Shoemakers of Stornoway

A correspondent has kindly brought to my attention that I hadn’t looked at those practising the craft of Shoemaker in Stornoway. An initial search has produced the following numbers of shoemakers in each census:

1841 67
1851 103 (65 Heading households, 63%)
1861 70 (50 Heading households, 71%)
1871 80 (52 Heading households, 65%)
1881 64 (47 Heading households, 73%)
1891 46 (31 Heading households, 67%)
1901 40 (28 Heading households, 70%)

Firstly, we see an overall pattern of reduction in the number of shoemakers which appears counter-inuitive to the town’s growth during this period. In the 50 years 1851-1901 the population of the Parish of Stornoway grew from about 8,500 to 14,500 people which gives an impression of the rate of expansion.

I decided to add the second figure to show the number of households where the ‘Head’ had the occupation of Shoemaker to see if it might supply any useful information. I was surprised to see that, ranging from 63%-73%, the ratio remained remarkably consistent at roughly two-thirds of the total. This gives me extra confidence that the decline in numbers is fairly accurately displayed by the figures. If we bear in mind that the 1841 census often only recorded the occupation of the Head of the household (with a scattering of some of the other occupants) then the figure of 67 shoemakers in that year can be taken a s a good approximation to the number of households headed by a shoemaker.

Taking this figure, we see the pattern 67,65,50,52,47,31,28 for these shoemaking Heads of household.

What led to this accelerating decline at a time when the number of pairs of feet in need of shodding was increasing? It possibly reflects changes in the overall economic life of the Parish, with more emphasis on the town itself as the place where goods were exchanged and hence with a move from local providers (the ‘corner cobbler’!) to more centralised shops. This, perhaps accompanied by competition from imports, would lead to an inevitable decline in those able to compete to provide shoes and hence the halving in the numbers during this 60-year period.
This is pure conjecture, there would no doubt be other factors at play, but it seems to me that this particular occupational group is providing us with potentially useful and interesting insights into urban growth and change in Stornoway in the second-half of the 19thC and I am extremely grateful to the correspondent for bringing its neglect on my part to my attention.

Note: Please do contact me regarding this piece (or any other occupations that I should perhaps peruse) for I am, as always, treading on unfamiliar territory here and all assistance is very much appreciated!


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