My ancestor was a shoemaker

Joseph Turner, was my great (x3) grandfather on my maternal grandmothers’ side of the family. He was born in Darton, Yorkshire on 26 December 1820 to Joshua Turner and Sarah Turner (nee Crossley), being the sixth child of eleven (six girls and five boys). He was baptised on 4 February 1821 at All Saints Church, Darton, Yorkshire.

Darton, Yorkshire
Darton, Yorkshire

In 1881 Darton was described as a “parish and village and station on the Lancashire and Yorkshire railway, 3 miles north-west from Barnsley, 8 south-west from Wakefield and 12½ east-south-east from Huddersfield”.

Joseph’s father, Joshua, was a farmer.

When Joseph was a child there was an endowed school in Darton for both boys and girls which was a free school set up by George Beaumont in 1688. There was also a Sunday school. This meant that education would have been available to Joseph as a child, although I have no documentary evidence to confirm whether he did attend school.

I have searched the online catalogue for school records for Darton in this period on the West Yorkshire Archive Service website and there do not appear to be any records available.

What I do know however is that Joseph did not follow in his father’s footsteps and become a farmer. It may be that his parents wanted more for Joseph (and his siblings) and he may have gained some form of education in between no doubt helping his father on the farm. In 1841 Joseph is listed in the census returns as living at Anchors Yard, Knottingley, Pontefract, West Riding of Yorkshire where, at the age of 20, he was a shoemaker’s apprentice, living with Charles Abson, Shoemaker.

Given his age, he would by this time have been coming towards the end of his apprenticeship. Apprenticeships for skilled workers were 7 years, usually ending at the age of 21, thus he would have begun this apprenticeship at the age of 14 (in 1835). Apprentices worked under a master. Charles Abson is not described as a master shoemaker, however given Joseph appears to be living with him at the time the census was taken it is most probable that he was Joseph’s master.

Having searched the West Yorkshire Archive Service catalogue again in various ways, I have not been able to find a record of his apprenticeship indenture unfortunately. It is not known therefore how Joseph chose this trade and/or his master was found. Knottingley is about 25 miles north east of Darton where his parents stayed until their respective deaths.

Map showing the area of Dalton near Huddersfield, and Knottingley near Pontefract, West Yorkshire

Knottingley is described in 1837 as “a very extensive village, which has been long noted for its great production of excellent limestone…the limestone rocks and deep-wrought quarries present a romantic appearance, contrasting beautifully with the verdant fields and hanging gardens, the smoking kilns, and the numerous sloops and boats riding on the bosom of the river and canal”. A more geographical description is given in1881 as “a township and ecclesiastical parish formed from the parish of Pontefract….3 miles east-north-east from Pontefract and 171 from London, situated on the south bank of the navigable river Aire”.

Plan of the Aire and Calder Canal dated 1774

Because of its location, Knottingley was an important inland river port until 1699 when the river Aire was made navigable up to Leeds. However its main industry until into the 20th century continued to be boat building. “The crossing over the [river] Aire at Ferrybridge was of importance for many centuries. A bridge was built there in 1198, and another to replace it two centuries later. Located on the Great North Road linking London with York and Edinburgh beyond that, [Knottingley] became an important staging place for the coach traffic on that route. The traffic continued to develop, until in 1804 the government had to build a wider bridge over the river to accommodate it. The new bridge was designed higher to allow easier passage of the barge traffic on the Aire and Calder Navigation”.

It seems therefore that Knottingley was a bustling small town, which may be reflected in the section of the Lancashire and Yorkshire railway line being opened in April 1848 creating a joint station at Knottingley for the Great Northern and the Lancashire and Yorkshire railways.

In reality however there was poverty, squalor and disease, with a lack of adequate drainage and sewerage facilities, and polluted and insufficient water supply. Anchor Yard where Joseph was living and learning his trade from 1835 to 1842 was a densely populated area between Aire Street and Back Lane/ The Croft, where the problems were particularly acute with open gutters, cesspools and refuse heaps.

“Knottingley also had a reputation for hard living. With over 40 liquor outlets in the town vending their wares to a motley band of ‘outsiders’ such as mariners, commercial travellers and transient visitors, all supplementing the demands of the local inhabitants, there must have been some lively times at Knottingley during the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, a resolution in the Select Vestry Minute Book for the 24th November 1840 records, “that the Constable convey to the publicans the request of the Select Vestry to discontinue fiddling and dancing in their houses.” Such an environment is likely to have been a rather a shock and eye opener for Joseph coming from a much more rural area!

Aire Street, was a major shopping street, with for example, bread bakers, drapers and tailors, a currier, shoe makers, a nail maker, a basket maker and a whitesmith as well as housing the traders families and many mariners and their families.

Shoemaking was an ancient local hand craft with most villages having their own shoemaker. A shoemaker was also be known as a cordwainer. Shoes were “made to order” for individual customers. It gradually grew into a cottage industry with workshops or “factories” breaking the shoemaking process down and shared between different people: for example, “clickers” who cut around the shoe pattern, “closers” or “binders” who sewed the uppers of the shoe together, “blocker” who shaped the instep and “riveter” who attached the sole to the uppers. This was particularly the case in towns which were rapidly growing as a result of the industrial revolution.

Tools of the trade

By the time Joseph was an apprentice there was some mechanisation with machines being adapted to making boots in particular as a result of the increased demand for boots during the Napoleonic war years (1803 to 1815) however it was not until the late 1850’s when mechanisation lead to the start of shoemaking factories being opened. This was a result of the first practical sewing machine being invented in 1846 and gradually being adapted to stitch leather. However it was not until the 1920’s that most village shoemakers had changed their business to become cobblers: the difference being that a shoemaker would make new shoes from scratch whilst a cobbler would repair shoes. Joseph’s trade was therefore still in demand in the 19th century, particularly in more rural areas, but would no doubt have become increasingly challenging as his career progressed with the growth of factories, mechanisation and transport links making mass produced footwear less expensive than hand crafted.

A victorian shoe factory

As an apprentice shoemaker, he would have been trained in the art of making shoes and boots by hand. He would have received training in every stage of the shoemaking process:

  1. Constructing the last – the wooden shape around which the shoe would be shaped;
  2. The pattern would be made;
  3. The parts of the leather uppers would be cut out using a clicking knife;
  4. The leather uppers would be sewn together;
  5. The complete upper would then be moulded round the last;
  6. The leather soles and heels would be attached to the uppers;
  7. The complete shoe would then be finished by trimming, polishing and removing it from the last

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