Thursday 7 April 2022

The Thomas Cross Affair: Hard Times in the Chester Leather Industry

On December 16th, 1871, leather-cutter Thomas Cross was brought before Chester’s magistrates on the charge of theft.

He had been seen taking some leather as he left the City Road-based factory of Collinson, Gilbert and Co, at the end of the shift. He was taken to the office of his supervisor, Mr Gee, where he was searched and four pairs of soles found on him. According to the local press, he apologised profusely and 'appeared to be in great trouble at being found out'. He had worked with the firm for some five years, and asked Gee not to turn him in.

His request was denied, and his home searched by the police. A further three pieces of leather were found, bringing up the total monetary worth of his theft to six shillings - about £20 in today’s money. Cross elected to be tried by the magistrates and was sentenced to two months imprisonment. His trial was covered by three local newspapers.

His wife, Sarah, and their three young children - Elizabeth, Arthur and Emily - spent Christmas without him. Given the timing of his crime, it’s not unreasonable to think he may have done it with the expenses of the festive season weighing on his mind.

That Cross was short of money is perhaps surprising. His job took skill. No two pieces of leather are the same - hand-cutting tough and inconsistent strips of material to get the highest number of uniform shoes with the least waste of material requires both strength and artisanal precision. You might expect this to be a well-paid role.

But Cross was working in the leather industry during some major changes in the trade. In the United States, new types of machinery were automating the process, and British companies were slow to adopt them. Often, they still relied on ‘putting out’ work - getting very low-paid workers to complete different tasks of cutting and assembling materials in their own homes.

William Collinson, Cross’ boss, wanted to modernise the trade in Chester. His City Road factory was built between 1864 and 1866 and employed over 250 workers who made use of new patented machinery and new ways of organising the work.

All work was done on site, with tasks segregated by gender. Women used sewing machines to assemble the tops of shoes while men worked on a steam-driven circular file which buffed imperfections out of the cuts of leather. The factory was able to turn out some 2-3000 pairs of boots every week.

An excited journalist wrote about the factory in the Chester Observer in May 1866, describing it as “one of the finest buildings to have recently sprung up in Chester.” He called it a “matter of pride” that Chester was now able to compete with towns such as Stafford and Northampton, long recognised as the centres of the shoe and boot trade.

However, despite the glowing write-up and adverts in the local press which proudly proclaimed the factory’s “new principle” of production, the factory was not as modern as it may have seemed. While the sewing and buffing had been mechanised, riveting (pinning the upper and lower parts of a shoe together) was still being done by hand.

Just one year after re-opening, the factory re-introduced ‘piece work’ (paying workers for the shoes they produced, not the hours they put in), provoking a strike amongst women mechanists at the factory. There were a few new machines, but old habits lingered on.

Making matters worse for the Cestrian trade, the shoe and boot producers of Leicester had developed automatic riveting machines in the 1850s, giving them a technological edge over the northern producers. Now American imports and the Midlands firms were both putting the pressure on.

Cross may have worked a skilled job, but he was working in an industry that was in decline locally as it failed to modernise machinery or working practices. Stagnating wages and job insecurity may have led a number of workers in the trade to turn to petty theft to boost their incomes.

Cross was certainly not the first to steal from the factory. In 1866, Jeremiah Evans, who manned the engine, had been caught attempting to flog a set of boots he had stolen from the premises. Cross’ trial was covered with the headline ‘CAUGHT AT LAST’, suggesting a wider spate of thefts.

Collinson’s adverts in the local press around the time of Cross’ arrest focused on end-of-year sales of excess and spoiled stock, hinting at some difficulties with the business. By 1875, he sold the factory to a rival firm (Alfred Bostock) based out of Stafford. They didn’t fare much better and sold the factory to a rope manufacturer by 1892. Today the site is occupied by The Old Harkers Arms, which seems to be doing better than its predecessors.

Despite a boom in shoemaking in the early 1800s, by the end of the century the industry was in terminal decline in the city. In 1911 the number of shoe workers employed locally was just a third of the number when Cross was arrested.

We don’t know why Cross and his family left Chester. The publicity around his theft, arrest, and trial may have caused them to leave out of shame or lack of work. However, by 1881, the censuses show that they were living in Birmingham, where the leather trade was more stable, and where he continued his craft.

Hopefully he and his family enjoyed much happier Christmases than that of 1871.

Some Further Reading:

Raphael Samuel, ‘Workshop of the World: Steam Power and Hand Technology in mid-Victorian Britain’, History Workshop (No 3), 1977

David Holmes, Development of the Boot and Shoe Industry in Leicester During the Nineteenth Century, Leicestershire Archaeol. and Hist. Soc., 83 (2009)

S. I. Mitchell, ‘Retailing In Eighteenth- And Early Nineteenth-Century Cheshire’, Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire (1981) pp.37-60 

A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography, ed. C P Lewis and A T Thacker (London, 2003), British History Online

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