A good pair of boots was necessary in colonial days as people walked or rode horses. Imported boots cost about £1 in the 1850s (more than $100 in 2009 terms).
Individual bootmakers, many of whom had done cobbler’s apprenticeships before emigrating, set up small businesses to meet local needs. Some sold imported boots and shoes as well. An advertisement for M. Whitehead, Boot & Shoe Maker & Importer, who set up his business in Thames in 1868, promised ‘every description of men’s, women’s and children’s boots made to order, and orders by post promptly attended to’.1
Boot and shoe factories were set up in the 1870s. The government put a duty of one shilling a pair on imported boots from the 1860s, making them more expensive and therefore helping to encourage the local industry. But more boots were still imported than made locally – in 1880 about 500,000 compared with 280,000. New Zealand boots and shoes were generally rougher than imported ones, and were made for the lower end of the market.
Hannahs is New Zealand’s best-known footwear firm. Robert Hannah trained as a cobbler in Northern Ireland and opened a footwear shop in Wellington in 1870, and a factory shortly afterwards. By 1893 he had 10 shops and a factory employing more than 250 people. In the 2000s Hannahs had dozens of shops, but no longer made shoes in New Zealand.
By 1895 New Zealand had 65 boot and shoe factories, producing more than a million pairs annually. In 1910, 74 factories made 1.5 million pairs.
Men usually did the heavier work like cutting, while women made uppers and did thread work. Women made up about one-third of the workforce in many footwear factories in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They were paid from five to 25 shillings a week depending on the skill required of their job, compared with 25 to 55 shillings for men.
The heavy treadle sewing machines were difficult and dangerous to handle until the 1890s, when power-driven machines made work easier. Long periods of standing and the chemicals used in leather treatment and other processes were also detrimental to workers’ health, especially in overcrowded and badly ventilated factories. One factory inspector put the ‘rowdy behaviour’ of women bootmakers down to the fact that they worked with men in crowded workrooms.2
Import restriction and high tariffs
The government restricted footwear imports from 1938, and increased tariffs on imports to protect the local footwear industry.
Mass-market New Zealand footwear
Footwear factories flourished after the Second World War, and to the late 1980s about 95% of footwear sold in New Zealand was made locally. In the late 1970s New Zealand made about 8.25 million pairs of footwear a year. There were six footwear firms making more than 4,000 pairs a week, about 20 making more than 2,000 pairs, and another 20 making smaller quantities.
Gumboots and jandals
George Skellerup set up the Marathon Rubber Footwear company in Christchurch in 1939 to make canvas tennis shoes. The company made its first rubber gumboot in 1943. Its best known brand is Red Band – shorter, more rugged gumboots designed for New Zealand farmers. Skellerup also made jandals (rubber thongs), owning the trademark name Jandal for several decades.
Footwear tariff reduction
Import restrictions on footwear were removed in the late 1980s. Tariffs were lowered – to 10% by 2009, and due to be removed entirely by the mid-2010s. In 2008 more than 95% of the footwear sold in New Zealand was imported, mainly from China. Many local firms closed down or began to have their products made in Asia.
Niche footwear firms
Firms making boots and shoes in New Zealand in the 2000s were small and specialised. They included McKinlay’s, Paraflex, Bobux and Kumfs.
McKinlay’s, the largest footwear manufacturer making all of its product in New Zealand, began in Dunedin in 1879 and has remained in family ownership. In 2009 it was making high-quality (stitched, not glued) boots and shoes, and one-off pairs for those with foot injuries.
Paraflex, making safety footwear for those in heavy industry and the services, started in Christchurch in 1984.
Bobux makes leather infants’ shoes, and exports most of them. It started in 1991 when Chris Bennett designed shoes with an elastic ankle for his daughter. He also developed an eco-friendly leather tanning process.
‘Still made here’
In 2009 Sandy Cooper, who began women’s footwear firm Minnie Cooper in 1989, decided to promote the fact she made her boots and shoes in New Zealand when she realised she was one of the few to do so. She added the slogan ‘still made here’ to her advertisements. In her view customers were pleased to buy locally made products and were willing to pay a bit extra.
Kumfs was set up in the 1940s by podiatrists Mervyn Adams and David Robertson, who saw that many New Zealanders were having problems fitting European shoes made for narrow feet and decided to make wider shoes. Still family-owned and run, the firm had a factory in Māngere, Auckland, in 2009, but made most of its shoes in Asia.
Footwear industry association
The New Zealand Footwear Industry Association represents footwear manufacturers and suppliers.