George Adams
Socialist sandal maker and Letchworth pioneer
by Owen Hardisty

Originally printed issue 68   March 1997


Arts and crafts thrived in the early days of the Garden City, and amongst the idealists, poets and painters who flocked to the "new Jerusalem", hand woven cloth and sturdy leather sandals were held in high regard, and especially amongst the Fabian Socialists with their ideas of "reformed dress" they were almost obligatory.

The bulk of these sandals were made by George Adams, a Yorkshireman, who lived in Croft Lane Norton with his wife Lucy and was at the centre of a group of artists who included Charles Fox, Onslow Whiting and William H. Cowlishaw.

George's origins however were far from the idyllic surroundings of Norton village, and from his birth in the steel city of Sheffield in 1859 the poverty and hardships endured in his youth were the stuff of a Dickens novel. 

His mother died in his infancy and his father, a cobbler and a drunkard died when he was thirteen. He took himself to a nearby orphanage for girls where he begged for shelter and was allowed to sleep in the attic.

The orphanage found him a place in the home of a Sheffield manufacturer where his duties involved the daily cleaning of the household's cutlery and boots. 

He discovered a love of drawing, and attended classes at Sheffield School of Art. Later, on leaving 'service', he earned a living as an insurance collector. 

As a young man George met Lucy Durrans, a girl with a background of poverty almost as desperate as his own. Lucy was illiterate when she left school at the age of eleven, and at the age of twelve she was employed by a wealthy family as a child minder and housekeeper. George taught Lucy to read. They married and had two children, a daughter Louis and a son Harry.

During the 1880's they joined the Socialist movement where they met George Bernard Shaw and Edward Carpenter, who had helped William Morris to found the Sheffield Socialist Society in 1886. Carpenter was a fellow of Trinity College Cambridge, a poet, composer and Fabian Socialist, the author of one of the best known labour songs of the time, "England Arise". He offered George and Lucy and their two children a place at his home at Millthorpe, Derbyshire, where he had bought a small farm in 1883 and planned to share in the manual work of the masses.

Lucy was Carpenter's housekeeper whilst George was the gardener and bee keeper, and learned the craft of sandal making. They stayed with Edward Carpenter for five years before moving to a cottage of their own at Fanshawgate, near Holmesfield, where George made sandals and sold his paintings.

Through the Socialist movement they heard about a revolutionary new concept which was already becoming reality at Letchworth, where a planned Garden City would provide decent housing and civilised amenities in healthy, beautiful surroundings.

After their childhood experience of the squalor and misery of life in industrial Sheffield, a Garden City would be Utopia indeed, and in part at least fulfil William Morris's vision of a Socialist future set out in his "News from Nowhere" and which they shared.

The exact date of George and Lucy's move to Letchworth is not known but was probably not later than 1905. Certainly by 1907 they were installed in Croft Lane and appear there in the first Letchworth Directory. 

In Letchworth, George Adams met William Harrison Cowlishaw, a kindred spirit, and like him, a disciple of William Morris.

Cowlishaw was a truly Renaissance man of many talents; architect, designer, potter and calligrapher. He designed The Cloisters for Annie Lawrence and founded the Iceni Pottery in 1905.

The pottery stood by an untidy copse of Scots pines at the junction of Works Road and Green Lane, and produced useful items of glazed domestic pottery until the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.

George Adams worked with Cowlishaw at the Iceni pottery until 1910 when he developed pneumonia and died on the 30th. November. It seems that he had retained the bee keeping skills he had learned at Edward Carpenter's farm at Millthorpe, for it is on record that he presented a hive of bees to the newly established Norton Road School shortly before his death. 

He was buried at St. Nicholas Norton on the north side of the churchyard, about four paces from the grave of Gypsy Smith's parents.

After the demise of the Iceni venture, the pottery was used as a meeting place for the Amalgamated Engineering Union, and in 1921 a Mr Field who had previously sold fish and chips from his home at 62 Green Lane opened a fish and chip shop in the old building. By the mid 1930's the structure was in a ruinous state and was used to house pigs by Mr Deans a smallholder.

After George's death, Lucy rented a cottage in Icknield Way from Cyril Arthington Pease, the Headteacher of Norton Road school. Her son Harry had for a short time been a teacher at the old Garden City School in "The Sheds" Nevells Road, and as a conscientious objector had worked on the land at Letchworth during the war.

In March 1920, Harry Adams obtained a post at Norton Road School, where his wife Mary became a teacher in the Infants department. He is remembered by his old pupils as a devoted and talented teacher, and is described by one of them, Jim Lee, "as a tall ginger-haired man who lived in Wilbury Road".

During this time Harry, Mary and their two children Joan and Dereck lived with Lucy in her cottage until Harry bought a pair of semi-detached houses in Wilbury Road and she occupied the smaller of the two. When Harry, now Dr Adams left Norton Road in 1931 to become Headmaster of a senior school at Newcastle-under-Lyme, Lucy moved with her family. 

She suffered a stroke whilst on holiday in North Wales in September 1938 and died. She was buried in St Nicholas churchyard beside her husband George. Apart from the grave marker in Norton churchyard there is nothing in Letchworth that commemorates George and Lucy Adams, but according to his great granddaughter Ruth Taylor, a store room in Letchworth museum holds a portrait of George painted by his fellow artist and neighbour, Charles James Fox, late of Croft Lane Norton.