Northampton is a medium sized town, in a large county, which dates back to the iron age. The earliest record of the town was to a saxon village called ‘Hamm tun’ or ‘watered meadow’, and references can be found to King Edward the Elder re-taking the town from the Danes in 917, until the Vikings of York devastated the area in 940. The Vikings remained dominant until 942 when it was again taken back by the English.
In 1086 the Doomsday book shows Northampton had around 300 houses, and Northamptonshire itself comprised of 28 areas, or districts (referred to then as ‘hundreds’). Northampton is home to some very old buildings and monuments, including St John’s Chapel Hospital, Delayer Abbey, and one of the few remaining Eleanor Crosses.
St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist Chapel Hospital (which is now a restaurant) in the centre of Northampton dates back to around 1138, when it was opened as a guesthouse for the poor, the sick and for orphans. It depended on gifts and charitable donations for funding, and was staffed by a religious community. Later in the war of the roses, many of the dead killed in the battle at Delapre, were buried in the Church grounds.
Another famous historic building is Delapre Abbey, established in 1145. It was originally a Cluniac Nunnery founded by Simon de Senlis, Earl of Northampton, and was a resting place for the body of Queen Eleanor in 1290, close to the Eleanor Cross that was erected their in remembrance afterwards. It was surrendered to King Henry VIII in 1538, after he dissolved all monasteries and nunneries.
Northampton was a very important town, having it’s own mint from the 10th Century, and in the 12th Century, Northampton was one of the most important and wealthiest towns in Britain. One of Northampton’s earliest industries was wool, which would have been woven and dyed in the town, but this quickly gave way to shoemaking, which remains to this day.
Northampton is of course, most famous for shoe making (hence the reason the football team is known as The Cobblers). Shoemaking dates back to the 15th Century, which really took off in 1642 when a group of Northampton shoemakers won a contract to supply the army. They supplied 400 shoes and 600 boots on that occasion, and went on to supply even more to Oliver Cromwell’s men in 1648, by which time the industry in Northampton had some 2000 shoemakers.
Shoemaking was a very skilled trade, as shoemakers had to be able to read and write to ensure sizes were produced accurately, and to order materials. Many worked from home where they would have their own workshop, and often whole families would join in.
The Industrial Revolution, however, posed a direct threat to this trade and way if life. In 1858, the Northampton Boot & Shoemakers Mutual Protection Society effectively formed a union to protest against mechanisation, which culminated in a strike being called in 1859. However opinion was divided, as many shoemakers were in favour of mechanisation as long as it did not threaten their jobs.
In the end, industry prevailed, with the construction of a factory in 1859. Although slow to take off, a change of ownership in 1861 saw the launch of shoemaking as a large scale manufacturing industry, as the factory churned out more than 5 million pairs of shoes a year with the use of steam automation.
Northampton’s reign in the shoe industry continued up until the 1960’s with the dawn of mass imports changing the face of British manufacturing forever.