In a passage quoted by Northampton's Wiki page, as well as plenty of tourist literature, Daniel Defoe described Northampton as “the handsomest and best built town in all this part of England....” While the pamphlet in your hotel will end there, Defoe did not. He continues: “...the beauty of it is owing to its own disasters, for it was so effectually and suddenly burnt down, that very few houses were left standing....” Defoe goes on to describe the public buildings “new built” since the Great Fire of Northampton in 1675. Northampton was the best built town in England in the 1720s like Dresden was the best built town in Germany in the 1960s.
By the end of the 18th century, thanks to the oak forests in the area and proximity to London, Northampton had established itself as an important center of leather tanning and footwear manufacture. The cost of moving oak trees and cattle being large, it was more convenient to raise the animals and tan their leather close to the trees. Around the tanning industry grew the shoemaking industry.
Today Northampton is one of the many English towns whose residents proudly claim to be living in “the asshole of the world.” In reality it's not so bad as the British pessimists would have you believe. Many of the buildings that were new in Defoe's time have now acquired an august patina that would be the envy of any well-polished brogue. The surrounding countryside could even be described with a straight face as "idyllic." But things aren't what they used to be. Competition from lower-wage countries, two generations of people who think it's acceptable to wear flip-flops with trousers, and increasing disregard of quality materials and manufacturing on High Street have taken their toll. Many factories have closed; some of those that remain are no longer locally owned. The local cordwainer college that used to train future factory workers closed about 10 years ago. Companies needing to hire now must train their own workers, or take on those laid off or poached from other factories. The biggest factory I saw in Northampton was the Carlsberg brewery.
Yet the past five years, while disastrous for the worldwide economy, have sewn seeds of optimism in Northampton shoemakers. 'Made in England' has become a highly prized mark of quality in international markets, Japan in particular (the Japanese really are into everything). Every factory I visited was operating at completely full capacity. Retailers fight over shares of production to keep their shelves stocked.
The main challenges companies face now are constraints on production. Finding skilled workers is difficult. Finding quality materials is expensive. With fewer people eating veal, calf skins are rarer. With animals growing faster thanks to modern husbandry, what skins there are have smaller usable portions, forcing companies to either produce fewer shoes from each hide, or compromise on quality. The days of “64 to an inch” stitching are over, at least in part because the materials just aren't the same quality as they used to be. “At the end of the day, we're a shoe factory, and we have to make shoes with what we've got” is a sentiment I heard at a couple of factories. LVMH's recent acquisition of a high-quality tannery has some companies worried that their access to the best hides might be even more limited in the future, although so far this hasn't been an issue.
These additional costs and growing demand continue to send prices higher. So far buyers remain unfazed. Given that much of the demand is overseas, the cheaper British pound has certainly helped. How successful British craftsmanship would be if it were priced in Euros is anyone's guess. But at least for now, customers all over the world are buying back in to the heritage and quality of British shoemaking.
I got out of a London train to Northampton just after a 10 pm sunset. From the window of the cab to my hotel I noticed only one night spot that showed any signs of life (it turned out to be a gay bar). The next morning I started visiting shoe factories.