Just outside Penzance next to the main A30 to Land’s End sits the town’s Tesco store, a squat ugly construction with zero architectural merit that at least fifty percent of the residents of the town spend far too much time in. The building is built on what, in fact, is a former marsh, drained as part of a scheme to improve railway access to the town, doing away with an unreliable wooden bridge that used to carry trains into Penzance station in the nineteenth century. This site was of course, not always a supermarket and until 1996 was the site of the notable, but equally ugly land mark, the Finn’s Shoes factory.
For many children in the area Finn’s Shoes played a part in our everyday lives providing us with school shoes that carried an “indestructible” reputation purchased in the Summer holidays in preparation for a long year of football, mud and inclement weather. Finn Shoes were a relatively well known brand and in fact were one of the first companies to use television advertising using the the rather optimistic slogan “Finn shoes, the fine shoes that kiddies love to wear, Finn shoes, the fine shoes that never need repair” . As a child it never occurred to me to ask why exactly Penzance had a shoe factory of this size? Why had a well known national company chosen my home town to operate out of?
The story begins in the 1950’s far away in the manufacturing heartlands of mid-lands, specifically Nuneaton. Finn Shoes seems to have been founded in the years prior to World War II but came to the fore between 1953 and 1956. A fascinating article in the Times dated 1956 describes the invention of a shoe for children designed to remove completely the need for shoe repairs. Extra tough rubber soles were “uniquely” fused to the chromium treated leather uppers, providing a tough durable shoe. Mr Finn added:
“The design of the soles reduces the risk of slipping on wet or shiny surfaces, and a light steel brace built into the shoe gives the necessary gentle support without damaging flexibility. We are confident that henceforth shoe-mending in terms of soling and heeling can become a thing of the past, though care will obviously be necessary to check the moment when the child is. in fact, growing out of his shoe”.
The inventor of these shoes, Mr SA Finn was said in the same article to be trialling these shoes with the help of an Orthopaedic surgeon and eighty boys from the Barnado children’s homes, who had received the footwear as part of a charitable donation.
By the 1960’s Finn Shoes were producing some 10,000 pairs of these shoes a week from it’s factory in Nuneaton. According to accounts provided by the British Board of Trade by the mid-sixties space in Nuneaton was limited and labour was hard to find, Finn’s needed to expand. Geoffrey Finn the managing director of the firm undertook what was a described as a “tour” to find a suitable place to build a new factory for the company and was met with “open arms” by the then Penzance Borough Council. Finn’s were provided a purpose built factory by the Board of Trade under the auspices of the “South West Development Area” an attempt to boost the economy of the area West of Bristol. The factory was around 10,000 square foot in size and included a factory shop were shoes could be sold to locals.
Employment in Cornwall is never a given and very soon the factory was a attractive destination for the job seeker in the area. Coupled with a mini migration of workers from the heartland of shoe manufacture, the factory started to have a significant financial benefit to the town.
By the 1970’s the Nuneaton branch of the company was sold off to “Ward White” an expanding manufacturing and retail empire who promised to enhance and maintain the Finn’s reputation. Ward White was partially made up of one of Finn’s Nuneaton shoe manufacturing rivals “George Ward Shoes” and at the time of the acquisition of Finn’s the combined company had over 300 people engaged in show production in Nuneaton alone. Ward White eventually was purchased by the Boots Retail group in the later 1990’s, nothing seems to have remained of the Finn’s brand at the time of merger, the business being entirely focussed on its flagship Halford’s business. These commercial exchanges made Penzance the sole manufacturing base for Finn Shoes proper.
Around the mid seventies the Penzance firm was churning out around 25,000 pairs of shoes a week. Meaning that around 1.3 million people a year were buying and wearing Finn’s shoes. The market was by no means limited to the UK and in fact African, Eastern European and Scandinavian nations all provided significant markets for the company. “Business” the magazine of the board of trade in the 1970’s reported “Finn Shoes export shoes extensively to all the Scandinavian countries and to many of the African states”.
Behind the facts and figures there were of course real people who worked for the Finn Shoes, one such worker was Richard Phelan, part of the Finn’s workforce in the mid-eighties. Richard started in the factory with the particularly mundane job of placing little bits of masking tape onto shoe parts moving onto other roles on the production line. “On one side a production line which did the basic putting together of the uppers and on the other side another one made of three rows that spanned round in an oval”. “There was a smaller version of this called the ‘rink’ which is were I worked”. Richard explained just exactly he did on the rink “I did all sorts of jobs on the rink but my primary role was tacking the insoles and supporting the skilled jobs”. “At the time I worked there it was a pretty pleasant place as factories go” explained Richard “pay was calculated by a combination of bonuses based on how much we produced each week and a basic wage, we always made our bonuses. It was easier to earn bonuses on the rink” he added “many of the other machines were worked particularly hard and broke down a great deal”. I asked Richard how much he remembered of the members of the Finn family who had founded the company and led the move to the town “At the time I worked there the main manager was the excellently named Micky Finn (Michael Finn a member of the Finn family) we saw very little of the rest of the bosses”.
The footwear industry began to change in the 1980’s with the demand for sports style shoes booming, leaving the traditional school shoe increasingly an anachronism. Some of Finn’s overseas markets also began to wane Eastern European nations increasingly opening up to Western Markets including the highly desirable world of the sports shoes and the blue jeans. During this period Finn Shoes applied for and got support to “restructure” from the Department of Trade and Industry in the late eighties a sure sign that the business was beginning to feel the financial pinch. Of course it was at this time that the deep recession of the later eighties came into being a recession that was acutely felt in the working communities of Britain, places where Finn’ shoes were a regular bought in preference to the more middle class brands such as Clarks.
By the mid 19990’s Tesco stores, who had been in a battle with the local authority for over a decade over the location of a new store to replace it’s town centre shop, bought the Finn’s factory site and in 1996 demolished the building making way for the unimaginative eyesore that we can see today. At the same time Finn’s made the move to a more modern facility in the nearby industrial area of Long Rock but this was to be a short lived move.
Financial pressures and changing fashions began to catch up with company and on August the 13th 1997 Lloyds Bank dealt a body blow to Finn Shoes from which it never recovered, calling in financial administrators Ernst & Young. 160 jobs were lost and Penzance was dealt a financial body blow. The closure of the factory became a cause célèbre for politicians of all colours, being cited as an example of the failure of economic policy in the Duchy especially by Cornish Nationalists. To the ordinary people of Penzance the closure of Finn’s became a symbol of the creeping financial malaise in area, the death of real jobs, the continued decline of opportunities to find decent employment.
I only ever owned one pair of Finn’s shoes hastily bought by my parents after my wanton destruction of my Clark’s shoes when I was about ten years old. I remember them being rather ugly and clumpy but practically Undestroyable. Nostalgia however leaves many people with fond memories of the Finn’ product and if they were a member of the workforce the camaraderie of working in the factory and the friends they made there.
Words by Simon Reed
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