Newfoundland shoe factories tender for army and seal skin boots

Archival Moment

November 18, 1915

Advertisement: Evening Telegram, 1915

Advertisement: Evening Telegram, 1915

With the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, Newfoundland business men began to look for commercial opportunities and one of the first prospects came in the form of an advertisement from the war office in England asking for tenders to supply winter boots for the soldiers at the front.

The managers of Newfoundland boot and shoe factories were quick to pull their samples and price lists of the top boots made in their factories.

The St. John’s businessmen reasoned:

The boots turned out by our factories for fishermen and seamen have always given satisfaction and are absolutely impervious to water. Our factories should also be able to turn out an equally serviceable army boot and if the samples being sent … meet with approval at the war office it is likely that our manufacturers will be given a share of patronage.”

A contract no matter how small would have been a substantial business opportunity.   It was not about to happen, the Newfoundland factories could not compete against the established factories in England. An estimated 50 million pairs of boots and shoes were made in Northhamponshire area of England during the war, not just for the British Army but also for France, Russia, Italy and other allies.

Factories had always employed women, mostly in the closing room for their stitching and sewing skills. But with many men leaving the factories to serve, women increasingly took on other roles within the factories.

Not as good as Newfoundland boots!!

The boots that were being distributed were not has functional as hoped. In 1915 it was realized that a fungal infection of the feet brought on by exposure to damp, cold conditions was proving to be a huge problem. Some 20,000 casualties resulting from ‘trench foot’ were reputed to have been suffered by the British Army during the close of 1914. The Newfoundland businessman having tried decided to try another business approach.

In Newfoundland, businessman, Mr. Edgar Bowring and Governor Walter Davidson were encouraging experimenting with seal skin boots as the official Army boot. Many of the young Newfoundland soldiers knew the value of the sealskin boots because of their experience wearing the sealskins while prosecuting the seal fishery back home.

On February 12, 1915, Sir Walter Davidson, Governor of Newfoundland wrote in his diary:

Sir H. (Sir Henry Wilson, British Director of Military Operations) writes me that the War Office is experimenting with our sealskins for army boots and that Mr. Edgar Bowring is pushing our interests”

The experimenti  was short lived, on February 28, 1915, Governor Davidson wrote in his diary:

Sir H. writes that our seal leather is not in favour with the War Office expert for boots”

Young Newfoundland soldiers were not dissuaded, if they could not get the proper foot gear from the army they would get them from home. These young men from Newfoundland in the wet and damp trenches of Europe were quick to write home asking for their parents to send them seal skinned boots. These soldiers knew that they would be the most effective against trench foot. Local newspaper advertisements in St. John’s boasted:

Nearly every day we sell at least one pair of Skin Boots to be sent to the trenches they are so much superior to all other kinds of footwear that the wearer of a pair is envied by all those who are not so fortunate. You may be wise to send your boy, a pair and be sure to get the best kind – sewn with sinew.”

Recommended Archival Collection: The Rooms Provincial Archives: MG 136.5 Governor Walter Davidson fonds (February 1-28, 1915)

Recommended Exhibit: Pleasantville: From Recreation to Military Installation. Level 2 Atrium Pleasantville before the First World War was the site of the St. John’s cricket grounds. With the declaration of war, Pleasantville quickly emerged as a tent city, the home of the storied “First 500”. It was here that the First Newfoundland Regiment recruits began preliminary military training during the months of September and October of 1914. This exhibition highlights some of the activities and training of the Blue Puttees up to their embarkation on the SS Florizel for overseas service.

Recommended Museum Exhibit: Flowers of Remembrance: Level 2 Museum Vitrine: A number of flowers are associated with the First World War by Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, including the familiar forget-me-not and poppy. Such commemorative flowers and their role in the collective memory of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are profiled. Using artifacts and period imagery relating to The Great War commemoration, The Rooms staff explore the significant role these flowers played across the last century.