A History of the Walsall Leather Trade and Museum

Walsall, maybe not be the world's best loved or best known town, but it is a town with a rich economic and social history to tell and a museum in which to tell it. David Mills, assistant curator of the Walsall Leather Museum, came to the Society on 16th January and explored Walsall, its leather trade and the museum. In depicting the story of the leather trade in Walsall the museum strives to stress the lives of the people involved, their relationship to each other and their relationship to leather, the material they were working with. In its work the museum endeavours to promote leather products, to educate, to act as social centre and to give Walsall a sense of pride.

The town existed as an Anglo-Saxon settlement (after the Romans) and maybe has Celtic origins (before the Romans) but its significant economic history and urban development starts in the 19th century with the emergence of the leather trade. Prior to this Walsall made many metal products. In particular, Loriners made metal parts (stirrups, buckles, spurs) for use in horse related products. Did this offer an opportunity for an entrepreneur to go one stage further and make the horse related products? Indeed it did - and the man to make the most of the opportunity was Thomas Newton who started making leather saddles in Walsall.

The key workers in the leather trade were the tanners who converted the animal hides into leather and the curriers who transformed the leather into a workable material. These were invariably men but women, mostly low paid, were an important element in the making of leather products. Initially production was in small scale units, often at home, with little use of machinery, factors which fostered strong social relationships amongst the workers. Later science and engineering entered the workplace. Machines for slicing the leather into sheets of workable material, sewing machines to sew it together and chemicals to systematise the tanning process (which had been a somewhat ad hoc and odorous procedure) all became part of the leather trade.

The most significant elements in the development and prosperity of the Walsall leather trade during the 19th century were the horse, the development of the railways and the British Empire. The extensive use of horses for business and personal transport and for military uses in the waging of wars created a demand for horse related products, saddles, bridles etc. The railways provided the means for transporting the products and the Empire an expanding market for them. By the turn of the 19th century Walsall was the centre of the saddle trade. The arrival of an alternative to the horse, the motor car, began to erode the saddle and leather trade in Walsall. The 1914-18 war in which cavalry were still deployed, provided a temporary stay in its decline but its best years had passed.

However the Walsall leather trade turned to making other types of leather goods: belts, braces, wallets, handbags amongst many others. Launer London Limited, holding a royal warrant, still makes handbags for the Queen which despite the company name are made in Walsall. Saddles continue to be made but with increasing emphasis on high quality products. There are plans for a new college for training in saddle making. Many of the old handsome leather trade factory buildings have been lost but some still survive. The present museum building was bought by Walsall Council and opened as the Leather Museum in 1988.

In this environmentally conscious age is it time for a revival of the horse and a resurgent Walsall leather industry. Let's all saddle up in 2020 and visit the Leather Museum.

Stella Horsfall
January 2020