Brief History of Australian
The Traditional Owners seldom ever wore
shoes. Most tribes were reported to go
unshod but some from the Northern
Territory of Australia did wear a primitive
sandal made from tree bark. These were
retained by thongs to the first and fifth toes.
Ceremonial shoes were worn by aboriginal
shaman and these included emu feather
slippers tied together with a marsupial fur
string. The emu slippers left no footprints.
Early settlers to the colonies were met with a
stare because they sported the latest
fashions from Europe. Top boots may have
been all the fashion in London but had little
practical use in rural Australia.
New arrivals immediately acquired the bush
dress of rough clothes and equivalent
Snobs Convict shoemakers had rareky committed any crime and
were deported because they were active unionists or
Chartists. In the 18th/19th century England, trade unions
were viewed suspiciously by authorities and regarded as
either secret societies or groups seeking to overthrow the
government. In the prisons, trade unionists spread their
beliefs on unionism which helped fuel the strikes that
would come in the goldfields (1854).
In the harsh conditions of the penal colony boots wore
out quickly Problems of mass production were further
hampered with lack of raw materials and inferior local
hides. Convict shoes were straight lasted and part of their
penance was having to break them in.
Many snobs continued their trade on release to town and
bush and quickly established themselves as saddlers and
leather tradesmen. In the 1828 census the outback had
one shoemaker for every 236 inhabitants.
Convict shoe makers or “Snobs” were in
great demand to make shoes for fellow in-
mates and for private commission.
Bare footedness was a common practice
among the early Scots and Irish immigrants;
this was by choice and not borne through
adversity. It was only after the 1830s, going
barefoot became a mark of deprivation for
In 19th century Perth, complaints were
recorded in letters back to Blighty, " many
respectable females with their children are
going barefoot, not a shoe maker can be got
Shoemaking in Perth
Western Australia became a penal colony
much later and received a small number of
juvenile offenders from 1842. It was not
formally constituted as a penal colony until
1849 (ceased in 1868) with the main purpose
to provide labour and skills; and secondly
swell the population.
Unlike other penal colonies shoemaking was
taught to the prisoners and mirroring
elsewhere, the West Australian snobs on
release set up shop as bespoke shoe makers.
Western Australia had at one time more
shoemakers per head of population than any
The beginning of Australian
By the mid-19th century outback bookmakers
were beginning to make better quality boots
but these were expensive. Local
manufactures claimed their bootslasted
longer than English imports. In truth, Ocker
boots lasted on average one calendar month
whereas the English slops were worn by two
to three weeks.
By the end of the 1850s women's British
made boots cost between 3/6 to 7/- ;
whereas colonial boots cost 12/6
By the 1840s, New South Wales and South Australia were self
sufficient for shoe and bootmakers for their populations.
Adelaide had four tanneries in full production in 1843.
The Gold Rush
Between 1850 & 1860, tradesmen’s wages
doubled due to the gold rush and the NSW
footwear industry went into decline. British
manufacturers increased their efforts to
flood the market with low cost footwear.
By 1870, Sydney bootmakers were back
producing 15,000 pairs of boots a week
(Melbourne, 1890s). Mechanisation meant
Australian bootmakers could cater for the
neglected market of children's shoes. Shoes
were made for men and children rather than
John Lobb was a London trained bootmaker
who came to Australia to try his luck in the
goldfields. There he came up with the idea of
making hollow heeled boots for prospectors
to hide their gold nuggets. The idea caught
on suffice Lobb funded a new 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
Lobb returned to London in 1866 and
established a business " John Lobb,
Bootmaker" which continues to trade as the
world's most famous bespoke shoemaking
Later in 1902 he opened a second branch in
Paris which was patronized by the rich and
famous, including Katharine Hepburn and
Edward VII. Winston Churchill, Charles de
Gaulle and Alfred Hitchcock all owned John
Fashion Shoe Industry
Towards the end of the 19th century,
Australian (middle class) women became
preoccupied with European fashion. The
bourgeois shopped at the new stores and all
the large shops in Sydney, Melbourne and
Clarks of England exported children’s shoes
to Australia since 1842.
Working class people bought shoes from slop
shops which catered for the cheap and
The American shoe industry was early to
embrace new technology (1858). At first
mass produced shoes were poor quality and
scarcely lasted more than 12 days.
Companies over produced for the domestic
market and soon America became a major
During the Australian Gold Rush the
population quadrupled just as the Americans
flooded the market.
Australian manufacturers found it difficult to
compete until tariffs were introduced then
they started producing their own footwear.
American styles on colonial woman's fashion
was profound and by 1894 the American shoes
had replaced British footwear for preference.
There was an American Shoe Company in
George Street Sydney selling modish forms of
footwear. By the time Melbourne manufacturers
had converted to a modern system of
mechanisation in the mid 1890s the US had
captured the Australian market.
The US mail order catalogues (Sear 1886) had a
wide array of styles and leathers which brought
cheaper shoes to ordinary people. A Melbourne
firm responded by producing shoes made from
kangaroo skins. The Kangaratta was popular
partly because kangaroo skin looked like
superior glace kid.
Resurgence of Australian
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
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.
Mixed fortunes of the
During the Depression most shoe firms went
to the wall but in their wake came smaller
boutique companies who thrived due to
demand of the Second World War an
By the 60s, improved economy with
technical and scientific innovations, and
increased availability of raw materials saw an
expansion of the home footwear industry.
By the 80s and 90s there was a marked
decline in Australian produced footwear as
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.
Distance alone meant horsemen (bushman) by
necessity became skilled leather workers
including boot makers. Reg Williams (1908 -
2003), was in his early teens when he left home
in South Australia to work in the bush. There he
met, Dollar Mick, a gifted saddler who passed
on his craft skills to young Reg. During the Great
Depression, Reg made and sold his boots by
The secret of the boot was its simplicity, the
upper and quarters of the riding boot were
shaped from one piece of leather. This meant
only one seam at the back, which improved the
boots, waterproof properties. The footwear was
further strengthened by the absence of side
With no protruding seems to catch in the stirrups the boot was
ideal for horsemen.
Foot Note : Shoe
Kiwi boot polish was first made in Melbourne
Australia in 1906. The polish was developed
by Scotsman, William Ramsay and his partner
Hamilton McKellan and named after the
flightless bird because Ramsay’s wife was
from New Zealand.
The shoe polish was a fine blend of quality
waxes which protected and nourished
leather as well as giving the shoes a longer
lasting glossy shine. Initially it was sold to
local farmers but eventually caught on in the
towns and cities. Shoe polish gave both a
shoe shine as well as preserving shoe leather.
Later in 1908 the product incorporated
agents that added suppleness and water
resistance to the leather.
By the mid-twenties Kiwi polish became a must have accessory
for the prevalent English style and sold in over 50 countries