The charming midlands town of Walsall may be best known for its League One football team, but the club's nickname The Saddlers gives a gentle nod to the long-running history of the leather industry in the town.
Following the closure of coal mines at the start of the 19th century, Walsall quickly became internationally renowned for its leather industry and trade grew at an impressive rate. The lorinery, or harness-making trade, once popular in the town, paved the way for leather making - with many of the townspeople already adept at producing buckles, stirrups and spurs.
In the early days most leather workshops were set up in some someone's back garden and typically employing 1 to 3 people, usually men. Since tools were inexpensive and hammers, knives, pincers and irons were made locally, Walsall became almost self-sufficient.
During the mid-19th century leather factories began to appear in Walsall, giving jobs to men, women and children. The invention of the sewing machine in the 1850s made big changes to manufacturing processes and significantly increased production.
Likewise, the rise in the use of working horses also saw increased demand for leather products. Harnesses and saddles became big business, and thanks to railway connections to sea ports, Walsall began to export leather goods as far afield as the USA, India, Australia, South America and New Zealand.
Competition from Germany coupled with falling markets in Europe after 1870 saw leather manufacturers in Walsall suffer. While the invention of the motor car could have been seen as a threat, Walsall played this to its advantage and began to produce upholstery and other leather goods for the vehicles. Demand for other types of leather products also grew – these included bags, purses, dog collars, cigar cases, and sports and travel equipment.
According to some reports, by 1910 there were eight tanneries and twenty-seven curriers in Walsall, providing employment to several hundred locals.
At the start of the 20th century the cutting-out process was mechanised, leading to the merger of several large businesses and the production of fancy leather goods. After a pause during the First World War, when factories were used for munitions work, Walsall became the centre for premium light leather goods production in the UK.
Another threat came along in the 1950s, this time in the form of artificial leather. The tanning industry began to decline during the 1960s as a result, although 50 leather good producers remained in business during the 1970s, and the town continued to supply around half of British-made high-quality leather goods.
To this day, saddle making remains a key trade in Walsall thanks to enterprising businesses that focus on handmade items aimed at the premium market. Moss Stone and Company Imperial Leather Works was a big name producing leather saddles in Walsall, and is today owned by Lovatt & Ricketts and continues to trade.
Today visitors to the town can enjoy an in-depth exploration of Walsall's leather industry at the town's leather museum. This free, family-friendly attraction is housed in a restored leather factory and lies on the outskirts of Walsall city centre, within easy travelling distance of a Premier Inn and other city-centre facilities for visitors.
The kids will love watching skilled leather workers plying their trade and they can even have a go at making something themselves. Around the museum you'll find displays illustrating the thriving leather trade in the town and charting how it's developed over the years.
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