One hundred years of SATRA: the opening chapter
As a part of SATRA’s centenary year celebrations, we investigate the association’s beginning and its significant growth during the first ten years.
Even while the First World War was still raging around the world, a far-sighted Englishman believed that he knew just what was needed to help the British footwear industry to move forward whenever peace was restored. John Blakeman – principal of the Northampton Technical School – identified a number of requirements in order to achieve his goal. These included a centralised source of information that would be available to shoemakers, a body to research innovative ideas and a good scientific facility to test footwear components, materials and products. Blakemen was a great believer in science, and he strongly believed that its application to shoemaking would be able to deliver a considerable number of benefits. Described as a man of endless enthusiasm and determination, he became the driving force behind the establishment of the organisation which today is known as SATRA. The photograph below shows the clicking room of a Northampton footwear company in the early days of the 20th century – exactly the kind of business the new body was founded to assist.
Early in 1918, Blakeman contacted one Charles W Phipps, who had good connections in both business and education, to discuss his hopes for this new body. The two men spent much time exploring every detail and new ideas were added as their enthusiasm grew. After several meetings together, Blakeman and Phipps had fine-tuned their own ideas, and decided that it was time to consult other selected individuals. Only then were their combined proposals ready to be committed to paper.
In May of that year, key proposals were put to the already-existing Northampton Boot Manufacturers’ Association, after which a general meeting of its members approved giving financial support to the fledgling organisation for three years. This positive response spurred Blakeman and Phipps to send a formal letter to the British government’s Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) on August 20th 1918, indicating what was happening in Northampton and requesting that a representative of the department come to a meeting as early as possible for a preliminary discussion on the way forward.
Becoming a national body
The DSIR was supportive of the idea, and a conference was held at the Northampton Technical School on September 24th 1918. The delegates to this event considered the value of establishing a research association for the boot, shoe, and leather trades in Northampton (which for centuries had been the centre of Britain’s footwear industry).
However, the DSIR, represented at the meeting by Sir Frank Heath and Mr A Abbott, was not prepared to accept the new organisation simply in its proposed form, and they outlined a number of important conditions that had to be met before governmental support could be given. As an example, the proposed research association was not to be confined to a specific region, but had to be national in its scope. In addition, while it could deal with leather within the production of footwear, a separate body was to be established to assist with leather manufacture. Existing buildings were to be utilised, with laboratories located close to the factories, and the best staff members possible had to be employed.
Another condition laid down by the DSIR was that the title ‘British’ should be used instead of ‘Northampton’ in the name of the organisation, and that contributions from industry should be provided for at least three years. Sir Frank also suggested that if a minimum of £1,000 in contributions could be guaranteed, the DSIR would contribute pound for pound up to a maximum of £1,500.
Plans for the association were coming together very quickly, and at a meeting on November 1st 1918 – ten days before the end of the ‘Great War’ – a resolution was passed that the name of the body was to be the ‘British Boot, Shoe and Allied Trades Research Association’. The general purposes of the new body were to include the collecting, filing and circularising of technical information from British and foreign journals, the establishment of a central museum and library, the standardisation of measurements, and the testing and reporting on leathers and other materials. In addition, experience was to be pooled in order to devise the most up-to-date systems for work, costing and other statistical issues, new ideas regarding shoemaking systems and machines were to be tested, and problems arising with the use of leather in footwear manufacture investigated.
One week later, it was agreed that all members of the Northampton Boot Manufacturers’ Association would become members of the new organisation. John Blakeman was to act as chief executive and secretary, and W J Chater was to be chief assistant for a period of one year, at salaries of £200 and £100 respectively.
The Research Association becomes official
The first entry in the official minute book records the meeting of the association at the Northampton Technical School on April 14th 1919. The body’s solicitor reported that it had been duly incorporated on March 4th 1919. On May 26th 1919, the sub-committee accepted and registered the first 22 members, and a general meeting was held on the same day.
A new decade
In 1920, Blakeman wrote an article entitled ‘Scientific research in shoe manufacture – what has been done at the Northampton centre’ for the December 1920 issue of the Northamptonshire Journal of Commerce. The research association was beginning to sell itself, and its first technical publication, called ‘Experiments on the wearing of bottom stock materials by abrasion’ was published.
In May of the following year, the officers of the association decided that closer links with the London-based Boot Manufacturers’ Federation should be established. T A Roberts, editor of The Footwear Organiser, was then appointed as part-time secretary. Blakeman and Roberts achieved a level of publicity for the association, when they took a small stand at the footwear industry’s Shoe & Leather Fair. Visitors to this event are reported to have expressed considerable interest in the association’s work.
The final meeting to be held at the Northampton Technical School took place on January 17th 1922. It was unanimously resolved that the work already done by the research association had justified its formation, and that such work should be continued and developed.
Full-time director appointed
In June 1922, it was proposed that a full-time director be appointed and that the headquarters should relocate to 7 Tavistock Square, London – the offices of the Boot Manufacturers’ Federation.
More than 30 people applied for the position of director, with four being selected for interview. Harry Bradley DIC, ARCS, BSc was subsequently appointed and he started work on the first day of October 1922. While his leadership was meant to be ‘for a period of not less than two years’, it would actually last for more than four decades.
The early 1920s was a time of transition. During 1923, the association increased its membership significantly – particularly from the Leicester area. This boosted the association’s income, which helped to meet the costs of setting up new test laboratories. In the following year, premises for a new headquarters were secured in City Road, London EC1 and a small team was appointed to assist the director. As new equipment was purchased, the City Road premises gradually developed into a valuable research centre.
Then, in 1924, the association’s initial five-year funding arrangement with the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research came to an end. The DSIR was approached in an attempt to obtain further grants and the association was asked to prepare a report about its future work on behalf of the footwear industry. An investigation committee was then appointed by the DSIR to give consideration to the report and to review the work of the association. The outcome of this special investigation was favourable, and the DSIR offered grant aid for a further five years.
Specific research projects were given priority, including foot measurement and its application to the preparation of lasts and patterns. Work was also conducted to counteract the cracking of patent leather, which at the time was made with linseed oil. Other activities included investigations into the proper use of adhesive, metal tarnishing, the chemical analysis of welted insoles (especially the development of a qualitative test for excess acidity) and salt spue, with its possible link with incomplete chrome tannage.
Twelve scientific papers were published in the middle of the decade. These reported on a variety of shoemaking issues – foot measurement, lasting stresses, leather examination, a new apparatus for testing materials, the cracking of patent leather, the effects of perspiration, canvas fabrics, spue on vamps, cleaners, dressing and adhesives, and threads.
Growth in new members
By 1925, no fewer than 146 member companies had joined the association. These were mainly located in Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, London, Bristol, Norwich and Stafford.
The research programme for 1926 included such projects as mathematical enquiries on economy of cutting up shoe materials, stretching sheet materials to conform and water vapour transmission. During this same year, the number of member companies rose to 186. In order to work in larger and more convenient premises, the association’s laboratories were moved to 19 Bedford Square, London in 1927. Up to this point in time, the association had worked solely on behalf of British-based companies However, its scope was widened to admit members from British overseas dominions, and this led to a number of South African companies becoming members.
By the time 1929 arrived, the British Boot, Shoe and Allied Trades Research Association was well established, growing in size, extending its scientific knowledge, gaining respect from the footwear industry, and proving to be a very valuable entity benefiting shoemakers even in the furthest parts of the Empire. How, then, would it build on the previous ten years of progress? SATRA Bulletin will next explore the association’s activities in the 1930s.
How can we help?
SATRA will be marking the milestone of the organisation’s centenary in May 2019 with a number of special events. A commemorative publication will also be produced to highlight the progress made in the field of research and testing during the past 100 years.
This article was originally published on page 40 of the January 2019 issue of SATRA Bulletin.