It was well documented among the penal colony population that boots and shoes wore out quickly due to the harsh conditions. From 1790 convict shoemakers made large quantities of footwear from imported leathers. Problems of mass production were hampered because of the lack of raw materials. Local cattle hides were not strong enough for soling, although kangaroo skins were successfully treated for uppers in 1805. Australian convicts were rarely issued socks and their prison issue shoes were straight lasted. Part of their penance was having to break in their shoes.
Convicts who were by trade shoe makers (Snobs) could not keep up with the demand and made shoes for private commission as well as for fellow inmates. Many continued in their trade once released from prison and quickly established themselves as saddlers and leather tradesmen. In the 1828 census the outback had one shoemaker for every 236 inhabitants. Western Australia became a penal colony much later and received a small numbers of juvenile offenders from 1842. It was not formally constituted as a penal colony until 1849.
Convicts were taught to make boots and shoes in the West Australian prisons with many taking their trade to the towns and bush on release. Convict transportation to WA stopped in 1868.
At first Australian made shoe were expensive and most settlers continued to send to England for their shoes well into the 1830s. A decade later, Australian shoe making had improved and outback boot makers were making quality hard wearing boots for rural Australians.
It was common practice among the early Scots and Irish immigrants to go bare foot; this was by choice and not borne through adversity. However, by the 1830s it had become a mark of deprivation in the eastern colonies to be without footwear. Settlers in the more tropical climates started to dress for the conditions and men in Brisbane abandoned shoes for sandals and the more middle class wore plaited leather shoes for ventilation. The absence of shoe makers in Perth Western Australia in the early 19th century is apparent by this letter sent to England from a lady in Perth, Western Australia (1830):
“many respectable females with their children are going - barefoot - not a shoe maker can be got to work."
Absence of shoemakers and money to buy shoes meant many Australians went barefoot. Shoe mending (cobbling) fell mainly on women in Australian towns and country areas.
New comers to the colonies were often met with a stare because they sported the latest European fashions. In the eighteenth century Top boots were all the rage in London but had little practical use in Australia. New arrivals immediately acquired the bush dress of rough clothes and equivalent manners. New comers to the colonies were often met with a stare and cries of derision because they sported the latest European fashions. In the eighteenth century Top boots were all the rage in London but had little practical use in Australia. New arrivals immediately acquired the bush dress of rough clothes and equivalent manners.
The clothes worn by working people were usually ready made in heavier materials with women's clothes made of softer fabrics. Rural dress was more practical and governed by shortages. Australian men traditionally wore something special on Sundays. Children wore cast offs or adult style clothes made to smaller sizes. The working class bought their shoes at the slop shops which catered for the cheap and cheerful.
Towards the end of the 19th century, middle-class Australian women became preoccupied with fashion and the new urban bourgeois shopped at the new stores in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. They employed agents in Europe and Britain to conduct their import business.
John Lobb trained as a bootmaker in London before moving to Australia to try his luck in the goldfields. Whilst he never found fortune in gold he did strike on the idea of making hollow heeled boots for prospectors to hide their gold. The idea caught on and Lobb set himself up in business in Sydney in 1858. When the Great Exhibition came along in 1862 he sent a pair of his boots along and won a gold medal for their quality. Twelve months later he sent a pair of his riding boots to the Prince of Wales and was awarded a Royal Warrant. He returned to London and established a business " John Lobb, Bootmaker" which continues to trade as the world's most famous bespoke shoemaking establishment.
Besides European influences the effect of American styles on colonial woman's fashion was profound. None more so than the high quality shoes available around about 1890. By 1894 the American shoes had replaced British footwear in the Australian Market. The mass production stateside made them cheaper but also the range of styles and leathers were much bigger. There was an American Shoe Company in George Street Sydney selling modish forms of footwear.
Australian footwear industry in the mid nineteenth century faced similar problems to clothing manufacturing. Colonial made boots and shoes commanded the local market in New South Wales from 1840-1852. The period also recorded high productivity in South Australia and shoemakers were able to provide much of the footwear for the local market. Adelaide had four tanneries in full production in 1843, and colonial articles were reputedly preferred to import ones.
The British manufacturers made a deliberate attempt to capture Australian trade by flooding the market. Low manufacturing costs and mechanisation meant the UK could produce footwear at low prices even with high transport costs. These imported shoes were not always suited to the climate. Often the leather would become mildewed on the outward journey. Colonial made boots and shoes commanded the local market in New South Wales from 1840-1852. The period also recorded high productivity in South Australia and shoemakers were able to provide much of the footwear for the local market. Adelaide had four tanneries in full production in 1843.
Local manufactures alleged the colonial boots were longer lasting. An Australian made working boot would last on average one calendar month whereas the English slops were doomed by two to three weeks. Australian made footwear was more expensive than the cheaper imports. By the end of the 1850s prices women's boots cost between 3/6 to 7/- for British boots; whereas the colonial made equivalent cost 12/6. The decade between 1850 & 1860 saw a decline in the footwear industry in New South Wales due to high wage claims caused by the gold rush. Boot makers' wages had doubled between 1840 and 1860. By 1870 Sydney boot makers were producing 15,000 pairs of boots each week.
Once mechanisation was established bootmakers could cater for the neglected market of children's shoes (although Clarks of England had been exporting children’s shoes to Australia since 1842). Shoes were made for men and children rather than women. Boot and shoemaking was one of the most successful of the garment industries because the product was produced to be profitable, hard wearing and practical items. By 1890s the Melbourne manufacturers had converted to a modern system of mechanisation. Concentration of practical footwear meant the fashionable imports remained popular with consumers.
A home grown fashion industry tried to establish itself and a Melbourne firm responded by producing shoes made from kangaroo skins. The Kangaratta was popular partly because kangaroo skin looks like superior glace kid. Unfortunately, by the mid-1890s the US had captured the Australian market.
In 1858 new technologies had been introduced in the States which completely revolutionized the manufacture of mass produced boots and shoes. At first these were poor quality and scarcely lasted more than 12 days but eventually quality improved. American manufacturers over produced for their domestic market and became a major exporter during the late 19th and early 20th century. A spike came with the Gold Rushes (US 1848- 1855; and Aus 1850s - 1890s). During this time the population of Australia quadrupled and the Australian market continued to be flooded with cheap US imports. Australian manufacturers found it difficult to compete until tariffs were introduced then they started producing their own footwear. The effect of American styles on colonial woman's fashion was profound and by 1894 the American shoes had replaced British footwear in the Australian Market.
Making shoes is a complex business involving many subsidiaries and footwear operations sprung up in many metropolitan areas across Australia including: Ballarat, Geelong, Goulburn, Hobart, Perth and Adelaide. By the beginning of the 20th century good quality leather was abundant and many new Australian companies started making quality boots for farmers. The onset of World War, meant Australian boot makers went into war production mode, manufacturing footwear for the Australian military. Many of these companies have survived producing quality footwear for mountaineering and industrial needs. The First World War saw a massive demand for Australian footwear and by the 20s there were large Australian footwear companies with many hundreds of employees.
During the Depression these firms went to the wall and in their wake came smaller boutique companies who thrived due to demand of an increasing population and the Second World War. By the 60s the entire Australian economy was expanding, fuelled by large scale immigration and technical and scientific innovation, as well as the increasing availability of raw materials after protracted wartime shortages. As the 80s and 90s approached there was a marked decline in Australian produced footwear and more dependency on imports from Asia. Currently local manufacturers produce about 12% of the footwear purchased in Australia with much of the production now done off shore.
Maynard M 1994 Fashioned from Penury: dress as cultural practice in colonial Australia Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Michell L 1997 Stepping out: three centuries of shoes Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing
Hyde Park Barracks Museum