Parliament Week Curator's Choice: A Shoemakers' banner at the People's History Museum

Phil Dunn interviewed by Ben Miller | 31 October 2011
A photo of a man pointing at a large banner inside a case in a museum
Parliament Week 2011: Curator's Choice: Phil Dunn from the People's History Museum in Manchester chooses the Shoemakers' banner, made in 1832...

"I have chosen one of the museum's earliest trade society banners – a banner which relates to the 1832 Reform Bill agitation and the Parliamentary Act, passed by the Lords on June 4th 1832.

The banner has particularly splendid trade society emblems at its centre, proudly displaying the products and tools of the trade.

There's a gent and lady holding a boot and a fine shoe (perhaps a dancing pump), and, directly below, a monarch's golden crown and a half-moon knife, the shoemakers’ principal leather cutting tool.

A photo of a banner inside a case saying we are all true to the last
National emblems are also evident: the thistle of Scotland, rose for England, and shamrock for Ireland, although there is no Welsh leek.

This is because the shoemakers (formerly known as cordwainers) abounded in towns across the British isles and were patriotic.

Then there's the golden crown  and the reference to St Crispin. He was the patron Saint of shoemakers and their Medieval guild, and his origins (and that of his twin brother, Crispianus) are rooted in 3rd century Christian legend and martyrdom in France.

As examples of his piety and humility Crispin, a noble Roman, took to shoemaking, charity, and evangelizing among the poor.

A photo of a painting of a saint on a banner inside a museum case
St Crispin was a noble Roman
One imagines that this connection with the sanctity and good works of Crispin both flattered and honoured the shoemaker's trade, and may have stood as a noble exemplar for the Georgian shoemaker. Such good works were part of the charitable aims of the shoemaker and other venerable crafts.

A measure of the noble regard with which the shoemakers revered Crispin lay in the fact that, well beyond the middle ages, the shoemakers held a holiday or feast day called Saint Crispin's Day on the 25th of October – as legend had it, the day of his martyrdom.

In Christian art, Saint Crispin had his own emblems, which would be taken as craft emblems by the shoemakers, a shoe and the cobble’s last. There's a verbal pun here in the lower legend – We Are All true To The Last.

The banner was made or partly adapted very soon after the passing of the Reform Act on June the 4th 1832. The wide, looping legend across the top states: The Battle’s Won. Britannia’s Sons Are Free, And Despots Tremble At The Victory.

This was, of course, somewhat hasty, because, as with the many other trade societies who vigorously demonstrated for Reform between 1830 and 1832, the well-to-do artisan was excluded from the extension of the franchise due to rental and property qualifications set too high for him.

If there was ever a chance of this 'small print' being made widely known, the artisan and working class radicals did not know about it – the bills and the final Act were, typically, of enormous length, just like the Parliamentary petitions of the era.

The ensuing anger would lead six years later to the formation of Chartism, its resounding six points, and three monster petitions.

The Despots referred to on the shoemakers' banner would certainly have included members of the House of Lords and the Duke of Wellington, an ardent and enduring opponent of extension of the franchise."

  • The People's History Museum will hold a half-day conference and workshops for campaigning through Parliament as part of Parliament Week on November 1 2011. Follow the venue details below to find out more.
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