Northampton is a town that has long been associated with shoe manufacturing – an industry immortalised not only in the nickname of the local football team, The Cobblers, but also in the 2005 film (and more recent musical) Kinky Boots. There was already a bustling local community dedicated to this trade by the medieval period, with the town’s Shoemakers Guild established in 1401, and production was boosted further during the Civil War thanks to a Cromwellian contract to make boots for the Parliamentarian army’s Irish campaign. By 1700, shoemaking was Northampton’s dominant industry, and by the 1830s it employed a third of the town’s male population, mainly working by hand in their homes or small workshops. The Victorian period heralded new technology and a shift to dedicated factories, and although the military demands of the First and Second World Wars would see another surge in demand, production declined from the 1950s in Northampton, faced with factory closures and the advent of cheaper synthetic materials. Today the town is still renowned particularly for making men’s footwear, however – and the town’s museum boasts the largest collection of shoes in the world, numbering around 15,000 pairs, with the earliest dating to 300 BC.
It should come as no surprise, then, that this shoemaking heritage has a starring role in Northampton Museum & Art Gallery’s new displays, which reopened this summer following a £6.7 million transformation that began in 2017. The project’s initial fundraising faced controversy when, in 2014, a 4,000-year-old ancient Egyptian statue in the museum’s collections was sold to an anonymous buyer, but the body responsible for Northampton Museums at the time, Northampton Borough Council, has since been replaced by West Northamptonshire Council.
The intervening years have seen dramatic physical changes to the site too: Northampton Museum & Art Gallery has occupied the east wing of what was the town’s Victorian jail since 1883, but the recent works have more than doubled its size, expanding into the west wing and creating a large subterranean space showcasing shoes ancient and modern. A new glass atrium links the original galleries (which explore the town’s history in two phases, spanning 4000 BC-AD 1675 – the date of the Great Fire of Northampton – and the post-fire recovery period to the present day) to new facilities and a new temporary exhibition space that currently hosts ‘We Are Northampton’, of which more below. The atrium preserves some of the original prison architecture, and includes information about this period of the site’s past: its inhabitants had been convicted of crimes ranging from the theft of a cabbage to murder, and during their internment they were set to a range of productive tasks, including making shoes. The site also witnessed executions until the jail’s final hanging in 1874 – perhaps fittingly, the condemned man was a shoemaker.
Below the airy atrium lie the museum’s new shoe galleries, displaying a colourful array of 372 shoes in themed cases. These range from high fashion to more functional footwear, and include both historical and very modern designs – as well as some iconic examples, such as the towering Doc Martens ‘worn’ by Elton John in the ‘Pinball Wizard’ sequence of the 1975 film Tommy, the white satin shoes worn by Queen Victoria on her wedding day, and a glittering red pair of heeled boots made for the Kinky Boots film. Not all the shoes on display were made for humans; there is also a canvas and leather boot created for an elephant to wear during an experimental expedition recreating Hannibal’s Alpine exploits. Large touchscreens in front of each case allow visitors to explore individual objects in greater detail, while other cases and videos, as well as a series of interactive displays, illuminate all aspects of the manufacturing process.
Within the new temporary exhibition gallery, ‘We Are Northampton’ explores the town’s heritage and its distinctive features today. Artefacts such as a shield boss from the Iron Age hillfort at Hunsbury trace the area’s occupation back into prehistory, long before the foundation of Anglo-Saxon Hamtun, while other key locations featured in the displays include Delapré Abbey (which saw the capture of Henry VI following the 1460 Battle of Northampton), here represented by a colourful 12th-century tile decorated with a griffin. We also learn about Northampton Castle, an important royal site that hosted the first parliament in 1131 and the trial of Thomas Becket in 1164, but which was partly demolished on the orders of Charles II for its Parliamentarian loyalties (its ruins were pulled down in 1879 to make way for the town’s railway station); and a local Queen Eleanor Cross, one of 12 erected by the grieving Edward I to mark each overnight stop of the funeral procession of his wife, Eleanor of Castile.
Modern landmarks get their due too – including the town’s stunning Art Deco Mount Baths, and the National Lift Tower, an unmistakeable part of the Northampton skyline, which is now Grade II-listed – while other displays highlight notable people associated with the town. These range from the comedian Alan Carr (born in Dorset but raised in Northampton; his father played for, and later managed, The Cobblers) to Walter Tull, one of England’s first black professional footballers, playing over 100 matches for Northampton before he was killed at the Second Battle of the Somme in 1918.
While the new temporary and permanent displays alike make for a nostalgic experience for modern residents, they also give an immersive insight into the town’s past for less familiar visitors. Shoemaking deservedly plays a major role in this heritage, but as these new displays vividly demonstrate, there is a much wider wealth of information about Northampton’s past and present to uncover.
ALL IMAGES: Northampton Museum & Art Gallery.
Northampton Museum & Art Gallery is open 10am-5pm Tuesday-Saturday, noon-5pm Sunday. Entry is free. For more information, see www.northamptonmuseums.com. ‘We Are Northampton’ runs until 16 January 2022.