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So you like leather huh?

04/28/2010

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 http://www.walsall.gov.uk/leathermuseum/ 

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

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