MEMORY LANE: A Keighley pioneer who took steps to protect the leather of his shoes

Robin Longbottom explains how a cobbler had an idea that turned into a thriving business

About a GENERATION ago – before the emergence of composition molded shoes, boots and sneakers – most shoes and boots had leather soles.

The leather soles wore out regularly and required frequent visits to the shoemaker for repair. However, to give them a longer life, small metal plates with spikes were often hammered into the sole – or the heel – to give the leather extra protection. These metal plates were commonly called “segs”.

Now bygone, segs could be purchased in various shapes and sizes from cobblers, hardware stores and large retailers such as Woolworths. There was even a range of ladies’ shoes, promoted under the name Fairy Segs.

The idea for the segs came to a cobbler called John Blakey who, on returning home from a walk, noticed that a piece of metal had been embedded in the sole of his boot and protected the leather from wear and tear. From this observation, he got the idea to make a small metal plate that could be easily hammered into a boot or shoe and make the sole more durable. His patent described them as “segmented metal plate protectors for boots and shoes”, but eventually this rather cumbersome description was shortened to “segs”.

John Blakey was born in Keighley in 1841 and was the son of a shoemaker who had premises in Church Street. When his father died suddenly in 1857, John was only 16 and his younger brother, James, was 13. His mother, Elizabeth, took over the shoemaking business. With the help of her sons and as E Blakey & Co, she expanded the business in Keighley and eventually sent John to Leeds where he opened a branch of the company in Lady Lane.

In his father’s early days, shoes and boots were custom made and had to be made to order. For centuries they had been made on a single symmetrical shape and therefore had neither left nor right. The wearer had to press his feet into the new shoes and “break” them, molding the leather to the shape of his feet, an often long and painful process.

However, from the 1820s left and right lasts were introduced and shoemakers later adopted a production line process for shoemaking. A ‘clicker’ cut the leather for the upper and sole, a ‘sciver’ thinned the seams of the leather, a ‘seatsman’ or ‘closer’ sewed the uppers together and a ‘benchman’ pegged and nailed the soles.

Elizabeth Blakey was a very capable businesswoman and embraced the new production system. By the end of the 1860s E Blakey & Co of Keighley and Leeds employed between 500 and 600 workers and could advertise that they could “supply merchants and exporters with BOOTS, SHOES AND LEGGINGS as well as any home Trade”.

When Elizabeth tragically died in a fire at her South Street home in Keighley in 1874, the business was moved to Leeds and it was there that John had the idea to manufacture ‘segs’.

Although he continued to make boots and shoes, the demand for Blakey’s segments became such that he began to focus more on producing them. At the time of his death in 1902 he was described first and foremost as a “boot protector merchant” and then as a “boot and shoe maker“.

The business continued after his death and moved to new larger premises in Armley. At its peak, it exported segs and shoe guards to over 100 countries and is said to have produced over 230 tons a year.

The Armley factory closed in 2014 but successors still produce rings today, although mainly for the export market.

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