Introduction to Northamptonshire's Industrial Past


Northamptonshire cannot claim to have had the levels of heavy industry we associate with the Potteries, the Black Country or northern England; nevertheless the county renowned for its 'spires and squires' does have a significant industrial past. While engineering, building stone and iron ore quarrying were of local importance, the county's boot and shoe manufacturing industry was of national and even international significance. The county was also strategically positioned on long-distance road, canal and railway routes.

Here we give an overview of Northamptonshire's industrial heritage. This is followed by descriptions of short walks that can be undertaken to view what remains of the county's industrial past.

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Boot and shoe industry – international significance

The entrance to Crockett & Jones shoe factory
The entrance to Crockett & Jones.

The boot and shoe industry started in Northamptonshire around the time of the Civil War and expanded rapidly in the 19th century as mechanisation increased. From a craft industry, undertaken in houses and workshops, factory working became the norm in the main towns of Northampton, Kettering, Wellingborough, Rushden and Daventry, as well as smaller towns and larger villages. The latter half of the 19th century saw the development of the typical Victorian streetscape of 2- and 3-storey factory buildings, usually on street corners, set in amongst terraced houses, some of which had shoemakers' workshops in their back yards. There were also associated industries such as leather production and shoe machinery manufacture.

The boot and shoe industry gradually declined as the 20th century progressed but a few traditional boot and shoe companies, including Church's, Crockett & Jones, Loakes and Grensons are still thriving – manufacturing high-class welted footwear which is sold all over the world. The typical boot and shoe streetscape remains in many of the county's towns, including Northampton’s Boot and Shoe Quarter now a Conservation Area. Most boot and shoe factory buildings have now been converted for other industrial uses or into apartments.

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Building stone

The lack of coal beneath the ground meant that Northamptonshire never developed the heavy industry of northern England. However, it did have a good supply of building stone, both honey-coloured sandstone and whiter limestone and this was quarried from medieval times for use on both vernacular and classical buildings. Weldon stone was used, for example, to build the magnificent ceiling at King's College Chapel at Cambridge. Collyweston slate quarried from the extreme north-east of the county and cleaved by the action of frost was used to roof many of the county's houses.

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Iron ore quarrying and smelting

the steel works at Corby taken by Mick Dix
The steel works at Corby.

Ironstone was quarried from Roman times until around the 15th century, being smelted to form iron using charcoal obtained from Rockingham Forest which covered the northern part of the county. The industry then died out until iron was 'rediscovered' in the 1850s when the railways were being built. Quarries to extract the iron ore sprang up all over the county adjacent to railways which were used to transport it to smelting furnaces, mainly outside the country. During the early 20th century, mechanised working led to vast areas in the northern part of the county being quarried or mined, with an integrated iron and steel works being built at Corby producing large quantities of steel until 1980. Although only the rolling mills remain, now owned by Tata Steel, Corby is today one of the larger towns in the county as a result of its iron and steel heritage.

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Engineering skywards

Lift-testing tower built for Express Lifts
Lift testing tower.

Engineering skywards

The craft of the blacksmith evolved to provide an engineering industry in the county which produced agricultural equipment in the 19th century and then diversified into other sectors including boot and shoe machinery. There were diverse companies such as Allchin in Northampton who manufactured traction engines, Wicksteed in Kettering who produced playground equipment, and the Express Lift Company in Northampton, whose unique 127 metre high lift-testing tower erected in 1982, was nicknamed the Northampton Lighthouse and, despite closure of the original company and threatened demolition, is once again in use testing lifts.

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First water-powered cotton spinning mill

The textile industries featured in the county in a much smaller way compared to those in other parts of the East Midlands. However, Northamptonshire can claim the first water-powered cotton spinning mill in the world – at Marvells mill in Northampton in 1742. It had closed by 1761 but beats the better known Cromford Mill in Derbyshire by some 30 years.

The former Wallis clothing factory
Former Wallis clothing factory.

Lacemaking was a cottage industry, in the southern part of the county, while worsted manufacturing preceded the boot and shoe industry in some towns in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Clothing manufacture also featured, with companies such as Wallis & Linnell based in Kettering, Ideal Clothiers based in Wellingborough and until recently the internationally known brand of Aquascutum produced garments, first in Kettering, then Corby.

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Water and wind power

Remains of a windmill at Barby
Remains of a windmill at Barby.

Northamptonshire had a good number of watermills along the River Nene and its tributaries, mostly used for milling corn; the modern Weetabix production complex at Burton Latimer is based around a former water mill on the River Ise. Although the county at one time had over 50 windmills, sadly none of these survives with machinery in working order.

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Transport – mind the (Watford) gap!

The county’s long narrow shape meant that many communication routes crossed it. The Watford Gap, was an important level route between the uplands to the west of Northampton, such that the Roman A5 Watling Street, the 18th century Grand Junction Canal, the 1838 London and Birmingham Railway and, since 1959, the M1 all pass through it within a few metres of each other. Today Watford Gap is best known as the name of the M1 service station!

photograph of the East Lodge built over the canal entrance to Weedon Depot seen from inside the depot
The East Lodge built over the canal entrance to Weedon Depot seen from inside the depot.

Close-by, in 1805 the Royal Ordnance Depot was constructed at Weedon, adjacent to the Grand Junction Canal in order to act as a strategic supply depot for distributing military arms at the time of Napoleon's threatened invasion. It was the forerunner of the many distribution depots which features in today's landscape.

Northamptonshire had a range of other industries including agriculture, food production and brewing, the remains of which can be seen throughout the county. During the 19th century, service industries were developed to supply utilities such as water, gas and electricity to the growing populations in towns. As people became more affluent, the entertainment industries developed, through theatres, cinemas, parks and sporting pastimes. Evidence of what remains of all of these industries is contained in NIAG's publication: A Guide to the Industrial Heritage of Northamptonshire (see the Publications page).

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What will we want to save of today's industry?

NIAG is concerned with promoting Northamptonshire's industrial heritage but will there be anything from today’s industry worth promoting? Manufacturing industry declined in the county in the second half of the 20th century and little remains apart from the much reduced boot and shoe sector. In recent years, the distribution sector has become a significant growth area, due to the county's central position on the road network, but one cannot help but think that few will be interested in preserving the vast metal-framed sheds for the future! However, perhaps the Formula 1 motor-racing industry around Silverstone in the south of the county may be seen as a significant aspect of Northamptonshire's industrial heritage worth saving and promoting!

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Peter Perkins

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