In papers given to me by my great aunt Dorothy, she noted that John Shortland (the brother of my great great grandfather William Shortland) had started a shoe firm in Irthinglingborough, Northamptonshire, so I set out to investigate.
I had always known that Northamptonshire was famous for making shoes and boots and that it was likely my ancestors had been involved but I never expected to find them involved to the extent I did.
Information about the firm Dorothy referred to was initially located on The Rushden Heritage website which indicated the firm was actually started by John’s father, also called William.
In 1875 the late Mr. William Shortland left his native Harrowden to seek work in the trade at Irthling-borough where he soon established himself and was one of the first to install a sewing and stitching machine. In 1891 he built the Tower factory where he and his sons, John and James, made shoes for the wholesale market. Eventually, John Shortland started business on his own account and in 1899 founded the Express Works, which during the past 59 years have been extended many times. On his death in 1934 the management passed into the hands of his son, Mr. Hugh Shortland. The development of the well-known “Wearra” fitting system, covering slim, medium and broad fittings in men’s, women’s and youths’, started in 1936.
Information about John Shortland Ltd was located on the National Archives website and about information about William and John Shortland on the Grace’s guide website where I discovered a large selection of adverts for William Shortland, John Shortland and Wearra Shoes.
- John Shortland Ltd, shoe manufacturers: financial, sales and wages books, stock books and inventories, status books, reports and papers, 1915 – 1978
- Grace’s Guide: William Shortland
- Grace’s Guide: John Shortland and Wearra Shoes
I subsequently contacted the Irthlingborough History Society and Roy York and Philip Watts told me about Wearra shoes and the Express Works factory where the shoes were made.
The Shortland family I was told were ‘very important in the town employing many local people and Hugh Shortland’s name appears on the foundation stone of the local Methodist church. The hall, coincidentally, is where the history society holds it’s meetings. A reproduction of the giant plaque, on the now demolished Express Shoe factory, is being placed on the buildings of the new development being built at the moment on the large site in the centre of the town next to St. Peter’s church.’
The society also kindly sent me the photos that appear below which show William and John, photo three is believed to be James (John’s brother) and Hugh Shortland.
They also told me about a book titled ‘Clicking to Closing’ which contains information and memories about the work of my ancestors and it was lovely to read about the contribution they had made to the town and also to read they didn’t just run a successful business but appeared to care about the welfare of their staff too, boasting the axiom ‘The best use you can make of surplus profits is to invest them in the welfare of your employees’. In a strange coincidence, the book was printed and bound in the premises formally occupied by John Shortland Ltd – The Express Works in Church Street.
Sadly, the firm, which had become known as David Scott Shoes and was one of Irthlingborough’s largest employers, closed in 1982 with the loss of 320 jobs and today not one shoe manufacturer remains in Irthlingborough – in October 2002 R Griggs Ltd announced that production of Dr Martens in the town would cease, bringing to end, an industry with which the town had been associated for many hundreds of years. I feel incredibly fortunate however to have discovered such a wealth of information about my ancestors and the work they did and to be have been able to gather it here for my family and others to learn about them too.