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Clarks Shoes: The Heart and Sole of Street

The history of the iconic Clarks Shoes company of Street was the subject of the April talk to the Langport & District History Society at Langport Library. It was presented by two members of the company's archive service, the Alfred Gillet Trust, Charlotte Berry and Tim Crumplin.

With a fascinating slide-show and a collection of shoes, old and new, they described the founding of the company in Street as a tannery in the 1820s by the Quaker brothers Cyrus and James Clark and the growth of the shoe business that made it famous.

Quakerism was key to the development of the business, not just through the application of its principles but in the help provided by fellow Quaker companies at various times when Clarks was on its uppers. The importance of the company to Street, and to the wider West Country, was shown through the employment it provided and the public buildings and other social facilities the family founded, including Crispin Hall and what became Millfield School.

Clarks remains a largely family-owned business to this day, which is unusual in such a long-lasting company, and Charlotte and Tim described the various generations of the family and their rather variable skills and successes as entrepreneurs. After the initial development in the early 19th century, the company suffered serious financial difficulties in the 1840s and 1860s, and economic challenges from competition, especially from the USA, over the decades. Several members of the family, especially William Stephens Clark in the later 19th century and Bancroft Clark in the mid-20th century, helped to maintain and grow the business, through innovations of mechanisation, specialisation and decentralisation.

The company also were early pioneers of celebrity endorsement, using film actresses such as Bebe Daniels to promote their fashion lines. New products like the Desert Boot, based on the wartime footwear of the Eighth Army, and the famous child foot-measuring service promoted more recent expansion.

Of particular interest to the audience, some of whom had working connections with Clarks, was the description of the Archive Service under the Alfred Gillet Trust, and the eclecticism of its collection, which included not just papers, shoes and machinery but, bizarrely, an extensive fossil collection gathered by Gillet, a distant cousin of the Clarks who hailed from Langport. The Archive is expanding into new premises in Street, which will provide a greatly enhanced heritage service for the company, scholars and the public.