The life of a shoemaker in March, Cambs.

Following on from previous posts around directories and tradesmen I thought it would be good to share with you the research I carried out for my own tree involving a shoe maker. Wigston is my family name and so anyone possibly related is of interest. I found Thomas B Wigston when I did a search for Wigston in Leicestershire in professional and organisational directories. As is often the case I was looking for something else but this interested me so I researched around the topic to make it more ‘real’.

shoe blog1

Under the apprentice indentures was this entry:

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Context around shoemaking in March 1798-1844 (estimated career span)

Today March lies on the course of the Fen Causeway which is a roman road in the fen area of Cambridgeshire. Before the fens were drained March was an island in a landscape of marshy fens and was described a s a ‘considerable town’ in 1808. At one time the town would have relied on shipping on the River Nene but with the drainage and the arrival of trains in 1847, this trade declined. However, the railways were responsible for the overall growth of March being the chief railway centre for the Isle of Ely.

During the Napoleonic wars (1777-1815) the price of corn doubled as labourer’s wages fell and the poor were starving. Unrest inevitably followed and riots broke out. However, it did increase the demand for footwear and by around 1810 around 250,000 men in the British Army needed boots! During this period the demand drove the introduction of some mechanisation in order to improve productivity. By 1850 factories became centres of machinery and much of the outworking nature of shoemaking reduced or stopped altogether.

In 1785 the market tolls were assessed at £6 but soon after this it lapsed and in 1821 an attempt to revive it failed which is odd as during this period markets usually thrived. This was mainly due to the lack of a covered hall and the fact that the neighbouring markets were held on the same day. These points were remedied but after the period we are looking at.

March first had a post office in 1793 and was made a ‘post town’ in 1832.

From 1778-1846 the Guildhall was used by the Court of Request for the recovery of small debts. In the context of the Napoleonic wars, this is understandable with such hardship around. The Guildhall was rebuilt in1827 and still stands in the High Street.


Training as a shoemaker

In order to start your career as a shoemaker you needed an indenture, which was normally a private arrangement between the master and the parent or guardian of the child. The child was bound to the master by a written document and the family would pay the master a fee, normally in instalments.

A master was normally found amongst the family’s friends, relations or on personal recommendation. In some cases apprenticeships were kept very much within a family network, often creating a monopoly. Failing this masters and parents would advertise in local newspapers.

The apprenticeship normally started at the age of 14 for 7 years and in theory needed no payment as the technical training was supplied in return for the labour given but small, regular payments were often made for clothes, for example, especially in the latter years of the apprenticeship.

By the 18 century those who lived apart from their masters were frequently paid a regular wage, below that of the journeyman (masters’ other workers) and this was often referred to as ‘half pay’ or ‘colting’. In these cases the apprentices often went home from Saturday night to Monday morning.

Traditional forms of apprenticeship were inflexible making it ill-matched to a rapidly changing economy. It also relied on the exploitation of young people which then resulted in a change to the law in 1814, which meant it was no longer possible to prosecute anyone who practiced a trade without having served a 7 year apprenticeship. With this in mind it is possible that our Thomas never went on to train his own apprentices.

Even if Thomas did complete his own apprenticeship, it did not guarantee an immediate entrance to the trade as there were many difficulties between the end of the apprenticeship and the point where a shoemaker could set up in business. These included financial challenges and family conflicts which mean they would become a journeyman rather than a master shoemaker. Few apprentices could afford to become freeman of the company at the end of their 7 year period. Most of them then spent many years saving hard in order to set up their own business.


In London by the 1730’s, the shoe and boot market had grown so much that small master shoemakers were setting up workshops wherever they could, often in highly unsuitable places. Robert Bloomfield the poet, left Suffolk as a boy of 14 to join his brother in one of these workshops and his brother gives an insight into life as an apprentice: “It is customary in such houses as are let to the poor people in London to have light garrets fit for mechanics to work in. In the garret where we had two turn-up beds and five of us worked, I received little Robert. As we were all single men, lodgers at a shilling a week each, our beds were coarse and all things far from being clean and snug, like what Robert had left at Sapiston. Robert was our man to fetch all things to hand. At noon he fetched our dinners from the cook’s shop, and any one of our fellow workmen that wanted to have anything fetched in, would send him, and assist in his work and teach him, for a recompense for his trouble.”

Career of a qualified shoemaker

We know that Thomas went on to be a shoemaker in his own right as we have entries in the following directories found on

Pigot’s Directory of Cambridgeshire, 1830-1


Robson’s Commercial Directory 1839


Shoemakers usually had workshops in their homes, where wives and children helped out and often even worked on Sundays. They had to be highly literate, keeping records and conforming to measurements to ensure that shoes fitted correctly. By the mid 19 century certain shoemakers were described as ‘manufacturers’, employing a large number of shoemakers, supplying them with the materials and selling their finished products to buyers. Astute businessmen recognised that mechanisation meant profit, which meant more factory hands and less shoemakers, leading to the mechanisation dispute of 1857-9. In 1810 a patented sole riveting machine was registered and manufactured by M I Brunel who also designed a press for cutting leather in order to speed up production. In 1853 Thomas Crick also patented a method of improved riveting of boots. As a result of this, the last quarter of the 18 century is characterised by intense protests against employers on the subject of wages. ‘Our’ Thomas Wigston must have seen this ‘squeeze’ on individual shoemakers but probably did not survive to see the trade go completely mechanised.


Although unlikely due to the location of Thomas in rural March where work footwear was more likely to be in demand, some shoemakers went on to be a cordwainer. This is a shoemaker who makes fine soft leather shoes and other luxury footwear articles. The word is derived from “cordwain”, or “cordovan”, the leather produced in Córdoba, Spain. The term cordwainer was used as early as 1100 in England. Historically, there was a distinction between a cordwainer, who made luxury shoes and boots out of the finest leathers, and a cobbler, who repaired them.

In London, the occupation of cordwainer was historically controlled by the guild of the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers which is still in existence today.

Although originally a force to be reckoned with and despite changes in its approach and remit to meet the changing demands in society and business, the guild gradually declined in the 18 century.

It is more likely that Thomas was sworn in as he entered into apprenticeship into the local merchant guild of shoemakers. I have searched but cannot find any reference to this type of guild in March or Ely.


The life of a shoemaker in this period was a difficult one. It was skilled but not generously paid and was battling with the demands of a fast moving era of production improvement, competition from other trades moving into shoemaking and from those working without the apprenticeship credentials. Thomas’ life was probably quite hard however from the two following entries from the poll books of 1832 and 1835 it was quite likely that Thomas was a freeholder or had property that then entitled him to vote so he had not done so badly after all.


Also, on searching the 1861 census Thomas is still alive and well at 65 and living with his daughter which also indicates that his hard life did not affect his longevity, thankfully.



George Riello                                     A foot in the past: Consumers, Producers and Footwear in the Long Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 2006)



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