production

Men in Dorchester shoe workshop. 1928. Courtesy of Canada’s Penitentiary Museum.

Shoe production within the Kingston Penitentiary operated throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The shoes produced within the shoe workshops throughout the 20th century remained on the feet of both inmates and guards within the penitentiary system and were also sold to government services such as the RCMP. After the 20th century, goods produced within penitentiaries were not sold on the open market. External trades within the communities surrounding the Kingston Penitentiary protested the sale of penitentiary-made goods within the community due to the unfair pricing from the cheap labour costs. The shoe workshop acted as a method to cut costs within the penitentiary system and government services, creating and repairing materials in-house for a fraction of the cost. 

Several of the prisoners commented on the poor instruction they received in the shoe workshop: 

“I think the shoes in the shoe shop should be repaired differently, and with better care. It is very difficult to do the work properly the way we are told to do it.” (Gould, 1927, 230)

The shoes produced were often less than satisfactory and of poor quality due to subpar training and the overall focus on production. Transcripts of communication between the penitentiary and government services highlight the poor quality of shoes produced within the Kingston Penitentiary shoe workshops sold to government services were often rejected in staggering numbers. For example, the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) rejected 76% of the boots sent to them in January 1938 due to faulty manufacturing (Royal Commission investigation Kingston Penitentiary, 1938).

Leather Dress Shoe. Kingston Penitentiary. 1960s. Courtesy of Canada’s Penitentiary Museum. (left). Customised Leather Dress Shoe. Church’s, UK. 1970 (right), Courtesy of Toronto Metropolitan University’s Fashion Research Collection.

Photos comparing shoes made by the English brand Church’s, 1970 (left) and a shoe made in the Kingston Penitentiary shoe workshop, 1960s (right).

Prisoners in the Kingston Penitentiary Shoe Workshop made the shoe (left) during the 1950s-1960s. Skilled craftsmen in Northampton, England made shoe (right), an example of a ‘fashionable’ high-end men’s business shoe produced in the 1970s by UK firm Church’s. The current retail price of the Church’s shoe is about $1,300.00. Note the differences in design and craftsmanship the contrast stitching and quality of the leather attest to its luxury status.

Kingston Penitentiary. Yellow organisational tool board. Photo courtesy of Ben Harley.

Organisation played a vital role within the Kingston Penitentiary shoe workshops, ensuring efficiency and staff safety in the crafting process. One notable element that contributed to this organisation was the implementation of a yellow & blue pegboard system. 

Each tool had a designated spot on the pegboard, indicated by a specific yellow outline or marker. This meticulous arrangement ensured that every tool had its rightful place, enabling easy identification and swift retrieval. The pegboard served as a visual indicator if a tool was missing or misplaced, encouraging accountability among the inmates and minimising the risk of tools being used inappropriately or going missing. The emphasis on maintaining this level of organisation fostered a controlled working environment, allowing the workers in the shoe workshops to function smoothly and efficiently. Disciplining bodies was more important than producing quality footwear.

Industrial Shoe Department in the C7 – Kingston Penitentiary
Photo courtesy of Ben Harley.

Industrial Shoe Department in the C7 – Kingston Penitentiary
Photo courtesy of Ben Harley.

Cellblock in Kingston Penitentiary
Photo courtesy of Ben Harley.

Corridor in the Kingston Penitentiary
Photo courtesy of Ben Harley.

Workshop Dome in Kingston Penitentiary
Photo courtesy of Ben Harley.

Co-Curators Sephra Lamothe (left) & Camilla Leonelli Calzado (right). Photo courtesy of Ben Harley