In 1919, inside a little shack in Northamptonshire, a man called John White was stitching together a legacy. He was handcrafting the first pair of John White shoes, and the beginnings of a British boot-making empire.
From the very first pair, John White’s shoes were all labelled with KB. This mysterious emblem was only explained toward the end of his life. They stood for Keep Believing, and this had been John’s motto throughout.
Whatever adversity John White faced, the man and his shoes would find a way to persevere.
At 22, John already had a decade of experience in the cord waning trade. His meticulous attention to detail had helped him rise to the top of some of the best boot-making factories. He was determined to go further though: he wanted his own.
So in 1918, John gave up his job. He found a small derelict paint shop and converted it into a workshop. He bought enough leather for a batch of 500 uppers, and then sold them to Jimmy Hyde for 5/9d a pair. Within a year, enough uppers had been sold that in 1919, he had bought his first sole press. John White Shoes was born.
John White Shoes was founded in the midst of a post war depression – one that hit the shoe trade particularly hard. During his first appointment with a London buyer, John was shown a warehouse of unsold shoes and told to ‘come back in 6 years.’ John’s dream couldn’t wait that long though, so instead he sought out Darnells in Shoreditch. The department store buyers were so impressed with the shoes that they placed an order immediately. They went on to sell millions.
In 1920, a three-storey house on Church Street in Northampton became John’s first factory. There were clickers on the top floor, sewers and stitchers on the middle, and finishers on the ground. There was also a big room set aside for a team making shoes completely by hand. The company was soon selling 6,000 pairs a week.
In 1939, John White built his flagship factory. Based on Lime Street in Rushden, the front was emblazoned with ‘Impregnable Boots.’ Impregnable was apt, not only as the name of their most reputable Goodyear welted boots, but also because 1939 was the dawn of the second world war – during which John White would play a major role.
From rugged pairs made for commandos, to canvas boots for the royal navy and flying boots for RAF pilots; over 10% of all British forces were wearing John White shoes during the war.
During the war, John White’s Impregnable boots went from being the pinnacle of a well-dressed gentleman’s wardrobe, to the essential item in every British soldier’s kitbag. In total, John White produced over 8 million pairs for the allied forces.
Not content with his contribution, John also commissioned the construction of a Spitfire to aid the war effort. He called it Impregnable, and fittingly, survived the war unharmed despite shooting down several enemy aircraft.
Like their Spitfire, John White Shoes survived the war. Once again against a backdrop of adversity, the company would continue to flourish. Their reputation for excellent wartime shoes meant that there was soon demand in America and Canada, and soon they were exporting 400,000 pairs to America – 90% of all British shoe exports to the country. John White still produce the classic style English shoes as well as boat shoes and sneakers.
Northampton, United Kingdom
Goodyear welted, Blake