1919 – The Beginning
John White had already spent 23 years in the shoe industry when, aged 35, he made the first pair of John White Shoes.
1919 was a difficult time for Northamptonshire’s shoemakers. The boot and shoe industry had been operating at full capacity to meet demand for the war, and as a result the wholesalers who worked between manufacturers and retailers now had thousands of pairs they couldn’t sell.
Despite this, John swiftly obtained repeat orders due to the superior workmanship and quality of the boots and shoes that left his workshop. His grasp of costings also meant he was more profitable than any of his competitors.
By 1920 he was employing four people and that year moved into his first factory, a building recently abandoned by a failed manufacturer from the town. The next year John took on a larger factory, again from a failed competitor, and was now employing 125 men and producing 6,000 pairs per week.
John’s success continued throughout the decade. He extended his factory three times and installed new machinery, but the footwear market was still challenging. Cheap, low quality shoes were flooding the market. As the Twenties came to a close John White was preparing to take drastic action.
1930 – Impregnable and the Daily Mail
The boot and shoemakers were in a race to the bottom; prices were plummeting and so were standards.
It was at this time that John White decided to launch his own brand. He called this footwear ‘Impregnable’, and the Impregnable boots and shoes he made stood out in a market full of cut price footwear. Impregnable footwear was of a superior quality, worthy of the skilled people who made them, but sold at fair and reasonable price.
John launched the Impregnable brand with a front page advert in the Daily Mail, then the world’s most expensive shop window. This was the first time a shoe manufacturer had advertised in this way. That year John sold 1.25 million pairs of shoes.
In 1937 John White defended small retailers from Marks & Spencer after M&S began selling 5 shilling shoes. Using his legendary grasp of cost control John was able to produce shoes that he sold to the smaller shops for less than 4 shillings, whilst still making a profit of 3 shillings and a penny on each cutting sheet!
By the end of the decade John White was employing 2,000 people and was operating from nine factories.
Throughout the 1930s John advertised heavily on the front page of the Daily Mail.
1940 – The War
A local councillor said years later that there were only two really good times for the Rushden boot industry: the First World War and the Second.
John White’s Lime Street factory had been finished only a few years before the outbreak of hostilities with Nazi Germany, and was swiftly pressed into supporting the war effort. By 1941 John White had nine factories, with a staff of 2,000 who produced three million pairs a year. In total one ninth of all footwear supplied to British Forces came from John White; some eight million pairs in all.
The variety of boots produced by John White for the war effort was almost unheard of. Alongside the British Army ankle boot were knee boots for drivers, jungle boots, flying boots for the RAF and canvas boots for the Royal Navy. John White also supplied allied forces, including the Soviet Union and Greeks.
In 1940 the John White directors and employees paid for a Spitfire. Named Impregnable, the plane saw active service with a Polish squadron of the RAF and secured at least two confirmed kills.
Towards the end of the war special cold weather boots were made for the Finns, who under the terms of their armistice with the Soviet Union were driving out their German former allies. As Finland technically remained at war with the Allied Powers until the Paris Peace Treaties of 1947, this was the second example of John White supplying military boots for both sides; the first being the Spanish Civil War.
John White’s Lime Street factory was finished in 1939
1960 – Retirement
In 1962 John White retired from the business that he’d started in a small workshop in 1919. He was 77.
The decision to retire wasn’t entirely acrimonious; it came after the board refused his wife Nancy voting rights, putting John in a minority position for the first time in the company’s existence. It could be speculated John was forced from the company by other board members; he had recently taken ill and spent some time in a Northampton nursing home.
The early 1960’s saw a slump in the Northamptonshire shoe trade, and John White laid off 183 workers in 1963. A company in decline, in an industry on its knees, 1966 saw George McWatters appointed Chairman of John White Footwear.
McWatters was the former chairman of Harveys, makers of the eponymous Bristol Cream. As the fourth generation of his family to run Harveys, McWatters had lost control of the business to the producer of Babycham that same year. Upon joining John White Footwear he immediately set about revitalising the business’s fortunes. In 1968 he appointed Philip Birch to the board as Managing Director.
1970 – Ward White
In 1972 John White Footwear joined with George Ward Holdings (no connection to John’s brother-in-law, also named George Ward) to form Ward White, and by the time John White died in 1974 Ward White consisted of 34 companies, produced 350,000 pairs per week and turned over £40 million a year (£305 million today).
Before his death however, upset at the prospect of his company’s name changing, John White fought a successful legal battle to take back control of his signature, the John White trademark. The signature had been bought by the company in 1948 and had been inscribed since 1919, but all shoes produced after 1974 were prohibited from bearing the founder’s mark.
In 1978 John White was issued with the Royal Warrant, providing footwear “By Appointment” to the department of the Master of the Household. The Royal Warrant was held up until closure in the 1990s.
In the 1980s the UK footwear market began to see the first influxes of cheap, foreign made fashion footwear; the predecessors of today’s throwaway fashion. Footwear was coming from Southern Europe as a result of the UK’s entry into the EEC and from China as Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms began to take hold. As the quality of these imports began to match that of traditional Northampton made footwear, the UK industry entered a terminal decline.
McWatters retired as Chairman in the early 1980s and Philip Birch took full control, expanding the Ward White empire with a succession of retail businesses, including Halfords and the predecessor of Focus DIY. In 1989 the whole Ward White group was sold to Boots, and the John White manufacturing business eventually ended up being owned by UK Shoe Group.
1990 – The end
In 1991 manufacturing ended at the last John White factory in Lime Street. The company continued trading for another three years as wholesalers before closing for good in 1994.
John White’s legacy continues in Rushden and Higham Ferrers. The Lime Street factory was designated a Grade II listed building in 1994, ensuring the building was preserved into the new millennium. The John White Golf Club was formed from what was left of the John White Sports Ground. But the closure of John White was just one of many shoe company failures in Northamptonshire in the 1990s, and by the end of the decade the shoe trade was all but dead.
2000 – Back to life
By 2001 David Corben had spent 39 years in the Northamptonshire shoe industry. Joining the trade aged 16, at the same time John White retired, David had seen huge changes in shoemaking throughout the second half of the twentieth century.
David had just completed 25 years with Kettering based shoemaker Loake. It was here, on his journey from sales assistant to managing director, that David had repositioned the firm from its generic 1970s brand names (Qualitone and Superior Victors) to selling under the family name.
It was under David’s watch in 1995 that Loake first began producing shoes in India, recognising the potential of producing high quality footwear in the Far-East. He brought the same approach to John White, working with the very best overseas manufacturers to deliver the quality that John prided himself on whilst keeping prices at fair and affordable levels.
2019 – 100 years
100 years after John White made his first pair of shoes, we’re still here in Higham Ferrers, supplying men in the UK and around the world. Our boots and shoes can once again be found in shops throughout the world, from independent retailers to large chains.
We’re proud to continue the John White story into its second century sticking to the same principles that John built his business; quality footwear at fair, reasonable and accessible prices.