many were farmers and agricultural workers, although other tradesman/professions/workers included: two blacksmiths, a grocer and draper, a wheelwright, a grocer and char woman, another shoemaker employing two apprentices, a school master, a school mistress, railway labourers, canal labourers, brick maker, publican, tailor, butcher and Teasel growers. There were also a number of annuitants and paupers, so quite a “mixed bag” of residents but together making up a small community providing many daily requirements! In fact genuki[23] describes Whitley Thorpe as “a farm-house in the township of Whitley, and parish of Kellington, liberty and bailiwick of Cowick and Snaith; 7 miles E. of Pontefract and 7 from Snaith.”.

This was and still is a rural area 2 miles from the Aire and Calder navigation canal at Whitley Bridge where there was (and still is) a station on the Wakefield and Goole as mentioned above.

What is unclear from the census return is whether he was working for himself or with/for another shoemaker. He was not described as a master shoemaker at this stage and does not have any apprentices living with him. There is another shoemaker, Charles Taylor, living at Whitley Thorpe who is listed as employing two apprentices. Usually a journeyman would continue working alongside a master until they created their “master-piece” and were accepted by the local guild as a master.

It appears from the census returns that Joseph and his family moved about quite a lot over the next 30 years. In the 1861 census they lived at 19 Victoria Street, Doncaster and had a further three children: Charles aged 7, Henry aged 5 and Mary Ann aged 3. Joseph is described as a shoemaker. Doncaster is one of the oldest towns in England, famous for its horse racing since 1755, and railway heritage.

Doncaster had been like all towns in the first half of the 19th century, dirty and unsanitary with many families living in squalid and overcrowded conditions. In the late 19th century however, sewers were built and a piped water supply was created. An infirmary opened in 1853 and the first free public library opened in 1869. Doncaster had good transport links for trade and travel, being located on the Great North Road (now known as the A1) and “In 1852 the Great Northern Railway opened their Locomotive and Carriage Buildings Works, where Flying Scotsman and Mallard would be designed and built many years later”[25], this brought a new prosperity to Doncaster with the engine works becoming the main employer in the town. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries industry in Doncaster was dominated by engineering.

Doncaster was also (and still is) a market town “Doncaster’s market can trace its origins right back to the Roman times”[26].

Perhaps Joseph and his family moved to Doncaster in the hope of finding more lucrative business, perhaps having a market stall to sell his shoes, or trying to specialise in shoes/boots which may have been worn by the workers of the local industries such as:

  • Welted boots – “The upper part of the shoe is shaped over the last and fastened on by sewing a leather, linen or synthetic strip (also known as the “welt”) to the inner and upper sole. As well as using a welt, stitching holds the material firmly together.”[27] These were traditionally made by a hand-welted method and it was not until 1869 that Charles Goodyear Jr invented a machine-based alternative. “In 1872 the first Goodyear welt sewing machines were introduced into England. (fn. 84) Invented in 1862, they were said to be 54 times as fast as stitching by awl and thread. (fn. 85) With this machine and the Goodyear chain stitcher it was claimed that a boot similar in quality to a hand sewn boot could be produced, and boots produced on these machines eventually superseded cheap hand-sewn and welted work. By 1899, the improved version, first introduced into Leicester by Royce Gascoigne & Co., could do in 18 seconds what had formerly been done in an hour”[28]. These are the types of boots which the local railway workers and labourers may have worn, possibly with the benefit of what today is known as the “steel toecap” in the 19th century they were more commonly known as “toe plates” usually made from steel or iron and affixed by nails.
  • The Jockey Boot
  • The Racing Jockey Boot

Interestingly their children were not described as scholars, suggesting they were not at school, of course compulsory education had not yet been introduced and it may have been in fact that Ann and his older children helped Joseph in his business. Women and children traditionally “worked” as “closers” in the shoe making industry.

Shoemaking was not a lucrative trade, shoemakers often went bankrupt. However having searched the London Gazette archives[29] I cannot find any record of Joseph being made bankrupt, but it may be that they moved about to stave off bankruptcy, most probably living hand-to-mouth. I have found it difficult to locate the actual street in which they lived, or any of the other streets mentioned in the enumerators description of the area covered in the census return of 1861. I have found Victoria Street still listed in the 1911 census but no such street appears exists today (although there is a Victoria Road). Victoria Street was said to be in the ecclesiastical district of Christ Church which consists of rows of terrace housing. Their neighbours consisted of railway labourers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, other labourers of various sorts and a number of other boot and shoe makers. I have not been able to find Joseph in any trade directories from the period, or indeed in any period up to his death (see below).

Certainly Yorkshire was not a shoemaking industry centre. Making an income for the small local shoemaker was increasingly made more difficult as the 19th century progressed as the process became increasingly mechanised in the major shoemaking towns and cities, in particular Leicester, Northampton and London, following the invention and adaption of the sewing machine to stitch leather in 1830 in America.

“The first machines were introduced to Britain by Edwin Bostock in Stafford in October 1855. Although quickly abandoned following workers’ unrest, it was soon introduced in Northampton and London, and the first recognisably modern factories followed in 1857. These early machines were only for closing the uppers, traditionally women’s work, so other processes were still carried out in the shoemaker’s home. Over the next decades a series of further inventions ensured all processes could take place in a factory system. The Blake sole stitcher was perfected around 1864, and introduced to Stafford and Stone by 1871. Pegging and riveting machines were adopted in Britain during the 1860s. Finishing was the last process to be mechanised, but by the 1890s mechanisation was complete”[30].

However it was not until the 1920’s that most village shoemakers had changed their business to become cobblers: the difference being that a shoemaker would make new shoes from scratch whilst a cobbler would repair shoes. Joseph’s trade was therefore still in demand in the 19th century, particularly in more rural areas, but would no doubt have become increasingly challenging as his career progressed with this growth of factories, mechanisation and transport links making mass produced footwear less expensive than hand crafted. There was also the challenges faced by the industry of American imports both in machinery and actual footwear in the later part of the 19th century (about 1870 onwards).

Joseph is likely to have made his own shoe polish, ‘jet’ for boots, ‘dressing’ for leather, waterproofing ‘compositions’, leather ‘renovators’, cementing glue, shoemakers wax and other “lotions and potions” used in the shoemaking process. He may have even produced some of these to sell to boost his income. Recipes for these ‘lotions’ and ‘potions’ can be found in books such as “The Art of Boot and Shoemaking”[31] and “Handbook for Shoe and Leather Processing”[32].

By 1871 Joseph and Ann had moved back to living at Whitley Thorpe with their youngest daughter Mary Ann (nicknamed Polly) now aged 13 (their other children now making their own way). Their neighbours were some of Ann’s family – her brother William and a cousin, Robert, her parents have now deceased. Joseph is described as a Master Cordwainer for the first time. Although there is no record of him employing an apprentice in the census records, there is of course a period of ten years between them and as an apprenticeship was for 7 years it is quite possible that within that ten years he did have an apprentice enabling him to become a master cordwainer. On the other hand, this could just be an error by the enumerator because in the 1881 census Joseph is described once again simply as a shoemaker and not a master; he and Ann were by this time living alone in Kellington. Unfortunately later that year Joseph died[33], he would have been 60 years old (although his burial record gives his age as 60). He was buried at St Edmunds Church Kellington on 19 November 1881[34]. It seems sometime after his death Ann moved back to live in Whitley[35] where she died in July 1892.

The demise of the independent shoemaking industry and the rural area in which the family lived were most likely the reasons why none of Joseph’s children followed him into the trade: William was a cartman (a driver of a horse-drawn vehicle for the transporting of goods); Joshua was an agricultural labourer (also described as a shepherd[36]); Charles was a road worker/labourer for Rural district council; and Henry was a farm labourer. All their children married and had children of their own.


[1] West Yorkshire, England, Births and Baptisms, 1813-1910

[2] West Yorkshire, England, Births and Baptisms, 1813-1910

[3] Kelly’s Directory of West Riding of Yorkshire, 1881. [Part 1: County Information & Places A-K], page 284

[4] 1841 census

[5] https://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/YKS/WRY/Darton/Darton68

[6] http://www.catalogue.wyjs.org.uk/CalmView/Overview.aspx

[7] http://www.catalogue.wyjs.org.uk/CalmView/Default.aspx?

[8] Kelly’s Directory of West Riding of Yorkshire, 1881. [Part 1: County Information & Places A-K], page 609

[9] https://sites.google.com/site/steadwakefield/1827-1845-the-knottingley-years                                    

[10] 1841 census

[11] The name given to the complete parts of the top of the shoe when stitched together

[12] hence the name “clicker” being given to those individuals who carried out this task in the workshops or “factories”

[13] Known as “making”

[14] “Gutta-percha, yellowish or brownish leathery material derived from the latex of certain trees in Malaysia, the South Pacific, and South America, especially Palaquium oblongifolia and, formerly, P. gutta” – https://www.britannica.com/technology/gutta-percha

[15] “A Few Words to Journeyman Shoemakers about Gutta Percha; What it will do, and what they may do, to turn it to their advantage” published by W Strange, London 1851 https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=lRNhAAAAcAAJ&hl=en_GB&pg=GBS.PA1

[16] I have a large number of ancestors on both my maternal grandparents sides buried in this churchyard dating from the death of Joseph in 1881 (see later) to my maternal grandfather (in 2003) and maternal grandmother (in 2012). However the graves of those beyond two generations are either unmarked or have unreadable gravestones, I have searched the graveyard on a number of occasions in the past! I need to see if the church has any records/plans of the graves.

[17] Baptism record and census records

[18] The Leeds Economy Handbook, published by Leeds City Council Economic Development online at https://www.leeds.gov.uk/docs/Leeds%20Economy%20Handbook.pdf

[19] http://yorkcordwainers.webplus.net/

[20] https://www.yorkpress.co.uk/business/news/9122202.York_s_ancient_guilds/

[21] Census returns

[22] Dipsacus Fullonum – formerly widely used in textile processing, providing a natural comb for cleaning, aligning and raising the nap on fabrics, particularly wool.

[23] https://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/YKS/WRY/Kellington

[24] HistoricEngland.org.uk – https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1017458

[25] http://www.visitdoncaster.com/about-doncaster/history-and-heritage

[26] http://www.visitdoncaster.com/about-doncaster/history-and-heritage

[27] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodyear_welt

[28] https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/leics/vol4/pp314-326#p6

[29] http://www.historyhouse.co.uk/articles/london_gazette.html; http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C14692; https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

[30] History of Shoemaking in Britain – Napoleonic Wars and the Industrial Revolution: http://staffscc.net/shoes1/?p=126

[31] John Bedford Leno’s 1885 book reprinted by Ravenio Books 1949

[32] By Anon (original publication date not known) reprinted by Read Books Ltd 2013 https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=Seh8CgAAQBAJ

[33] In November

[34] West Yorkshire, England, Deaths and Burials, 1813-1985

[35] 1891 census

[36] 1901 census

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