The birth of the slipper industry

Rossendale’s industrial growth started around 1785 with the development of the woollen industry that developed further into the cotton industry. The close proximity to the port of Liverpool, quality of water and skilled work force were key factors that allowed the cotton industry to thrive.

–     Building the mills

  • 1830 – 1839                11 mills built
  • 1840 – 1849                20 mills built
  • 1850 – 1859                45 mills built
  • 1860 – 1867                18 mills built

The impact of the 1860’s cotton famine saw the beginning of the end and by 1879 it was the end of the ‘golden years’. Of the 100 mills built during the boom years only 6 smaller mills were working full time, 35 mills had closed and the rest were on short time.

As the cotton industry declined the felt industry came to the valley. The 1860 cotton famine was the trigger that saw the decline in the cotton industry. So serious was the slump that by 1882 many employees were either leaving the valley or finding employment in the emerging footwear industry. In 1854 Edward Rostron bought Myrtle Grove Works in Cloughfold and started production. This industry would provide the materials and pioneers that would soon take slippers into mass production. Warehouse men would cover their feet / clogs with scrap felt to talk onto the printed materials to match the patterns and this practice was the opportunity for block printers / entrepreneurs to start slipper production.

The earliest documented link to the footwear industry in Rossendale is a booklet written for a presentation by W Hardman – The History of Waterfoot (published 1921). In this he mentions ‘Slipper Hall’ that made slipper from fur and rabbit skins, a cottage type industry but probably not what we would identify as the birth of the footwear industry.

The birth of the footwear industry is attributed to two men, Samuel McLerie and John William Rothwell who in 1893 both wrote letters to the paper claiming they were the first!

1859 Mrs Hannah Wylie – sister of Samuel McLerie made slippers at home for friends / relatives. She had worked for busy print works Busby Scotland were she saw people make crude slippers out of spare materials. Samuel McLerie helped her at home in Millar Barn Lane making slippers for friends and relatives. In 1866 they moved to Rossendale and Samuel and became a foreman at Henry Rothwell’s felt works at Bridge End Mill (destroyed by fire in 1911 and now the site of Waterfoot Health Centre).

In 1862 John William Rothwell was a block printer at Edward Rostron’s Mrytle Grove Grove so would have also seen the crude slipper the warehouse men would wear. Being an entrepreneur in 1874 he acquired felt remnants and some saddle felt and started to make slippers at his home Holts Buildings in Millar Barn Lane Waterfoot. His first order in 1874 was to a one armed market trader Mr Thomas Fielding, Oak St, Manchester for his stall on Shudehill Market, the order was for 6 dozen pairs at 9 pence per pair, this was the first commercial order. Having established a market for slipper in 1875 Rothwell approached Messer’s Ormerod Spencer & William Clegg together with 4 assistants (2 sisters Mrs Walmsley, Mrs Coupe, Mrs Mitchell and Miss Maxwell) they worked in the upper floor of a build that once stood where the toilets were in Waterfoot and is now a little garden area. The venture only lasted 2 months and Mr Rothwell returned to making slippers in his home.

The failure of Henry Rothwell’s felt business in 1876 put an end to easy access fo J W Rothwell, it also resulted in Samuel McLerie losing his job. McLerie decided to take over Holt Mill a disused cotton mill in Waterfoot and start slipper production. While McLerie had a stable business Rothwell continued to move from one venture into another. In 1870 he formed a partnership with James Gregory & Co (Gregory & Nuttall) and worked as a ‘traveller’, a sales man. Gregory & Co worked in cottages in Whitwell Bottom and had the first ‘factory’ with power driven machinery. Again his venture was short lived he stayed with Gregory for only a few months and then went working as a manager in Mitchell Brothers from 1882 - 1884. Eventually Mitchell Brother sold out to Mr James Hill and Messer Hoyle & Parker left the firm to start their own business at Shawclough mill and later Piercy Mill. When Rothwell left Gregory’s his position was filled by Henry Whittaker Trickett who would go on to be known as ‘the slipper king’. After two years with Mitchell Brothers Rothwell again moved on to help form and manage a new business Hirst Brooks. Later Rothwell tried again to run his own slipper business at Baltic Mill it failed and by 1888 was involved in a business in School St, Whitewell Bottom making clogs and slippers, business that was taken over as a bad debt by Lambert Howarth who he took to Bacup court for unfair dismissal and lost. Mr Rothwell was associated with 8 slipper businesses, he was not always successful and on one occasion was taken to court for non-payments.

Every 10 years adults are required to complete a census. In that document ask occupation, interestingly the 1881 census only shows 3 people employed in the carpet slipper profession; Samuel McLerie and his two sons, John & James, it is not clear what Mr Rothwell was doing at this time.

After two years as a traveller for Gregory & Sons Henry Whittaker Trickett aged 26 being highly motivated man of very humble origins with a natural flare for marketing and advertising decided to start a business that would be famous throughout the world ‘Tricketts’. In 1883 he rented a room in Carr Lane Mill, Coupe measuring 10yrds by 15yards and with two staff (some records state six) started to create an empire.

McLerie moved from Holts Mill to Grove Mill, Todmorden Road, Bacup in 1889 and was the first slipper business in Bacup. By 1890 McLerie was producing 5 – 6000 pairs per week using 20 sewing machines, 2 sole sewers and 4 circular presses.

In letters to the Rossendale Free Press in 1893 both Rothwell and McLerie fiercely claimed to be the first to produce slippers in Rossendale, maybe the question is too big. Personally I could agree that McLerie with his sister were making slippers at home before Rothwell, but Rothwell had the first commercial order. Whichever side you favour it is clear these pioneers certainly laid the foundations on which a great industry would be built.

The early slippers were crude, shapeless and not made to last. Using local materials felt uppers and saddle felt sole slippers were ‘something to put tired feet into’ rather than the slippers we know today. The industry was in its infancy but would rapidly expand introducing new materials and machinery that would allow better quality and more production.