End of the road at Lawson Street

When Standard Engineering took over Whitfield Wylie back in 1999 and moved production to Lawson Street in Kettering we became part of a manufacturing lineage which reached back for well over a hundred years.  The Whitfield factory, located in a residential street, was an enormous site, which, in its heyday was home to a couple of hundred employees.  By the time I’d joined the company back in 1997 this had dwindled to about 30, even though Whitfield had just acquired a couple of additional companies and re-titled itself Whitfield, Summers and Brierley Ltd from Whitfield, Hodgson & Brough Ltd.  We just called it "Whitfields" for ease!

Kettering, in keeping with a lot of towns in Northamptonshire had rapidly grown during the latter half of the 19th Century as first the railways and then the shoe trade made themselves at home.  The boot trade changed Kettering from a collection of half dozen streets clustered around the Parish Church in the 1830’s to a large, bustling town of over 30,000 people by the end of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1901.  The majority of adults were either engaged directly or indirectly within the shoe making trade.  Almost all of the terraced housing in Kettering dates between 1885 and 1895, which has the knock on effect of a lot of car unfriendly, narrow roads!

The shoe trade continued in Kettering well into the 1970’s.  There was a shoe making factory on most streets, populated by the people living in the houses all around it.  My father rolled out of the house at 7.00AM, walked 10 yards across the road and punched in for another day’s work.  My mother, once we’d all been bundled off to school, took in “outwork” upper stitching which could still be done by hand.  The stone shed in our back yard came complete with shoe making tools and lasts, just like everyone else’s back yards.

Of course, as we all know, the time of British pre-eminence in footwear was soon to come to an end.  Soon the BSC, Walkers, Co-op Protective Society, Mobbs, Freeman, Dolcis and Timpson factories were falling silent for the last time.  A generation of men without work until the town got back on its feet again. 

Other shoemakers such as Loake, Ken Halls and, until recently, Griggs have managed to survive.  Alongside them the firm of Whitfield Wylie, who supplied some of the shoe making equipment, but exploited their shoe repairing equipment side, continued on.  A factory in a Kettering side street bucking the trend and carrying-on into the 21st Century.  In fact, the area around Lawson Street remained a hive of light and heavy engineering.  Across the road from Whitfield’s factory was the Charles Wicksteed factory, where they have been building park furniture and attractions for the best part of a century.  Around the corner is the Timson foundry and steelworks, which is still used by Standard Engineering to this day!

Back in 2005 the management of Standard Engineering decided that their huge, old, under-utilised factory was simply too large for their operation and moved the company to a proper, modern unit on the main industrial estate in the town.

The owner of the old building in Lawson Street has been trying in vain to sell the site for housing ever since.  A problem with this was the fact that the main office frontage had some sort of preservation order on it and most developers, desperate to build as many rabbit hutches per square foot, baulked at having to work around a properly constructed building. 

The site soon succumbed to the inevitable poor-quality graffiti and the obligatory Eastern European Hand Car Wash enterprise.  However, this all changed when the main building suffered a devastating fire last year.  Since then parts of the old factory have been demolished, and during the summer the old frontage was finally brought down and the site cleared. 

In due course the site will be renovated, and no doubt new, flimsily constructed “affordable” housing will spring up.  Within a few years few will remember that the old factory, with over a hundred years of history behind it, was ever there.  Another link with our industrial past will have been broken, and our town will be a little poorer for it.

Gary Lewis

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