11 April 2023

Bert Comerford (1915-2005),
a Northampton-born
trade unionist in the
boot and shoe industry

The former G Webb & Sons factory in Brockton Street, Northampton … three generations of the Comerford family worked in the shoe industry in Northampton

Patrick Comerford

Herbert (Bert) Comerford (1915-2005) was a leading trade unionist in Britain throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Northampton was the leading city in the shoemaking industry and Bert was the third generation in a family that worked in the shoe and boot industry in Northampton.

Northampton and the county have a long history of shoemaking, dating back to the 12th century, when Northampton was a busy market town with a street of cordwainers or shoemakers. Northampton’s Shoemakers’ Guild was established in 1401.

Thomas Fuller, the Northamptonshire historian and churchman, wrote in 1660 that ‘the town of Northampton may be said to stand chiefly on other men’s legs the most cheapest, if not the best, boots … in England are to be bought in Northampton.’ Daniel Defoe wrote in 1725 of ‘Shoes from Northampton for all, the poorest countrymen and the master.’

Bert Comerford was born in Northampton on 3 November 1915, a son of Herbert Comerford (1886-1970) and Mabel Louisa Lambourne (1891-1982).

It is possible that this branch of the Comerford family may be traced back to Peter Comerford (1720-1773), who was born in Ireland and moved to Brockley Hill, Edgeware, in the mid-18th century.

Bert’s father, Herbert Comerford, was born in Camberwell, London, on 25 June 1886, a son of Joseph Comerford (1852-1897), also a boot maker, and Catherine (Kate) Miller (1853-1915), from Aspley Guise, Bedfordshire, who were married in the East End in Saint James the Great Church, Bethnal Green, on 7 August 1874.

Joseph and Kate Comerford were the parents of two daughters who were born in Hackney: Catherine and Clara Anne (1877-1965), who later married William Muddiman (18878-1942).

Joseph and Kate then moved to Northampton, where a son Joseph Comerford (1878-1958) was born in 1878.

They then seemed to have moved between Northampton and Newington, as Joseph Comerford continued to find work in the show industry, and they were the parents of four more children: Edward William Comerford (1880-1949), born in Newington on 25 May 1880; Thomas James Comerford (1884-1975), born in Northampton on 10 June 1884; Herbert (1886-1970), who was born in Camberwell in 25 June 1886; and Eliza Edith (1888-1933), who was born in Camberwell in 1888 and later married William Beal in Northampton in 1913.

Joseph and Kate Comerford eventually returned to live in Northampton, where they lived at 32 Wellington Street, and they were the parents of four more children: Elizabeth Miller (1890-1967), who was born on 4 August 1890 and married Frederick Stevens; Sarah Victoria (1893-1983) born 29 January 1893 and married William T Hollowell; George Albert Comerford (1895-1897), born 27 May 1897; and Lilly (1898-1899).

Joseph Comerford died in Northampton in 1897, when he was only 45 and his children were still young. His widow Kate later kept a boarding house at 84 Dunster Street, and died in Northampton in October 1915.

Their second son, Herbert Comerford, who was born in Camberwell in 1886, grew up in Alcombe Terrace and Dunster Street in Northampton, and followed his father into the boot-making trade. He married Mabel Louisa Lambourne in Northampton in April 1915.

Their elder son, Herbert Comerford, was born in November 1915. A younger son, Reginald Comerford, was born in Northampton on 10 February 1921.

Herbert, or Bert, Comerford, the future trade union leader, attended Kettering Road Intermediate School, and at the age of 15 followed his father and grandfather into the shoemaking trade. He first became a clicker in the shoemaking industry, working for G Webb & Sons at their factory in Brockton Street, Northampton.

The clickers became known as the elite or the ‘gentlemen’ of shoemakers. Their role involved cutting out the shoe uppers from the precious fine leathers using knives with very curved and sharply pointed blades. This highly skilled role became known as ‘clicking’ as the concentration required to carry out the task required silence – the only noise in the clicking room would be the click-click of blade piercing leather and the wooden cutting block underneath.

Bert married Ella Mary Everitt (1917-2011) in Northampton in January 1940. She was a daughter of George Everitt and Maud EE Bennett of Northampton.

Bert was in the British Army during World War II, but he returned to the shoemaking trade in Northampton in 1946. He was a long-term member of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives (NUBSO) when he began working full-time for the union in 1959. In the 1960s, he was living at 10 Lea Road, Northampton.

He became the union’s assistant general officer in 1969. The union merged with other unions in 1970 to form the National Union of the Footwear, Leather and Allied Trades (NUFLAT), and Bert Comerford was elected as its first General President, the leading position in the union. The union sponsored Labour Party candidates in several parliamentary elections.

But the 1970s proved to be a difficult period for the footwear industry in Britain, and when he retired in 1980, Bert described how he regretted leaving while the decline continued. Today, however, Northampton and the county’s shoemaking industry thrives. The town is still recognised across the world for making high-quality men’s footwear which reinterprets classic styles for each new generation of discerning wearers.

Bert Comerford was made an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in the 1981 New Year Honours list. In retirement, he served as an honorary member of the Clothing and Footwear Institute. He died in July 2005. His widow Ella died on 28 January 2011.

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