RECOLLECTIONS OF MR WILLIAM ARNOLD
In his later years, Mr William Arnold was one of the best known shoe manufacturers in Northampton. He was born at Everdon on 30 December 1860 and this article, on his poverty-stricken early life in that village is based on his recollections, was originally published in 1915.
“My father, Matthew Arnold, was a poor working man, a typical old-fashioned village shoemaker, who was employed by Mr Rodhouse in the neighbouring town of Daventry and who did the work at home. He made boots the old way of sewing the soles to the uppers with waxed thread, his employer supplying him with the uppers already made up and with the leather for the soles.
My father was a good worker but frequently there were no boots to make and though his allotment provided such extra food, he was tempted on occasion by the thin and pinched faces of his wife and children to go out at night with one or two others to snare the squire’s rabbits or even to catch a hare or partridge. I remember several times being roused in the middle of the night, being brought downstairs and feasting on partridge and potatoes. As soon as the meal had disappeared, all the feathers and fur were carefully collected and cremated so that if the gamekeeper should come around, there would be no trace of the midnight revelry. Sometimes things were so bad that father, unable to see his children hungry for days together would come home at night with a bushel of meal or a sack of swedes that he had “found” in a neighbouring barn or field. Children were often to be found foraging in the fields where swedes had been grown for fodder for the sheep. All in the name of survival.
The necessity for every child to help earn some money often prevented all possibility of a school education. The children did not go to church because their clothes were so shockingly poor that it was thought sacrilege for them to be in the house of God.
My old grandmother used to go out monthly nursing and I, as the eldest grandson, was often sent to keep an eye on my grandfather, and I was only six! He cooked his own meals, he boiled the potatoes with the jackets on to avoid all waste in peeling and would grizzle a bit of bacon and for supper we would have the fat and the potatoes, the bacon being kept to warm up again at breakfast.
I was sent out to work when I was six years and two months old. This was at the end of February or early in March and I do not think I shall ever forget those long and hungry days in the fields scaring crows. It was about a mile from my home and I had for wages 18 pence a week and my dinner on Sundays. The dinner they gave me made Sunday the happiest day of the week and the family, knowing how poor I was, used to pack me up some food to take away for a weekday meal.
Later, I had to mind a flock of a hundred sheep in Westcombe Lane. You can image the fearsome loneliness of a little lad of six having this number in his charge and seeing that they kept in the grass-lined lane, grazing along a distance of one and half miles. But the weary hours passed and the time to drive the sheep home came as a relief and I could then walk on the two miles where my mother was at work in the fields.
When the corn harvest arrived about August, I left the sheep to go with my parents into the fields and help mind the younger children while they worked. I was found work, leading the first horse of the waggon team. Of course, I had to walk among the stubble and I remember how my little bare legs were scratched and made to bleed. My parents were so poor that money could not be spared for stockings.
When I was seven I went into the boot and shoe trade. About this time an entirely new method of making shoes came up. It was called riveting. Instead of the soles being stitched to the uppers with thread, they were nailed to them. The nails were really little rivets which were forced in from the bottom or underpart of the sole. Iron lasts had to be used to blunt the points of the little nails – to clinch them it is called.
It was soon discovered that boys could do this second part of the work quite as well as men so it was usual for each riveter to have a boy working with him. At this time there were thirty nine shoemakers in Everdon and four of the youngest branched into the riveting. Shoemakers were always noted for hard drinking and at Everdon they were as bad as anywhere. Village shoemakers I remember are Thomas Carvell, as intelligent a man as you would find anywhere, another man named Bird, was the old bespoke boot maker, a fine genuine honest workman. He was a bellringer at the church and had a son, Aaron Bird, also a shoemaker, who had been in a regimental band and through him a village band was formed.
Four young shoemakers who decided to take up riveting hired a little workshop on the Green and obtained work from Messrs Turner Bros, Hyde and Co, who were the largest manufacturers in Northampton. I was taken on by one of them as his sprigging boy. It did not take me long to pick up the work and I was soon earning three or four shillings a week. There was a great demand for these new riveted boots at the start. After that I went to work for a Mr George Osborne at his workshop in Sheep St, Daventry. I had to walk eight miles a day and it was a long and tiring journey for my young legs, I was only nine years old, but they were hard times for the poor and every penny we could earn counted”.
When the Great War between France and Germany broke out in 1870, there was immediately plenty of work in making boots for the French army. When trade fell after, I took to droving. There was an old man named Rodgers of Flore who used to come to Everdon on Tuesday mornings and gather up cattle from the farmers for Wednesday’s market at Northampton and I was employed helping him drive the cattle. Then we walked the thirteen miles back to Everdon.
Later, I went to join my uncle in Northampton and there began my long association with the town. I was employed for some time at Laycocks and then for Mr Manfield on Campbell Square. Many of the largest manufacturers grew from small beginnings and my uncle, his brother in law and myself decided to set up on our own. We started off in Duke Street, then moved to Military Road, Louise Road and we are now have a large factory in St Giles Terrace, Northampton – but that is another story!”