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One hundred years of SATRA: the 1940s

Continuing our review of SATRA’s history by examining the organisation’s activities during the dark days of World War II, and its growth after peace was restored.

by Stuart Morgan

The 1940s began with the world in the grip of what would become the costliest war in history. As the British Boot, Shoe and Allied Trades Research Association (the forerunner of SATRA) grew in size, its headquarters at 19 Bedford Square, London WC1 became ever more cramped. Better premises were actively being sought when the war played a hand – the laboratories were badly damaged by a German bomb in 1940, which made them unusable. A search for evacuation premises unearthed excellent facilities in Kettering, and the local authorities acted promptly to enable a swift transfer to occur.

The October 1940 issue of Bulletin carried the following front-page announcement: ‘Members will not be surprised to hear that for some time it has been becoming increasingly obvious that to carry on the association’s work efficiently at the London headquarters would be very difficult, if not impossible, during the coming months, and accordingly, efforts have been made in several directions to try to find suitable alternative accommodation. It is now, with very much pleasure, that the announcement can be made that, by the generosity and helpfulness of the Northampton County Education Authorities, the association has been accommodated in the County School of Boot and Shoe Manufacture, Kettering’.

Not a computer in sight – a 1941 photograph of the association’s testing laboratory in the Kettering School of Boot and Shoe Manufacture

While some equipment remained in London, the scale of research work was initially reduced. The association’s services and expertise were offered to the government, and many military boot leathers, leatherboards and lasts were examined in its laboratories. In June 1941, the lease on 19 Bedford Square was terminated after all the equipment had been transferred to Kettering. The Boot and Shoe School could not store everything that arrived, so some of the equipment was stored at the Charles East Ltd shoe factory in Lower Street, Kettering – an establishment which was demolished in about 1959.

According to long-serving employee Leslie Huggett, it was quite a relief to get away from London and the bombings. Apart from the danger to life, being located in the capital was very disruptive – it would sometimes take him hours to get into work, because the trains would have to stop if there was an air raid. Just before SATRA moved to Kettering, Leslie travelled to Northamptonshire to help find accommodation for the staff members who were moving up from London.

“I was told when I arrived that there was no hope of me finding accommodation in Kettering, so I got the bus out to Rothwell and had a look in the surrounding villages,” he recalled. “I decided to walk back and, as I was coming through the local countryside wearing a smart suit and carrying a map, I was questioned near Loddington by an elderly gentleman. He went away and soon a policeman appeared to check my credentials. Apparently, the elderly gentleman – who I was later told was the owner of Loddington Hall – had got suspicious and feared that I might have been a German spy dropped by parachute. I quickly managed to convince the policeman that I wasn’t a spy.”

Commenting on the work of SATRA at that time, Leslie said: “During the war, we worked flat out on military requirements. There was a large volume of work coming in and a shortage of staff.”

Planning for the future

Despite day-to-day pressures caused by the conflict and so much of the British footwear industry’s output being dedicated to the war effort, the association did not lose sight of the importance of avoiding a blinkered view of advancements within the shoemaking world. In October 1940, an editorial in Bulletin stated: ‘At a time like the present, when our own industry at home is so fully occupied with war conditions, it is particularly necessary to keep a careful watch on the corresponding industries in other countries which, not being so occupied, are in a position to devote attention to advancements, improvements and novelties which will give them a long lead in the world’s markets when peacetime comes again. Examples come to everyone’s mind from experiences after the last war, and it is desirable to do everything possible to prevent a recurrence and to guard British industry from post-war handicaps due to present preoccupations’.

The article continued: ‘Friends in America recently sent a large page advertisement taken from the daily press, put out by Saks of New York, boosting transparent shoes made from the new plastic which they called ‘Glastique’, said to be as transparent as glass and to stretch like elastic. Earlier notices of this transparent shoe material previously observed seemed to imply that it was merely a fancy novelty, but now the signs are that it is making some headway. What its future may be it is, of course, impossible to say, but in any case, this is an instance of the enterprise and pushfulness mentioned above which may have far-reaching consequences and ultimately benefits for those with the initiative. As a gentle pat on our own back, we might perhaps be permitted to remark that it affords one more instance of the soundness of instinct which many years ago put forward plastics as a subject which should hold a place in a footwear research programme’.

Cooperation with government ministries

In addition to assisting member companies trying to produce good quality footwear for domestic use under difficult circumstances, the association’s work on behalf of various government ministries continued throughout the war. At the time, there were 17 members of staff, two of whom were on active service with another two seconded to government ministries.

It is no surprise to read of the issues facing the association’s members in the 1940s, with advice being published in Bulletin on such topics as ‘material shortages’, ‘the utilisation of leather waste’, ‘army boots in hot climates’, ‘upper pattern economy’, ‘renovation of abrasive cloths’, ‘sole leather shortage’ and ‘reconditioning worn boots and shoes’.

No magazine in May 1941

Members did not receive their May 1941 copy of the association’s Monthly Bulletin through the post. Why not? An explanation was given in the July issue, which said: ‘During May the premises of our printers in London were completely destroyed by enemy action and, naturally, there followed a period of confusion regarding the work at hand. This state of affairs was not learnt in this office in time for alternative arrangements to be made and although our printers, working under great difficulties, made every effort, the publication of a Bulletin during May had to be abandoned’.

Governmental acknowledgement

In the summer of 1943, the importance of research – including that into the design and manufacture of boots and shoes – was becoming more widely recognised in Britain. Speaking in the House of Commons, the government’s financial secretary to the Treasury, said: “I should like to say a special word with regard to research. There is no matter on which the whole future of industry depends more than industrial research, and any taxation which mitigates against that certainty ought to be reviewed.”

He continued: “There are something like 24 associations of this kind in the country. I should feel very much happier if the total amount of contributions paid to such associations was very much higher than it is.”

A lead article in the June 19th 1943 issue of the London Times drew attention to an increasing recognition of the value of research. It said, in part: ‘In war, Britain has learned that to neglect science is to court disaster. Before the war, scientific research was far too commonly regarded as an activity remote from life, the practitioners of which could not be expected to make important contributions to solving the country’s manifold industrial, social and human problems. Too little public or private money was spent on research.’

The comment concluded: ‘The neglect of the scientist and technician which was tolerated before the war will be as intolerable in the future as it would be now (during war). The nation needs more science, in peace and in war, and it must be prepared to pay for it’.

In 1944, research work investigated the use of scrap materials and the development of a quality specification for rubber solings. In the spring of the following year, the director of research joined a trade mission sailing to the USA. However, the trip was interrupted by what was mysteriously described as ‘a torpedo accident’ off the Kent coast, and the visit was abandoned. When World War II ended in 1945, the government’s Department of Scientific and Industrial Research awarded funds to the association for one year.

After the war

Realising that the Kettering Boot and Shoe School would again need the full use of its facilities, a search was made for a new home to be occupied when the war finally came to an end. Northampton, Leicester, Kettering and London were all considered, with the final decision being to stay in Kettering.

A property in Rockingham Road, Kettering – called ‘Avenue House’ – was purchased in 1946 and converted to meet the association’s needs at a total cost of £17,500. This fine Victorian building had been the home of Kettering Furnace Company owner Henry Preston between 1913 and his death in 1921, after which it housed various tenants before being requisitioned by the War Office as a clothing distribution store and Home Guard centre.

Avenue House in Kettering was purchased in 1946, converted for scientific use and renamed SATRA House

Filming a subject’s walking gait in 1947

The move into the new headquarters took place on New Year’s Day 1947 and the building was renamed ‘SATRA House’. From that time on, the association was generally referred to as ‘SATRA’. In June of that year, construction began on new buildings on the Avenue House site, although this was inevitably affected by the post-war shortage of building materials. ‘Angus House’ in the Headlands, Kettering, was also used as a temporary residential hostel for married SATRA staff. When the area was hit by power cuts during the cold winter of 1947, work was done by candlelight in the conditioning room.

Research programmes at that time delved into fit, gait, lasts, dust and perspiration, in addition to exploring new areas such as colour fastness testing and the use of synthetic fibres in linings.

HRH The Duke of Gloucester (on right) with SATRA director Harry Bradley during the October 1949 Royal visit

By 1948, the number of employees had increased to 55. New laboratories – known to the staff as the ‘Gloucester Block’ – were opened on October 28th 1949 by HRH the Duke of Gloucester. During an ‘open week’ that followed, some 1,400 people visited SATRA House to see the new facilities. Costing £28,000 these laboratories were located in an E-shaped building with a total floor area of about 8,000 square feet.

The new facilities allowed for expanded chemical analysis, physical testing, adhesive evaluation, shoe fitting and lasts assessment, and rooms were also reserved for pattern cutting and last making. The opening of these laboratories and the appointing of extra staff were the first stages in the implementation of SATRA’s post-war policy. Membership gained strength as the Multiple Shoe Retailers’ Association, the Wholesale Distributors’ Federation, and the National Association of Cut Sole Manufacturers joined SATRA.

Despite four years of peace, the end of the decade found Britain facing the extreme challenge of rebuilding many of its cities and rationing a number of commodities to its population. When the 1950s finally arrived, providing the opportunity of a new future with hoped-for industrial growth, SATRA was ready to assist, as will be described in the next part of this series.

The photograph at the top of this article shows Leslie Huggett testing a pair of miner’s boots in 1947 .

How can we help?

SATRA will be marking the milestone of its centenary in May 2019 with a number of special events. A commemorative publication will also be produced to highlight the progress made in the field of research and testing during the past 100 years.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 40 of the March 2019 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

Other articles from this issue »