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Walking Stories: The Norwich Shoe Industry

21 February 2017

Van Dal Florida factory shoes 600x400

Norwich is famed for many things: Colman’s Mustard, our amazing (at times) Football Club and, whether you love or loathe him, Alan Partridge! But something which people don’t always associate with Norwich (but really should) is shoes… high heels, kitten heels, boots and brogues; at some point over the years they would all have been made right here in Norwich!

Image: Van Dal shoe factory in Norwich

 

A SURPRISING HISTORY OF SHOE-MAKING

Van Dal Florida factory 600x400

Image: Van Dal shoe factory in Norwich

Rewind back several hundreds of years, to the early 14th century, and you’ll find that shoe making was just one of many trades practised in Norwich; companies that produced shoes did so on a pretty small scale, mainly creating bespoke shoes for the local community. Back then, you wouldn’t buy shoes ‘off the rack’ but have them made to fit your own feet exactly. This sounds pretty luxurious, doesn’t it… but this was just standard practise for cities like Norwich, who stuck to smaller, customised orders whilst mass-produced shoe production was mainly limited to the larger cities, such as London.

In 1792, a local man called James Smith started a shoe shop and factory which produced and sold ready-made shoes, realising that many people had the same size feet and therefore it wasn’t necessary to custom-make shoes for everyone. This forward-thinking meant his company went from strength to strength, and is actually still around today - Start-rite shoes.

Over the subsequent years the shoe industry in Norwich grew and grew. Van Dal (also known as The Florida Group) was set up in 1936 and still makes shoes today – though not on the same scale as it did back in the 1930’s. For example, in 1931, Norwich's boot and shoe trade employed an amazing 15% of Norwich’s total workforce – over 10,000 people – which meant it was a key industry for the city, and it continued to grow despite the devastation of WW2 (Norwich suffered some bad damage during the blitz) until the 1970’s, when cheaper, foreign-made shoes became a real threat. Today Van Dal still creates shoes right here in Norwich!

 

CREATE YOUR OWN WALKING STORY

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Image: explore Norwich on a walking tour

Why not immerse yourselves in Norwich’s shoe history by booking a tour of the Van Dal Factory? You can learn more about how they make shoes and see, first-hand, the skill that goes into making a quality pair. Tours last an hour and are free, but you must pre-book. Tours run Monday to Thursday. 10.30am & 1.30pm, call 01603 493116 (further details here).

Alternatively explore Norwich on your own two feet with a guided walking tour of the city! These run throughout the year from the Tourist Information Centre (TIC) at various times, and covering many different themes. They’re also running some special, absolutely free tours in celebration of English Tourism Week, covering two themes: ‘words and wanderings’ (25 March, 11am & 29 March, 2pm) and ‘passages through the past’ (31 March, 11am & 1 April, 11am). Book your free place on these tours quickly – they’re going fast! More details here.

FIND OUT MORE

This information about the Norwich shoe industry can be found in The Story of the Norwich Boot and Shoe Trade by Frances and Michael Holmes - buy a copy in-store or online from Jarrolds.

 

COMING TO VISIT?

Greater Anglia have Advance fares from £9 one way between London Liverpool Street and Norwich. Trains run every 30 minutes. Greater Anglia also serves Colchester, Ipswich and Diss on the Norwich line. Direct trains also run from Cambridge.

East Midlands Trains runs services from Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham.

Flights into Norwich served from Edinburgh, Manchester, Exeter, Aberdeen, Jersey*, Guernsey* and Amsterdam.

*seasonal

To find out more and plan a trip to Norwich visit our website: www.visitnorwich.co.uk