At one time every large town and village was sure to have at least one shoemaker. They rarely made a lot of money, even though a pair of shoes often cost a weeks’ wages. History commenced with the early shoemakers guilds of Rome, quickly moving into the middle ages, when supple cordwain leathers were used (hence the term cordwainers).
Heels started to be made in the 1520s, although separate left and right shoes were not to appear for another 250 years. By mid 1800s iron lasts were invented and machines were introduced – in secret due to the threat to shoemakers’ livelihoods.
The early 1800s saw the introduction of rivets and piecework. Several shoemakers often worked together and many of them employed outworkers. Shoemakers wives, as described by census enumerators, were often shoemakers in their own right.
Over 80 different trades were listed for the First Fleet convicts, many of these were probably useful in shaping the new colony, but many trades were so specialised they were not able to be practiced here; they were not the trades required for the establishment of a new frontier settlement. However, those with the ability to repair and provide new footwear would have been popular.
First Fleeters’ listed as Shoemakers
Thomas Gearing, a shoemaker from East Oxford, delivered to the Alexander from the Ceres Hulk, died at sea on 6 June 1787.
George Legge, sentenced to seven years transportation at Dorchester, Dorset, embarked on Charlotte. In 1789 Legge was sent to Norfolk Island where by 1791 he was subsisting two persons on a two acre block. In December he was appointed to the night watch to patrol the Arthur’s Vale area. In January 1792 he was settled on twelve acres, then in September 1793 he was a constable at Little Cascade Stream. The following year ‘he told authorities he had the wherewithal for five years’, perhaps supplementing his income from his original trade as a shoemaker. Legge returned to Port Jackson and on 9 June 1807, he drowned in wild weather when the sailing boat he was travelling in overturned.
James Grace, was a boy of eleven years old when he was charged with breaking into a shop and stealing a pair of silk stockings and ten yards of silk ribbon in Oxford Street. He was sentenced at the Old Bailey to transportation for seven years for theft (but not breaking and entering). When he was discharged to the Friendship in 1787 he was recorded as 18 years, a shoemaker born in Middlesex. He was settled on Norfolk Island but died there in November 1793. There is no record of him practising as a shoemaker.
Richard McDale/McDeed, was involved with Robert Forrester in stealing six pieces of gold coin from a man who had shared a bed with both of them in lodgings in London. His death sentence was reprieved to seven years transportation. From the Dunkirk Hulk he was embarked on Friendship recorded as Dick McDeed, a shoemaker aged 28. He was sent by Sirius to Norfolk Island, where in July 1791, he had cleared 80 rods of a Sydney town lot and maintaining himself. There is no further record of him in either Norfolk Island or Port Jackson and no record working as a shoemaker.
James Murphy, was sentenced to death at Exeter on 11 August 1783 for a highway assault and theft. He was eventually sent to the Dunkirk Hulk and from there was discharged to the Friendship on 11 March 1787 where he was recorded as a shoemaker, 44 years old. From Port Jackson on 4 March 1790 he was sent to Norfolk Island on Sirius. He was living with Susanna Pigott (Lady Juliana), but died at Norfolk Island on 20 May 1804.
John Ayres, a shoemaker, was sentenced at the Old Bailey on 21 April 1784 for theft of some musical instruments in London. He was sent to the Censor Hulk, aged 17, then dispatched to Portsmouth and is recorded on the Scarborough by both Major Ross and William Richards the contractor, but does not appear in any further records.
George Clayton, was sentenced to transportation for seven years at the Old Bailey on 21 April 1784 for stealing linen from a clothes line. He said he had served his time as a shoemaker. Clayton was received on the Censor Hulk and later sent to Portsmouth for embarkation on Scarborough. At Sydney Cove he married Elizabeth Dudgeon (Friendship) on 24 April 1788. He appears to have left the colony, free by servitude, on the Admiral Barrington in January 1792. The ship met with mishap in Bombay and there is no record of the fate of the passengers.
None of the people listed on the First Fleet as shoemakers appears to have followed their trade on a full time basis. When did the first shoemakers start to practice their vital and necessary trade in the new settlement?
Article featured in the First Fleet Folio, April 2022
Trades of the First Fleet Convicts can be accessed on the web site
Gillen, Mollie, The Founders of Australia