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Made in the Black Country is a site for the Black Country Museums to tell stories and showcase objects from our industrial past. Check out our objects of the week, learn about something new like japanned ware or just browse our posts below. New articles will be added regularly, so keep checking back, or better still, subscribe to our RSS feed!

Ammonite fossils, G12557



So you like leather huh?


Have you ever been to Walsall Leather Museum? In spite of living in the area for years, I’d never been until last week and it turned out to be a really interesting visit.

My impression of the outside of the building was how small it was, I imagined it to be much larger possibly to house some machinery that was used, but it was a little like the Tardis once you were in there with many rooms to see.  It’s location also surprised me as it is close to a very busy main road.  A little gem surrounded by an urban environment.

I was warmly greeted by staff in the reception/gift shop area before going on through to the museum.  My immediate reaction on entering the first section of the museum was its darkness and low ceilings compared to the open foyer I had just walked through, it had a somewhat cosy, cottage feel to it.  There stood in the corner was a life-size model of a horse, it was a display for a saddle that had been made by a local company.  It took me aback a little but I chose to look at that after I had read the information boards in this section. 

In this part of the museum I discovered that the first record of manufacturing in Walsall was in 1450 and it was predominately known for its bits, stirrups and spur-making.   The Industrial Revolution had a big impact on the town, over a one hundred year period its original 10,000 inhabitants dramatically grew to 87,500, manufacturing flourished and the town then became known as “The Town of a Hundred Trades”.  In 1830 Thomas Newton began to manufacture saddles in the town and soon Walsall had the greatest concentration of saddle makers in the world.  The saddles were exported as far as Australasia, Burmah, Persia, the West Indies and East & West Africa.  William Furford & Co was one of many companies who did this.  I found this fascinating as it is a little hard to comprehend a local product being shipped to a far away, exotic land.

Interestingly some of the exhibitions were showing the different saddle styles and harnesses for the different breeds of horse, e.g. A Shire horse would have a very large harness and no saddle as it is a working horse whereas an Arab horse would need a light, compact and comfortable saddle as they are used for riding over large areas of desert.  Similarly thoroughbreds needed a light saddle, as they were often used in battle.  Coincidentally many of the Walsall manufacturers had prospered by making military equipment for the British Army during the Boer War (1899-1902).

As I continued around the cottage-style building I found myself stumbling across more information about Walsall’s abundant leather history. What was eye-opening to me was the wages; around 1900 a 21-year-old male after apprenticeship earnt in the region of 25 shillings (£1.25) a week and a seamstress on the other hand made 7 shillings (35p) a week!  Even with a wage increase a few decades later, pay was still dramatically low compared to today.  A woman could earn 24 shillings (£1.20) for a 48 hour week, where as a man could earn more than double that, typically about 58 shillings (£2.90) a week.  Even allowing for the difference in prices between then and now, the pay wasn’t great, but it was a clean job for the Black Country.

This wage was brought in around the 1960’s when ‘light’ goods were being manufactured.  This included bags, purses, footballs, luggage etc.  Previous leather goods were based around saddle making, which was how Walsall became known.  Even the local football team’s nickname is The Saddlers.

During the 1800s when tanneries were beginning to expand, it was still a fairly strenuous and hazardous job.  Many huge vats contained the hefty amounts of hides.  It was gruesome but not totally surprising, as I discovered, that ruptures or hernias were a possibility due to the heavy lifting of the hides. Shockingly, although quite rare, warnings of anthrax were given as this disease could be passed on from the hides to humans. 

Previously the best way to dye the hides was using dry leaves of Sicilian Sumac which were a rich source of tannin.  Todays minerals, such as chrome salts are used in modern tanning to get the hide tanned within 24 hours, instead of it taking months or years for the dye to act.

Near to the end of my visit at the museum I met Paul and Wendy, two volunteer demonstrators for the museum.  They both provided me with a profuse amount of information, especially with the factory conditions they worked in since their teens.  They were a pleasure to talk to and Paul in particular told me of,  “The good old days!” and how he created an initiation ceremony for the young women in his department in which he would get the women (a varying ages) to stand in a large wicker basket on wheels and then run the length of the factory with them screaming, then tip the basket up and the women would tumble out, legs akimbo onto the hide pile, giggling like mad.  He even admitted to me he was a bit of a rascal back then.

Wendy’s job was more sedate due to the amount of concentration in her job, she worked in pairing, this was where the garments were “paired” up out of the same hide and the edges trimmed or scored to provide a thinner hide to bend, stitch or glue the two pieces together.  She said, ” This was a very skilled job as the pairing had to be precise otherwise the item would be ruined.  You didn’t dare to make many mistakes as you knew your time with the company would be short”.  They were very approachable and it is easy to see they still have a passion and enthusiasm for the jobs they had.  They usually work on Fridays,  so you can have a word.

I can understand better now why quality leather goods are quite expensive; but as long as you look after your leather it will last for a lifetime.  My mom taught me that I chuckled to myself.

I reflected that I really enjoyed the day and I had learnt a lot about what the processes and hard work goes into leather goods.

My favourite part of the day, I thought, was when I put a horse’s bit and harness on a plastic horse’s head correctly first time.  I am now convinced I can have a horse because of this accomplishment.

My time at the museum was around two hours in total, so it is easy to pop in when you have a few couple of hours spare.

If you wish to visit the Walsall Leather Museum details can be found on 

If like me, you’ve been to Walsall Leather Museum, please tell us about your visit by leaving a comment below.

2010 is the Year of the Tiger

Ivory Tiger, OJ371

Ivory Tiger, OJ371

What do you know about Chinese New Year? 

Will you be welcoming the year of the Tiger? 

Gong Xi Fa Chai!  Congratulations and make a fortune, is the typical saying when the Chinese New Year begins. 

The legend behind Chinese New Year began with a ferocious beast called Nian who had a lion-type head and an elephant-type body. 

He terrorised the farmers and villagers as he became a man-eater during the winter months as he would venture to the village for food because his prey would hibernate. 

As the years passed they came to realise that Nian was afraid of red, fire and noise.  So on every New Years Eve they cut red-colour peach wood and hung it on the door, made a campfire in front of their doors and when Nian approached the village people put bamboo into the fire to make cracking sound.  In addition, they beat the metal kitchen and farming utensils to make noisy sound to scare the beast away. This came be known as Guo-Nian (passing Nian). 

The Chinese New Year is set around the lunar calendar, each year has a different animal associated with it thus a different year of prosperity and meaning to people born within those years, for example 2010 is year of the tiger.  Their characteristics are said to be courageous, gracious, independent, brave, physically strong and bold. 

Although tigers are meant to be fierce creatures the small carved one above seems quite placid.  Apparently size does matter. 

A Tiger, Charles Towne, 1818, OP338

A Tiger, Charles Towne, 1818, OP338

 This painting by Charles Towne highlights the typical character of a tiger, teeth bearing and a proud stance.  You can imagine a deep chest rattling growl coming from with in him.  The lush, exotic landscape in the background shows the tiger in its natural habit; interestingly the painting was created in England, we don’t know if  Towne had been to Asia or just had a very good imagination. 

The traditions and customs during the New Year celebrations are colourful and loud, fire crackers, fire works and lanterns represent the light and noise to scare away Nian. 

The colour red is used as a symbol of good luck.   It is customary to present children or unmarried relatives with money in red envelopes decorated with lucky symbols, this is known as “HongBao” or “LiShi”.   The Chinese believe this will create good fortune with money for the rest of the year.  Paper art in red is displayed on walls and windows.

Before New Years Day there are many preparations to be done, one being sending off the Kitchen God, who will return to the ruler of heaven, the Jade Emperor, where he will report on each family’s activities over the past year. 

Let me finish with a little Chinese proverb to brighten you’re day:

“You can only go halfway into the darkest forest; then you are coming out the other side”. 

Please leave your comments at the bottom of the page or join us on Twitter @bcmuseums.  You can see  more images of  our carved ivory collections on Flickr

Love tokens

An arrow shaped steel brooch, 1875 - 1895, SJ31

An arrow shaped steel brooch, 1875 - 1895, SJ31

What are you hoping to receieve this Valentine’s Day?  A rose?  A card?  Maybe a cute teddy bear? Or a piece of jewellery, like this brooch which reminds me of Cupids arrow, perhaps if you’re very lucky!

Saint Valentine’s Day is celebrated worldwide; for instance Mexican people usually line the streets with flowers, streamers etc, it is a festival for all to enjoy, whether single or attached.  They say “Dia de san Valentin”, which translates in to English as Happy Valentine’s Day.  The most highly desired gift in Mexico on Valentine’s day is a hand-crafted heart made of roses.

Enamelled patch box, EM317

Enamelled patch box, EM317

Lovers have always sent each other gifts, but what you might have receievd in the 1800s would probably be quite different to what we give today.  Historically items such as hand-made cards, pillows, sweets, postcards, hand sewn gifts and poetry were popular items to send between loved ones.

This 18th century patch box, decorated with the words “I Love You” was clearly made and sold for the giver to send to a loved one, possibly for Valentine’s Day.  Typical images associated with Valentine’s Day are of Cupid (often signified by his arrow), love birds, couples, hearts, the colour red and roses.  There is a pair of lovebirds on this patch box for instance.

Cupid has long been synonymous with romance and love; Cupid is the son of Mercury, the winged messenger to the Gods and Venus the Goddess of Love, and although he is portrayed as mischievous in Greek Mythology this is easily forgotten when St. Valentine’s Day comes around.

This very pretty pin cushion has an endearing story attached to it.  It was made by a soldier who was in the Lancashire Fusilliers and he sent to his sweetheart during the 1914-1918 Great War; its design is Victorian.  All the glass beads are removable pins and written on the side of it is this:

Heart pin cushion, 1914-1918

Heart pin cushion, 1914-1918

Think of me
When the golden sun is sinking
And your mind from care set free
When of others you are thinking
Will you sometimes think of me.

You can see displays that include items like the enamel patch box above at Bantock House Museum in Wolverhampton, Bilston Craft Gallery and Dudley Museum and Art Gallery.

Bantock House Museum and Bilston Craft Gallery also have displays of cut steel jewellery like the brooch above.  The Victorian pin cushion is currently in storage at Wednesbury Museum.

You can see more images of museum objects that are linked to love and romance on our Flickr photostream

Please leave your comments below, you can also follow us on Twitter @BCMuseums.

St. Valentine’s Day

Lace Valentine's card, M30_1

Valentine's card, M30_1

Did you get a Valentine’s card today?  Was it from a secret admirer?

The sending of Valentine cards is a well-known tradition in the UK but who was Valentine and why is he associated with love?  Here are a couple of stories I’ve discovered on how Saint Valentine’s Day might have begun. 

The first tells of Valentine, a priest who served during the third century in Rome.  When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men — his crop of potential soldiers.  Valentine, realising the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret.  When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.   

Although there were several Christian martyrs named Valentine, the day probably took its name from a priest who was martyred about ad 270 by the emperor Claudius II Gothicus.   Another legend is that Valentine actually sent the first ‘valentine’ greeting himself.  While in prison, it is believed that Valentine fell in love with a young girl — who may have been his jailor’s daughter, who visited him during his confinement.  Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter, which he signed ‘From your Valentine,’ an expression that is still in use today. 

The holiday also had origins in the Roman festival of Lupercalia, held in mid-February.  The festival, which celebrated the coming of spring, included fertility rites and the pairing off of women with men by lottery.  At the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I replaced Lupercalia with St. Valentine’s Day.  It came to be celebrated as a day of romance from about the 14th century. 

We don’t know if these stories are true, but if you have any other stories about the origins of Valentine’s Day please let us know by leaving a comment below. 

Victorian Valentine's Day card, M378_1

Victorian Valentine's Day card, M378_1

Formal messages, or valentines, appeared in the 1500s, and by the late 1700s commercially printed cards were  being used.  The first commercial valentines in the United States were printed in the mid-1800s. 

Valentine cards commonly depict Cupid, the Roman god of love, along with hearts, traditionally the seat of emotion.  It was thought that beacuse their mating season began in mid-February, birds also became a symbol of the day (love birds).  Traditional gifts include sweets/chocolate and flowers, particularly red roses, a symbol of beauty, passion and love. 

The day is popular in Britain as well as in, the United States,  Canada, and Australia, and it also is celebrated in other countries, including France, Mexico and Japan.

You can see more images of museum objects that are linked to love and romance on our Flickr photostream


Oval patch box imitating a cowrie shell with white reserve edged with white raised 'pearls' and bearing a verse.

Enamelled patch box, 1765 - 1785, EM220

Who would have believed it that in the 18th century small patches used to cover small pox scars could also be used to send a secret message to a lover! 

During the 1700s snuff boxes, patch boxes and pill boxes were popular items for the rich and fashionable.  Patch boxes were used to hold small patches of silk or velvet to hide the scars smallpox left behind on the skin. 

A gift of an enamelled patch box could be a costly expression of admiration and sentiment sometimes painted with amorous scenes or, like this one here,  messages of love and devotion.

The patches themselves varied in form and design from simple spots, stars, or crescents to elaborate animals, insects, or figures.  Back in Georgian times, it wasn’t the done thing for young people of the opposite sex to meet without a chaperone so sometimes lovers would use the placing of these patches to send a secret message to an admirer;  a patch at the corner of the eye could indicate passion.

Mother has Fallen Asleep by Delapoer Downing, OP666

Mother has Fallen Asleep by Delapoer Downing, OP666

Here in this 19th Century painting, Mother Has Fallen Asleep by Delapoer Downing, a pair of young lovers are making the most of the fact that the girl’s mother has fallen asleep.   I wonder if the suitor has pressed the mother to have more than one drink from the decanter on the table to encourage her to nod off?  It’s quite clear that the meeting was a civilised occasion, but the mother’s sleepiness has allowed the couple to express their feelings a little more than was usually allowed to in public.

You can see displays that include items like the enamel patch box above at Bantock House Museum in Wolverhampton, Bilston Craft Gallery and Dudley Museum and Art Gallery.

You can see more images of museum objects that are linked to love and romance on our Flickr photostream

Albert Baldwin Bantock

Alderman Bantock, c. 1930, OP487

Alderman Bantock, c. 1930, OP487

Born in 1862 and educated at Tettenhall College, Wolverhampton, Bantock entered his father’s firm of Thomas Bantock & Co after leaving school and became a partner in the business in 1886.  The business passed to him on his father’s death in 1895.  In 1889, he married Kate Jones, the daughter of a local politician and industrialist.  The couple remained childless.

He was associated with Queen Street Congregational Church and pursued an active part in its sunday school throughout his life and was Sunday School Superintendent at Lea Road Congregational Church.

As a councillor Bantock was also a director of Tettenhall College and sat on the Management Committee of Wolverhampton Eye Infirmary.

On the day of his election he was honoured by being made a life governor of Wolverhampton General Hospital, Eye Infirmary and Women’s Hospital.

Bantock’s father had served as mayor for Wolverhampton between 1869 and 1870.  Bantock himself was the first mayor to return to office for three consecutive elections, between 1905 and 1907.  He later held the office again, from 1914 until 1915.  His long service as Mayor earned him the title of Alderman.  He served with Wolverhampton Council for thirty-three years.

In 1920, Bantock’s political career reached it’s peak when he was appointed High Sheriff of Staffordshire.  Six years later, his various contributions to Wolverhampton’s civic life were rewarded when he was given the Freedom of the Borough.

He died in 1938.  In his will he surprised the Corporation of Wolverhampton by asking that after his wife’s death Merridale House (now known as Bantock House) and its grounds be given to the town.