Maybole Memories - Tacketty Boots
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By George Davidson    

Maybole was in the middle of a great agricultural area; there were great dairy herds throughout the county. I did not know at the time that the reason the great boot and shoe industry grew up around Maybole, was due to the great dairy herds.  When the cattle finished their useful working life they were slaughtered and the skins went into the making of leather goods, several shoe and boot factories grew up in the town. There was always a constant stench from the two tanneries in the town. They worked constantly curing the hides for the factories.  On occasion some of the boys made a foray into the forbidden areas behind the walls. We were appalled by the foul smelling conditions that the men had to work in.  For the most part, I never gave it much thought, other than the fact it smelled foul.

One day at school all of that changed.  A teacher came to announce that our class was making a visit to the largest boot and shoe factory in the town.

Lee’s factory had a programme of introducing third year pupils to the boot and shoe trade, it helped their recruitment drive. As far as most of the pupils were concerned, it was a free skive from the school for a whole afternoon.

It was as far as most of the pupils were concerned but not the staff.   The teacher and foreman at the factory had other ideas.  The factory was exciting and interesting, but the visit did not allow for any humour to be employed by any of the visiting pupils.  Any attempt at humour or the hint that we might be enjoying the visit was quickly squashed by every adult in the vicinity. There were many fascinating and what I thought very clever pieces of machinery.

Among them was a piece of equipment that put the great tacks on to the sole of the big army boots. I was to learn many years later that one of the biggest contracts the factory had was making boots for the Russian army. A neighbour of mine, Mr Frank Morrison, operating this big machine recognised me and spent a little time showing me his work, and told me how stressful it was keeping the pressure on the boot as it was filled with tacks.  Although it was a machine to make the work easier, it was still hard work and it require discipline and attention to get the tack on the right place on the sole.  I did not realise until later that this was a visit that was to help the factory to recruit new workers.  Some of my classmates did go into the factory and some stayed until it was finally burned down.

There was another factory in the down and I had several cousins and uncles who worked in that one.  I occasionally got a glimpse of the inside of this one when I went to visit some of my next of kin.  My family was large and like many at the time, hand- me-downs were the order of the day.  This meant that older siblings had their footwear taken from them at the end of one school term and they were resoled for the next younger offspring.  Unfortunately, the two siblings above me were both girls and going to school in girls shoes was not contemplated even by a family as poor as we were. 

So my mother had me take my older brothers boots to the back door of the factory and ask if a cousin could repair them with scrap pieces of leather.  I was pleasantly surprised to see some of the great work they did.  Once the repair and polishing was done, they were literally brand new.  I loved those brown leather boots, one pair of boots or shoes constantly repaired were often handed down from generations to generation in Maybole.  Many of my schoolmates grew up the same way.

Shortly after that, technology began to take its toll on the shoe industry.  Crepe rubber, a sinister foamy substance was introduced as the sole of shoes.  Crepe soles took the soul out of the boot and shoe industry. It looked fashionable but many a young school lad got a severe hiding for damaging his new crepe shoes playing football.  This new material did not take a full rough and tumble football match in the street.  The truth is they did not take the rigger of playground football either. The visit to Lees' factory introduced us to this great piece of twentieth century technology.  I was fascinated by the fact that the crepe sole was adhered to the shoe purely by applying heat and fiction.

 Very often, you would see a lad standing at the side with his new creps, when he was invited to take part in the game, he had to say no.  That lasted for a short while but once the ball came to his feet and he gently rolled it back and then took his sleeve to clean any marks off, he was gone.  All the way home was a clean up job in the hope that nobody would know that there was any damage that could not be explained with nice walking.  Crepe had another draw back.  The technique that was used to bond the first soles to the uppers did not last very long.  They were cheap but they were also a dangerous item to those who played football.  Many a skinned knee was the direct result of a sole coming loose at the wrong moment.  Many were the geniuses for repairing and fixing the flapping crepe sole.  I never found or saw one that worked very effectively.  The ideas included elastic bands, glue, difficult to come by, and sticky tape, the obvious and most useful - string.  Many a budding genius found his inspiration to be an inventor all because of crepe. I was not one of them.  It is amazing the dexterity that can be achieved by a ‘winger’ in full flight chasing an old worn tennis ball, attended not by one flying sole but two.  Many a deft goal has been scored in the schools playground defying the laws of physics.

One of the first things I did when I started to earn money was buy a pair of leather shoes.  The stipulations were that they had to be slip-ons.  This was not so much a fashion desire as a practical way of avoiding the need to find shoelaces. I was born into a big family, right in the middle of the family; there were five siblings above me and five below me.  Counting me there was eleven brothers and sisters; to be more accurate there were five brothers and six sisters.  The wear and tear on shoes in those days was high.  People walked everywhere, or used bicycles if they had them, it meant the shoes were in contact with the road all the time, and some of the roads were not so even.  It became practice to take shoelaces out of shoes when you went to sleep, it did not guarantee the safety of the laces from predators but it helped.  There was a sense of peace knowing that you did not have to worry about shoelaces; that did not however protect the shoes.  The only safety was in the fact that the shoes were too small for an older brother.  It was surprising how two sizes on paper could be erased by a little brut force.  Many a dance was attended on shoes that did not match in colour or sizes.  I loved the excuses that were offered after the event." I didn’t notice they were yours. They looked the same as mine” 

They were most likely a different colour but that only highlighted the futility of seeing anything but humour in the situation. Many a budding Fred Astaire practiced his art in well worn tacketty boots.

I never did go to work in the shoe and boot factory.   Although to this present day I prefer leather shoes to any other kind.


Story by George Davidson
See also George's story about The Inspector
and another story entitled
The Music Teacher

Shown at left are George and Meryl Davidson.