Centenary year for county footwear business

When John White began making his own shoes in 1919 he lost control of the hand barrow containing his first 72 pairs, crashing into the pony and trap that was waiting at the bottom of the hill to take them to the station.

From that initial production of six dozen slightly battered shoes came a shoemaking empire, which at its height supplied one in nine of all boots supplied to British forces in the Second World War and produced 90% of all shoes exported from the UK to the USA.

By the 1970s John White’s factories were making 2.5 million pairs of shoes each year, but the decade was marred by new challenges. The first and most significant was John’s opposition to the company’s name being changed to Ward White; whilst the founder had retired a decade earlier, he fought and won a legal battle for rights to his signature, the brand’s logo.

The 1970s also saw the rapid decline of British manufacturing, and the Northamptonshire shoemaking industry was one of the sectors most affected. By the end of the 1980s John White footwear was a small part of the Ward White conglomerate, which was then bought out by Boots. By 1991, after several years of pass the parcel between various holding companies and new owners, John White’s factories closed for good.

John White ended the 20th century as a curiosity of East Northamptonshire’s history; the shoe manufacturer that once owned Halfords, his legacy reduced to a cul-de-sac and an abandoned factory.

Still, the name of John White and his legendary business acumen was well known amongst those who had spent their lives in the shoe trade. And so it happened that David Corben, who started in the shoe trade the year John White retired, relaunched the John White brand on the same principles that John himself had lived by: producing quality footwear at fair and reasonable prices.

2019 marks the 100th anniversary of John White’s first pair of shoes, and the Northamptonshire footwear brand, now owned & run by Stuart Parrish and Craig Dunkley, that bears his name continues to demonstrate that there is a strong market for quality handmade footwear.

Whilst the marketplace for footwear has changed dramatically, there are many parts of the modern business’s operations that John White would have been very at home with, as director Stuart Parrish explains:

“In John’s day you bought footwear that would last, and his business was built around supplying vast quantities of solid, long-lasting boots and shoes. Then the 80s came, disposable income shot up and cheaper imports came in. Suddenly the customer could buy a fashionable shoe, replace it when the next fashion came in, and still have more money in his pocket than he would if he’d bought a quality British-made pair.

“We’ve succeeded where Ward White failed by combining the best of both worlds; by working with the very best overseas manufacturers we’re able to deliver the quality that John prided himself on whilst keeping prices at fair and affordable levels. A John White shoe isn’t throwaway fashion, but it also won’t cost a month’s mortgage!”

Stuart continued:

“John’s success was built on leading change, not just following it. He was one of the first to ditch the factors who controlled the 1940s shoe trade and sell directly to retailers, becoming both manufacturer and wholesaler. He would have seen a similar opportunity with online selling which allows brands like us to sell directly to the public, cutting out the middle man once again.”

Whilst a growing number of Northamptonshire’s premier shoe names are reducing the number of retailers they work with and focusing on higher margin online sales, Stuart believes retailers still have a large part to play:

“We work with a number of independent retailers that some brands don’t feel it’s worth working with anymore. Fortunately, we’re well set up to deal with orders of all sizes and we can continue to serve the independent trader, which in turn gives our brand exposure across the UK and beyond.”

John White’s legacy has stood for one hundred years in Higham Ferrers, the town where John grew up. The business’s current home sits just behind his original offices on Midland Road, now known as the John White Business Centre. Whilst the first century of John White was marked by great successes and abject failures, Stuart believes that the brand can go into its second century with its head held high:

“John White was supplying quality footwear in 1919 and is doing so once again in 2019. We’ve brought the brand back to life, and a local team is once again supplying boots and shoes that we believe John himself would be proud of.”

For more information visit www.johnwhiteshoes.com