The British Leather Industry became a global importance around the late 19th Century.
Walsall, a town located in the West Midlands, became known as the centre of the British leather industry, producing and exporting saddles, bridles and harness.
It is unclear as to why Walsall became the centre for the British leather industry, but maybe it was due to the town already having an established Lorinery or Saddlers Ironmongery industry.
What is Lorinery or Saddlers Ironmongery?
Lorinery or Saddlers Ironmongery are specialist blacksmiths who produce horse-related metalwork such as stirrups, bits, buckles, spurs and saddle trees.
In the 1830s it was a local Loriner ‘Thomas Newton’ who claimed to produce the towns first ready-made riding saddle.
The Introduction of the Sewing Machine
The sewing machine was introduced around the 1860s which sped up the production of some leather items, particularly harness traces.
By 1861 there were 60 known companies in Walsall making bridles, saddles and harness, as well as 15 Tanneries and Currying works that actually produced the leather.
Export Trade Thrived
During the late-Victorian era, it was estimated that Britain had over 3 million horses. Walsall, by this time, was recorded to have over 100 saddlery and harness companies in business.
The export trade was thriving with companies trading to every corner of the British Empire, from Antigua to Auckland, as well as continental Europe and North and South America.
War Boosted Demand
With the evolution of the motorcar the need for horses in their traditional roles was decreasing and with it was the demand for saddlery and harness.
However, when War broke out this boosted the need for horses again and so the demand for military saddlery and harness increased.
It is said that one company, in particular, D. Mason and Sons produced over 100,000 saddles for the British Army during the first 2 years of WW1.
Walsall had to Adapt
Eventually, the British leather industry had to adapt to the changing times and many companies started to make and sell ‘fancy’ leather goods such as travelling bags, writing cases, hat boxes, belts and dog collar and leads.
By 1920, glove making became popular in Walsall too.
From the 1960s onwards there was stiff competition from overseas producers, mainly in developing countries where very low overheads were possible.
Cheap imports of gloves started from South Korea and Japan which devastated our glove trade, and by the end of the 20th Century, competition from overseas, particularly South-East Asia dissipated Walsall’s leather industry resulting in many of our companies closing down.
Today, it is estimated that 70 Walsall based companies remain in the town and either, specialise in the highest quality of products destined for luxury markets in United States, Japan and Continental Europe as well as London’s West End, or they produce some of the best saddles and bridles in the world.
Amazingly a number of these companies are now Royal Warrant holders.
In addition to Walsall based companies, there is an influx of independent trained Saddlers around the UK, who are still being taught the traditional saddler skills in making and finishing of saddlery and leather goods to the highest standard and quality.
These Saddlers often specialise in made to measure, bespoke leatherwork using British Leather and metalwork and with the ever-changing desires and needs of today’s customer will no doubt try anything once.
So, if you decide to purchase a new item of leather in the future, be it a saddlery item or a ‘fancy’ leather good, then be sure of its quality, craftsmanship, strength and durability by buying British handmade Leather goods.
(Reference: Glasson. M, 2003, The Walsall Leather Industry, Tempus Publishing Limited, Gloucestershire, pp. 7-12.)
Be Bespoke, Buy British