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Transcribed from feature “Romance of Industry” – The Coles Group - in Mercury & Herald, 14 February, 1958


Famed throughout the footwear trade the world over, the Coles Group, which comprises eight factories in the Burton Latimer area and one in Jamaica, manufactures boots and shoes of the highest quality.

The parent company, the Coles Boot Co Ltd, has been established for exactly 50 years, but it was in the years following the second World War that the big expansion of the business, with the absorption of other companies in the district, took place.

Staff and employees of the group now number more than 1,000.  Total production is about 30,000 pairs a week.

The story of the Coles’ venture has its beginnings in 1908 when three young Burton Latimer men, two of whom already had their own boot and shoe business, decided to interest themselves in a new company.

They were J Wallace Coles and Mr Henry Whitney and Mr Joseph Westley, who founded Messrs Whitney and Westley in 1896, a company which has since been absorbed by the Coles group.

Mr Coles, who was well-known as an elocutionist and Shakespearean actor, had gained experience of the footwear trade as a representative of a Kettering boot and shoe firm.

Thus, joining up with his two boyhood friends, he formed the Coles Boot Co Ltd on the same site, then an orchard, on which now stands the present factory and main offices of the ground, in Newman Street, Burton Latimer.

Never looked back

Expansion came quickly.  Factory space was soon added and more employees taken on, and within two years of formation the production capacity had doubled.

At least 2,500 pairs of boots and shoes were being turned out weekly in 1908, a figure which grew swiftly.

Came the 1914-18 war, and the factory was taken over by the Government, and boots for the British and Russian armies were manufactured.  In addition, during these war years the company re-conditioned many thousands of pairs of shoes worn in munition factories  - shoes which were heavily contaminated from explosives – and this helped to conserve valuable leather.

Following the war came the industrial slump of the 20’s, but, happily, Coles’ weathered those difficult times as well as any other company.

It was in 1935 that the turning point in the history of the company arrived when the directors with considerable foresight, pioneered fashion in men’s footwear – something hitherto unknown.

Quick Expansion

“Since then we have never looked back,” said managing director of the group, Mr E Keith Coles.

The initial fashion was pointed toes in black patent incorporating reptile decorations.  These soon caught the imagination of the male public, and other designs followed.

In 1938 the capacity of the factory was further greatly increased when it was decided to manufacture women’shoes.

During the 1939-45 war the Government again requisitioned the factory and boots were made for all three Services.  A major contribution by the company to the war effort was the pioneering of designs for the commando boot.

At the end of hostilities, the Coles Group immediately began to absorb other companies.  First to come under its wing were Messrs Buckby Bros, which was then re-named E K Coles (Burton Latimer) Ltd.

Others followed in quick succession, and the total output of the group consequently increased rapidly.

At least one-third of the group’s goods now go to overseas customers.  The USA is top of the list of the export countries, followed by Canada, the West Indies, New Zealand, Australia, Africa and others.

And the future?  Is there likely to be any further expansion of the group?  Mr Coles is optimistic – but with certain reservations.  He said: “Expansion must be kept within the general framework of the Government’s economic policy.

“Personally, I am greatly in favour of branching out into the British Empire and providing more opportunities for our own peoples.  Hence our venture in Jamaica.”

Mr Coles, a native of Kettering and the son of Mr J Wallace Coles, joined the company as a young man.  He took over the position of managing director when his father died in 1937.

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