Origins of the Industry and Centres of Production
Most writers say that cut steel jewellery had its origins in Woodstock, Oxon., possibly starting as far back as the 16th century and certainly established in the 18th century. That town was famous for the finest, most elaborate and most expensive workmanship in steel toys. These toys included "stars for the nobility" (presumably stars of the chivalrous orders) and Clifford suggests that these may have provided the idea of using cut steel for jewellery.
But Plot, in his Natural History of Staffordshire, which was published in 1686, seems to suggest that the trade was well established in Wolverhampton at the time he wrote. He does not refer to it directly but spends some time explaining how artisans in the town treated iron so that it could take a polish. This must refer to the making of steel toys.
When the Swedish industrial spy, Reinhold Angerstein, visited Woodstock on the 22nd October 1753 he reported that "The principal articles made here are watch-chains, watch-keys, buckles, toe-buckles, buckles for men's shirt fronts, corkscrews, nutcrackers, buttons, etc.". The translators of Angerstien's journal have, necessarily, adopted a literal translation, and it is not at all certain what was meant by "toe buckles" (though they sound like ordinary shoe buckles. "Toe buckles" is not a term found in use here). "Buckles for men's shirt fronts" sounds like some sort of shirt stud but this seems surprising for the date.
It seems that by this time the trade at Woodstock was not great. Angerstein found "no more than three masters here, each with two or three workers". He gives the masters' names as Grantham, Medcalf and George Eldridge. He adds that another master, Edward Staunton, "moved to Oxford a short time ago". It seems likely that the trade was dieing in Woodstock and, in effect, had been taken over by Wolverhampton.
Angerstein gives some prices: "The price of watch-chains is 1 1/2 to 3 guineas; watch keys cost from 6 to 10 shillings. Corkscrews are 4,6 to 8 shillings for the plain ones, though decorated ones cost as much as one-and-a-half guineas. Shoe buckles cost half to 1 guinea but 2 guineas if decorated with cut steel. Garter buckles are 1 guinea and neck-tie buckles, the same".
What may be a slightly different account of the origins of cut steel jewellery is given by George Wallis (in his chapter on Jewellery in G. Phillips Bevan, British Manufacturing Industry, second edition,1878). There he mentions Clerkenwell as a centre of the British jewellery industry. He then says(pp.13-14): "In the early and middle portion of the last century, the production of silver buckles ... was carried on at Clerkenwell; and there is good authority for stating that ornamental steel work, which proved so early an item of industry at Wolverhampton, was also carried on in Clerkenwell; and that trade intercourse existed between Clerkenwell as the metropolitan centre of the manufacture of personal ornaments and the provincial sources of production, Birmingham and Wolverhampton." He then adds a footnote: "One of the most eminent steel workers of Wolverhampton in the last century, a relative of my own, an aged man when I was a boy, told me that he commenced his industrial career in Clerkenwell about 1770, with his uncle who was a silver buckle maker to the Court, and that from 1780 to 1792 he had himself supplied large quantities of steel ornaments to the Court of England, France and Spain".
One suspects that the "good authority" was, in fact, Wallis's relative, who was almost certainly the famous John Warralow. Wallis does not mention Woodstock and the whole passage cannot be taken as implying that the trade was introduced to Wolverhampton from Clerkenwell. The "trade intercourse" mentioned may be limited to the sale and distribution of finished products via Clerkenwell and the provision of materials from Wolverhampton. But the passage does seem to suggest that cut steel jewellery was made in Clerkenwell. There is no other such reference in the literature and it would, in some ways be a bit odd if the suggestion is accurate, in that cut steel jewellery, in its method of manufacture, seems always to come from the ironworking tradition and Clerkenwell was firmly into the precious metal jewellery tradition. Warralow may have decided on a change of medium and moved to Wolverhampton to do it. Or it may be that cut steel jewellery was made in Clerkenwell and Warralow simply decided that his trade could better be performed in Wolverhampton ,which would have provided a better source of materials as well as experienced workpeople.
The time implied for the start of the trade in Woodstock seems to be earlier than the time suggested for Clerkenwell. Why a trade of this sort should have started in Woodstock is not at all clear. It is quite possible that what could be described as steel toys were made in Wolverhampton (and perhaps other places) from medieval times and that Woodstock developed (for reasons unknown) the high quality work mainly in the form of jewellery.
To Woodstock, Wolverhampton and Clerkenwell, we must add a few other places as centres in which steel toys of one sort or another were made on some scale. Robert Hunt, in "A Treatise on the ... Manufactures in Metal", London, 1853, makes great play with Birmingham as a centre of production, saying that Boulton and Watts Soho factory started out making buckles and that in those days they were as well known for them as they were, in 1853, for steam engines. Undoubtedly many buckles were made in Birmingham and not just in the Soho factory.
Walsall was also a centre of buckle production. Interesting evidence about this centre appears in the memoirs of James Gee (1746 - 1827). These handwritten memoirs have been published in the Bugle during 2006. In the issue for 19th November 2006 Gee is recorded writing about buckles. Writing about the year 1767 he says: "My plan, when I first came to Walsall, was to stop until Whitsuntide and then go back to Dublin and so to Cork; but I got a good place of work for Mr. Joseph Adams of Digbeth, cutting buckles". He decided he was better off in Walsall than in Ireland because "a person in Ireland is generally obliged in our trade to finish his own work, part of which is polishing at a lathe brush. This is both laborious and nasty whereas at Walsall I had no more to do than carve the tops of the buckles with gravers and chisels and punches, besides which at Walsall there was a greater certainty of full employment as buckle making was the staple trade of the place." And a little later Gee says: "After my Father came to Walsall he got work at Mr. Joseph Adams' at filing copper or pinchbeck buckles and my Brother worked with me at cutting and as we all had used to work on silver buckles in Ireland, Mr. Adams began to make the like in Walsall. This he carried on until 1782 when he declined the business and my Father was the last workman he employed. His son, Joseph Adams, by this time had gone to live in London and he wished my Father and me to go there to work for him but, as I thought myself comfortably settled at Walsall I declined his proposal with thanks."
Robert Hunt also mentions Walsall, saying of it in his time, when shoe buckles were entirely out of fashion: "What, however, does remain of the shoe buckle and clasp trade is mostly confined to Walsal [sic], where, as before stated, buckles, rings, territs, and other things belonging to harness of all kinds, are manufactured."
There is no evidence in Gee or Hunt to suggest that the buckles were made of steel but some very likely were, even though the typical cut steel studs were very likely not used there. How far the buckles made at Walsall were shoe buckles or some other sort of buckle for human, ornamental use, is not clear, bearing in mind that Walsall's main trade was in harness, which would have included the buckles that went with harness. But both Wolverhampton and Walsall had a large trade in making horse harness and these towns therefore contained experienced buckle makers from long ago; and it may have been this skill which enabled them to leap onto the shoe buckle bandwagon when it came rolling by.
Bearing in mind that Walsall was represented in the deputation which had gone to the Prince of Wales to protest about the economic disaster which ensued when shoe buckle rather suddenly went out of fashion, it is clear that Walsall was also producing steel buckles and, quite probably, other steel toys too.
Stebbing Shaw, in 1801, noted the following trades in Darlaston: gun-lock makers, nailers, fet makers, chape forgers, chape makers, stirrup makers, buckle-ring forgers; which shows that other places in the Black Country were in on the trade too.
Bilston was of the greatest importance to the buckle making trade, especially that of Wolverhampton as a vital part of a buckle, the chape, was made there and then sent to Wolverhampton for making up into a finished buckle. There can be no doubt that Bilston made finished buckles too.
And then Bolsover in Derbyshire must be added to the list. Hunt says: "Bolsover in Derbyshire, now only noted for its castle, was famous for the manufacture of superior steel buckles. The test of their excellent temper, still traditionally reported in the neighbourhood, was, that though the wheel of a loaded cart should pass over a Bolsover buckle, the latter, in consequence of its elasticity, would not suffer any permanent alteration of shape."