Alison Sofield Collections Volunteer
Footwear for children seems a pretty ordinary requirement these days with a wide range of both styles and materials available. A common cry is how fast children’s feet seem to grow and how often footwear needs to be replaced.
In Victorian times boots were the most common outdoor footwear for both boys and girls.
Before mass production began in the late 1800’s most towns and villages had either a shoemaker or bootmaker, who made and repaired footwear for the villagers. Made to measure shoes was generally restricted to the wealthy, ordinary working families bought shoes “off the shelf’. Size was not super-important, toes of boots could be padded to allow for growth and this footwear was expected to eventually be worn by successive children.
A relative of mine who was raised by her Victorian grandmother, recalled a lifetime of foot problems due to ill fitting shoes as a child.
By about 1870 mass production of shoes had begun with shoes for preschoolers sporting a bar across the instep, but for school age children‘s boots were the standard issue. These boots were usually buttoned using a button hook, laced boots appeared in the early 1900’s.
The Museum holds these very well worn boots that would have probably fitted a 7 to 9 year old.
By 1910 low cut shoe styles were starting to appear to replace the traditional boots, however many children continued to wear the old-fashioned boots well after World War 1, the same footwear being repaired repeatedly and handed down from child to child in large families. The boots pictured here bear testament to having been re-soled and heeled numerous times. Steel heel and toe plates also extended the life of the boots, these little boots have both heel and toe protectors. A company, “Blakey’s Boot protectors” began making these items in about 1880 and they still manufacture them to this day.
Considering the wide variety of shoes available for children in the 21st century it is hard to imagine what it must have been like for children a hundred or so years ago. Historically appearing in public without shoes or stockings showed extreme poverty, clothes might be ragged or well patched but going bare legged and barefoot was considered degrading. This was not uncommon in in poor urban and rural communities, where children often went barefoot in streets or fields. Sturdy wooden soled clogs were often worn in the midlands and north of England, these were cheaper and longer lasting than conventional boots, and house wives everywhere would go without new footwear so that menfolk and children could have adequate footwear for work and school. It was important to families of this period of history that a respectable image was maintained, to avoid the humiliation of a clear sign of reduced circumstances.
These little boots could probably tell many a tale of stones kicked, hoops bowled or having to perform some unpleasant task as child labour.
Let’s hope the memories were mostly happy ones.