K Shoes

By Jonathan de F.Somervell

The start of the business

In 1841, a year after the death of her husband in London in 1840, Margaret Somervell moved the family to Kendal to join her eldest daughter Margaret who in 1830 had married John Ireland, one of Kendal’s foremost woollen manufacturers, and her eldest son John who by 1838 had been taken into partnership by John Ireland. They travelled in relative comfort on the new railway as far as Tring. The rest of the journey was endured by stagecoach.

In March 1842, a month short of his 21st birthday, the youngest son Robert Miller Somervell was offered a room at Ireland’s Sand Aire Mills (later Carlyle’s wholesale grocery and then demolished to make way for the new Provincial building). With £300 capital borrowed from his mother Robert opened his business as “Shoemaking Accessories Merchant and Leather Factor”, having learned his trade in London with another older brother, William.

There was plenty of opportunity in the area for a young, enthusiastic and hard working man like Robert Miller. Every village had one or two boot and shoe makers – there were 30 in Kendal, about 20 each in Penrith, Ulverston, Whitehaven and Cockermouth; around a dozen in Kirkby Lonsdale and Kirkby Stephen; and 60 in Carlisle. Kendal and Ulverston had a reputation for producing heavy leather, and Robert brought with him from his experience in London a specialist knowledge of foreign leathers and skins. By 1844 he had outgrown his room at Sand Aire and, probably at the beginning of 1845, moved into Bridge End, Netherfield, a two room building which stood at the south side of the east end of Nether Bridge, on the present site of the K Shoes war memorial. Here the head office and main factory remained for the rest of its life.

Robert Miller’s Traveller’s Record Book, which runs from 1844 to 1847, in which he recorded the details of his customer calls, shows that he was travelling as far afield as Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Yorkshire, the Isle of Man, Dublin, and on odd occasions London. Journeys to main centres like Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool could be undertaken by rail. In the outlying areas, including his three journeys each year in Cumbria, he would have to face all the hazards of the road, by stagecoach and horseback. That a horseback journey in 1844 from Carlisle (having visited Dumfries and Annan by local coach) to Wigton, Cockermouth, Maryport, Workington, Whitehaven, and home by Broughton-in-Furness and Ulverston, is recorded in his Book as taking only six days is an indication of how hard he pushed himself. His Pass Book for 1843 to 1848, in account with Wakefield Crewdson Bank, shows that in the first six months of 1843 he banked £1,343, which was rather more than he paid out and does not of course take into account cash transactions completed as he travelled round. For the full year of 1844 he banked £4,919.6s.3d, in 1846 £5,300, in 1847 £8,900, and in the first ten months of 1848 £11,236.

The business steadily expanded. Robert Miller was often away for weeks at a time, and he needed someone to manage the business while he was away. For some time his older brother John Somervell had realised that – in the poor state of the worsted trade – the Ireland Mills would not long be able to support  himself and John Ireland and also the two promising up and coming Ireland boys. On the 17th June 1848, Robert Miller and his brother John  signed a “Proposed Partnership Agreement”. John was to put £500 into the capital, free of interest. The profits were to be divided equally, the firm to be known as “Robert Miller and John Somervell”, stock to be taken at its present value, and debts to be taken as good until proved bad. So the original partnership of Somervell Brothers was formed.

From Leather Merchants to Footwear Manufacturers

By 1853 the Partners were in a position to buy the whole of the Netherfield site, and within 15 years they were already Kendal’s largest employers. The transition from leather merchants to footwear manufacturers was rapidly taking place. In 1857 the first sewing machines were imported from America and introduced to the workforce during an “entertainment” at the Town Hall. Five years later, in 1862, the first experiments in completed footwear took place, and the Partnership was awarded a bronze medal at the Industrial Exhibition in London for the quality of its products. This success was immediately celebrated by a dance for all in the field across the river, and later by an excursion to Levens by canal with sports in the park.

Until this time, whilst the boot and shoe upper parts were stitched together in the factory at Netherfield, the soles were hand stitched to the uppers as outwork. The men took them home to stitch or rivet together, and then brought the completed footwear back for payment. However it was found that the less scrupulous were replacing the high quality factory leather with inferior material, and thereby earning a quiet profit on the side. In 1865 what turned out to be possibly the most momentous decision ever for the company was unconsciously taken. Someone picked up a leather punch which happened to have a “K” on it, and started marking all the soles issued to the outworkers. With forethought it would almost certainly in those times have been an “S”, but fortunately “K” it was. This very quickly became associated with Kendal, and soon customers were asking specifically for the shoes marked with a “K”. When the first Trade Marks Act came into force in 1875, the Partners immediately applied for its registration. The regulations of the Act forbade registration of single letters unless prior use for 10 years could be proved. This Somervell Brothers were able to do, and as a result the “K” trademark is believed to be the only single letter registration allowed to remain in the British Trade Marks Register.

Expansion and innovation

By the time John Somervell died in 1887, and the founder Robert Miller in 1899, four Somervells of the next generation were contributing to the steady growth and success of the Partnership and the development of the “K” brand. Three others had also had experience with and left their impression on the firm to move on to other things. As well as the established men’s trade a fashionable ladies’ trade had been developed since 1876. The firm now had a national and international reputation, with appointed stockists throughout the United Kingdom and also overseas, all providing employment for over 600 people. Total sales for 1897 reached a peak of 173,555 pairs.

The turn of the century saw the introduction of the first British footwear “Instock Service”. Until then K agents had placed their orders in advance for delivery 3 months later. From now on standard styles would be made on a regular basis, stored in the warehouse and despatched to the agent immediately on request – smoothing out production peaks and troughs, and reducing stock on the agent’s shelves.

By 1913 production had reached a total of 230,526 pairs for a wages bill of £25,946. But the outbreak of war in 1914 saw the factory emptied of all able bodied men of fighting age, and the women and older men were left working on “K Marching Boots”, leather leggings, “K Service Boots for Officers”, and major contracts for the French and Russian Armies. 1917 saw what has been described by the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives as a “trail blazing agreement” with the workers – a 49.5 hour week, a week’s paid holiday a year, and time and a half for all overtime.

More demand, more factories, more shops

By 1920 the available local work force could no longer meet production demands, and the first outlying factory was built in Lancaster. Total production in 1924 was 7000 pairs a week, rising to 13,000 in 1931. Greater emphasis was being placed on advertising and marketing, with quality, comfort and good fit being the promotional theme. A London office was opened in 1927.

A highlight of the 1930s was the visit to Netherfield in 1935 of the then Duke and Duchess of York, soon to become King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. A year later – following an agreement with the American “Red Cross Shoe Company” – Somervell Brothers launched their American range of what in Britain had to be called “Gold Cross Shoes”. During this time Somervells had reluctantly been forced to take over several failing independent retail agents, and in 1937 they were faced with the failure of the multiple group Abbots Limited, with over 60 shops mainly in London. This was too many for Somervells to handle alone. C & J Clark Limited of Street were invited to take half on the understanding that they would choose a new trading name for them. Thus the Abbots shops formed the nucleus of what in 1961 was to become K Shoe Shops Limited, and the Clarks shops were renamed “Peter Lord”.

By 1939 production had risen to 890,205 pairs, but war was coming and the work on turning round the profitability of the Abbotts Group gave way to concentrating on Government contracts for aircraft covers, tents, and then Service boots, kit bags, gaiters, RAF “Flying boots” with hidden compartments for escape materials, ATS and WAAF shoes, both British and US Army officers’ shoes, and finally demobilisation shoes.

In 1915 the then Partners had turned the business into a Private Limited Company. In 1949 the Company went public with the registration of a new Holding Company – K Shoes Limited. The following year production reached 20,000 pairs a week for the first time, nearly a quarter of which were sold through the 60 shops now owned. In 1951 the production of men’s and women’s shoes was separated by the building of a second Kendal factory at Low Mills. This was followed over the years by factories at Askam-in-Furness, Workington, Millom, Shap, and the acquisition in 1961 of W.H.H.Clarke Limited in Norwich. By 1976, when the manufacturing company Somervell Brothers was renamed K Shoemakers Limited, nine factories were producing 130,000 pairs per week. K Shoemakers and K Shoe Shops continued to trade as separate subsidiary companies until 1990, when K Shoes Limited became the sole operating company.

Challenges and closures

Shoemaking has always been a highly labour intensive operation. In spite of always maintaining a leading position in the introduction of new technology, from 1976 onwards the Company became increasingly affected by an overall decline in the consumption of footwear, the rapidly escalating cost of leather, and the rapid expansion of cheap exports. To meet the challenge the labour force was cut by over 400, a major re-structuring of top management and a programme of factory modernisations were undertaken. But in 1980 the pound rose sharply, the Workington factory was closed and a further 430 people became redundant.

Things began to look better. Pre-tax profits increased to a new record of £5.5 million. K Shoe Shops now had 230 branches in the UK with 11 in Holland.  In 1981 – as a result of a takeover bid from another company – the merger was completed between K Shoes and C & J Clark Limited, the Group’s closest competitors, although each brand would maintain its separate identity.

In 1987 K Shoes achieved a record profit for the third year running of £7,993,000. However, as inflation, rents and interest charges climbed, more and more complete shoes were factored in from abroad to compete with uncompetitive labour costs. In 1990 K Shoe Shops and K Shoemakers ceased to trade as separate companies, and the first of a steady stream of redundancies in the remaining K factories and offices began. The Lancaster factory stopped making K shoes. World events in 1991 severely affected the retail trade, and recession began to cut deeper. In 1995 100 white collar jobs were transferred to Clark’s Head Office in Street. Closures of factories continued, and the last K Shoes to be made in Kendal came off the production line at the sole surviving Natland Road Springer Factory on 2nd May 2003. All that now remains of the company founded by Robert Miller Somervell in 1842, which in its heyday employed 20% of the working population of Kendal and had at least one member of every family in the town on its books, is a small repair factory and a warehouse.

Source material
How K Shoes began. Unpublished manuscript by J.S.Nicoll
After 90 years: the evolution of K Shoes; John Somervell, 1932
K Shoes – the first 150 years, 1842-1992; Spencer Crookenden, 1992
From 1842 Somervells — in 1976 K Shoemakers Ltd. Publicity pamphlet designed by Bryan Knutton
Westmorland Gazette reports

(Page created 19/04/05)