Walsall Leather true British Heritage
The Walsall Leather industry has a considerable range, diversity and a wonderful heritage which is often overshadowed by towns such as Northampton, which gets lots of deserved credit for its Quality Shoe Manufacturing and similarly Worcester for a long history of Fine Leather Glove making. I find this hard to fathom when we consider the simple fact that, during the First World War, one single saddlery company was supplying an incredible 100,000 saddles for the British Army in one year alone.
The increasing demand of quality Saddlery Goods
The town’s association with the saddlery trade began in the Middle Ages with its craftsmen specialising in making bridle bits and stirrup irons. This metalworking side of the industry spawned other trades such as bridle and harness makers together with saddlers, collar makers and many more ancillary crafts, which by 1900 had 100 companies exporting their equestrian wares to all corners of the British Empire and beyond. Success breeds success and so more companies emerged alongside those enjoying the demand for saddlery goods in Victorian England when the horse was the hub of everyday transport. Where there are leather making skills and supplies soon handbags, wallets, purses, cases, gloves and upholstery for the newly arrived motor car become the mainstay of the Walsall Leather trade.
Walsall at the heart of British Leather Goods
My introduction to the town came about in the early 1980’s, when having started my leather goods business; I soon needed to source the best quality English Bridle Leather to make my range of handmade leather belts. Solid brass buckles and linen threads would also await me as I ventured half an hour up the M5 motorway into the heart of the ‘Black Country’ and its multitude of diverse industries that led to the saying ‘at one time you could get anything made in Birmingham’. I remember my astonishment seeing the amount of different saddlers, bridle makers, fancy leather goods makers, glovers and many more, backed up by leather curriers, finishers and merchants, buckle foundries, saddle tree manufacturers, fittings suppliers etc. all established in no more than a square mile of Walsall.
The density of the industry was staggering and made even more so because of its Victorian premises and practises still very evident in 1983. Rows of terraced houses and what seemed like entire streets all sporting a sign proclaiming the nature of the leather business carried on within their doors and developed backyards comprising of lean-tos’ and assorted sheds. The size of the different companies varied from these enterprising houses to large Victorian brick built factories, with their ubiquitous chimney stack handsomely sign-written with the company name running down it. I frequently collected bridle leather from one such terraced house where I was led through a hallway corridor by ‘Dennis’ into a labyrinth of small sheds with corrugated iron roofs, and brick floors running with a mixture of water, vegetable fats, tallow and tannins creating the smell only a curriers or tannery can produce. The resulting leather was as good, if not better, than anything available today and I still own the odd belt or two made from it.
Whilst I have been striving for thirty years to maintain the standards of 'Walsall Leather Belts' born out of the bridle making industry, handmade belts in Walsall were a relatively low key part of the town’s production at that time when more famous names existed producing much grander luxury leather goods and a few still operate from there today.
Those famous names from then included Whitehouse Cox (Light leather goods), Jeffries Saddles, Jabez Cliff Saddles, W A Goold (Fashion Accessories), Daines & Hathaway (Light leather goods), J. & E. Sedgwick (Leather Curriers & Finishers), B.B. Stanley Brothers (Buckles and Bits Foundry), James Cotterell (Buckles and Bits Foundry), Garner Boak (Leather Tanners and merchants). John Hooper & Sons (Leather merchants), Edward Price Ltd. (Leather Curriers & Finishers), Joseph Dixon Tools and Marcus Gear (Leather Tanners and merchants) although I could name far too many for good article writing such was the number plying their trade.
Happily, eight of the above still exist in some form or another continuing to produce a truly ‘Made in England’ leather belt, wallet, hide or article to continue the town’s heritage and pass their traditional skills on to future generations.
Those interested in learning more about the history of the Walsall Leather Industry may enjoy following the link below:
You may also enjoy visiting The Walsall Leather Museum, where many interesting exhibits can be seen and a happy hour or two can be spent absorbing the history of leather making in the Midlands.
(Victorian Workshop picture courtesy of The Walsall Leather Museum)
At The Worcestershire Leather Company, we provide an extensive range of the timeless, Handmade Leather belts and Bridle Leather Goods, which exude dedicated craftsmanship and quality. For further information, or to discuss or your unique requirements, please contact us on: 01386 861 751 or email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.