The Walsall Trades

By William Franklin
(With addenda by J. E. Tildesley)

Walsall, a town of upwards of 35,000 inhabitants, eight miles from Birmingham, and six from Wolverhampton, is situate on the outskirts of the great mining district of South Staffordshire, and has for more than 100 years possessed a trade in saddlers' ironmongery and saddlery. Doubtless at a period somewhat antecedent to this, the easy means of procuring iron and steel from the works in the immediate neighbourhood would have an influence in forming the trade of the town, but why it should have assumed this particular form of manufacture it is somewhat difficult to determine, unless we conclude that the present trade is the offspring of the trade in shoe buckles, which appears to have had its rise in the early part of the eighteenth century, and to have become entirely extinct towards the close of it.

This view would appear all the more probable as it is but a step from the formation of buckles for shoe purposes to those required for saddlery; indeed from this small beginning we may with tolerable certainty date the commencement of the trade which has made Walsall the second town in the county, and the chief seat of saddlery manufacture in the kingdom. During the first thirty years of the present century gradual progress was made, but, with the exception of some trade with India and America, the demand was confined to the home market.

Periods of stagnation were frequent, and whenever a bad harvest occurred, a time of depression inevitably followed. But simultaneously with the finding of gold in Australia a trade was opened with that colony. This trade in its results has been of inestimable value to Walsall, preventing by a continuous demand those periods of inactivity from which it had hitherto suffered, and at the same time, by enquiry for articles only of an enduring quality, stimulating the manufacturer to produce goods of superior make and workmanship; thus, while augmenting the trade, tending to raise also the style and finish in most of the branches of manufacture. With this encouragement the export has been still further cultivated, and a considerable amount of business is done with South America, Canada, New Zealand, and the Cape. With America a much greater trade might be expected if the tariff were lower, but forty percent upon saddlery has a most restrictive effect.

As yet no market has been opened with China and Japan. Expectations were raised by the treaty with France, but they have not been realised; the French show a disposition to take our raw materials, but manufactured goods only to a very limited extent, and then at prices lower than they can be procured in France.

The staples of the town are principally iron, comprising the manufacture of small castings forming the basis for a variety of' articles finished by turning, polishing, or plating with brass or silver. The introduction of malleable iron some years since has enabled the manufacturer to produce castings of a superior kind, such as at one time it was thought impossible to make except by forging. The articles are in great variety. The workmen are not very numerous; earning wages of about 24 shillings per week.

Chains, Cart Gearing, and Hames

Employing in the forging a considerable number of hands for home and export. The position of workmen not very good, the remuneration being from 16 shillings to 20 shillings per week.

Steel and Iron Bits and Stirrups

The manufacturers are numerous; export to North and South America; probably finding employment for more than 1,000 operatives, forgers earning 28 shillings and finishers 20 shillings per week

Formerly bits were all forged, but now many are made of malleable iron, which are cheaper, but not so safe or durable.

Plating in Silver and Brass

Chiefly connected with harness furniture, and since the introduction of the electro system, has been brought to great perfection. This branch of trade has increased 100 percent since 1849, and employs 1,000 operatives, earning about 21 shillings per week.


With an export to India and the Levant, doubled since 1849. Hands employed, about 700, earning 21 shillings to 22 shillings per week. At Walsall, wrought iron pad locks are made, and at Birchills, chest and cupboard locks, all of the cheaper kinds.

Spurs and Spring Bars

Number of operatives employed, 300; earnings, from 20 shillings to 25 shillings per week.

Gas Tubes, Chandeliers, and Iron Bedsteads

This branch of trade was introduced about 1830; and although but three works of this kind exist, they are extensive in character, employing over 1,500 pairs of hands. Machinery of the newest and best kind has been applied, superseding considerably hand labour, and making tubes capable of sustaining great pressure from either steam or water; the facilities of supply are great in this trade, and in consequence competition excessive, enhanced by the advanced price of iron and coal, the latter having risen about thirty percent within a very few years; the exports are to the continent and the colonies; earnings of operatives employed, from 15 shillings to 30 shillings per week.

Saddlers’ Tools, Swivels, Spring Hooks, Curbs, Awl Blades, Saddle Trees

All more or less connected with the saddlery trades, form a very important part of the manufactures of Walsall; but awl blades are made almost solely at Bloxwich. Total number of awl-blade factories in Walsall and Bloxwich, twenty-seven.

Brass Casting and Finishing

Chiefly as connected with harness furniture, the ornamental part of saddlery. Men employed, about 500; earnings, 20 shillings per week.


For which this town has long been famous, is made by tanning to a considerable extent, and prepared for use by the process of currying to a much greater extent, the tannages of the west and north of England being preferred for this purpose; the leather is mostly adapted for saddlery, but shoe leather is also well represented. The trade in leather has made great advances, the demand being double that of 1849. A noticeable feature may be found in the manufacture of japanned leather, a variety of brilliant colours being given, while black only could be made at that period. The number of men employed in the manufacture of leather, about 300; the earnings of tanners being 18 shillings, and curriers, 28 shillings to 35 shillings per week.


Produced in large numbers, with exports to Australia, New Zealand, South America, and India, the trade doubled since 1849, and marked improvement manifested in point of quality and finish during the last five years. Women employed in stitching ornamental parts of side saddles, number, 200; earnings, about 78 shillings per week, and saddle hand operatives, 400; earnings, about 25 shillings per week.

It is estimated that more than one third of the saddles made here are for the colonial market, chiefly Australia and New Zealand. Leading kinds, common riding saddles, shaft saddles, full shafts, and ladies' saddles, in addition to military saddles. The best hunting saddles are made of pig skin.

Harness Makers and Bridle Cutters

Trading principally with London, Birmingham, and Wolverhampton; exporting to Australia, North and South America. This branch has also doubled its make since 1849, and in time of war can always be made available to the Government, 25,000 sets of artillery and cavalry harness having been furnished in twenty months, without materially interfering with its home or export trade. Number of workmen employed, 200; earnings, 22 shillings to 24 shillings per week. Women: number, 300; earnings, 7 shillings per week. Perhaps it may be worthy of remark that little inventive genius has been displayed, and few changes of form or appearance made in harness or saddlery since 1849, the exception being the Nolan saddle, invented by Captain Nolan during the Crimean war, and now generally used in the army; it is mainly composed of wood, with solid leather seat, but is only suitable for military purposes.

The harness trade is divided into several branches. Collar making is quite a distinct trade, as also is saddle making. Those engaged in the latter are called “black saddlers” to distinguish them from the makers of brown or riding saddles.


There are several manufacturers of this kind: they make principally for home consumption, the export small. Number of workmen employed, about 100; earnings, 24 shillings to 25 shillings per week.

In reference to the local condition of the people, it will be found to stand quite on a level with Birmingham and Wolverhampton, the average earnings perhaps slightly exceeding either of them; if the standard of temperance were higher, the position of the working classes would be still further improved, but it is to improvidence of expenditure rather than to want of employment that we may trace poverty where it exists in the district. A large number of Irish have settled in this town; they find a general demand for their labour in the mines, ironworks, and building trades, and are usually a well-conducted class of men and anxious to improve their position; they obtain 15 shillings to 17shillings per week, and number not less than 5,000.


The number of workshops for the manufacture of bits, harness furniture, and general saddlers' ironmongery in Walsall and Bloxwich is 250. The number of factories in Walsall for the manufacture of saddles, bridles, and harness is 80.

In the latter branches, the proportion of females employed average sixty percent, but many are allowed to work at their own homes, as harness stitchers, thus preventing the usual ill results of female employment in factories. The latter work has recently been much accelerated by the introduction of the sewing machine, which enables one woman to do the work of twelve girls.

Of bits there is a numerous variety made, both of forged and cast iron. The most favourite pattern is known as the “Pelham.” Buckles are made both of brass and iron, and include the descriptions known as “tongue,” “roller,” “brace,” and “gear” buckles.

Stirrups are also made to suit every whim of equestrians. The descriptions largely in request are the “Victoria,” “The Ladies' stirrup,” and the “Devonshire slipper.”

Locks (wrought iron pad) are made from 7½ pence per dozen upwards, and are sent chiefly to India and the Levant. One firm makes 5,000 dozen per week.

Over 3,000 pairs of spectacles are made here weekly. The manufacture of steel shoe buckles, once so prosperous here, is now quite extinct, the “silver buckled shoon” of yore having succumbed to the introduction of Wellingtons and elastic sides.

Chains, Cart Gearing, and Hames

The leading kinds of chains made here are curb chains, dog chains, and trace chains, all of which are forged. Curb chains are polished and plated, both in brass and silver. Dog chains are polished and japanned, and trace chains brightened in a revolving barrel.

Cart gearing consists of backband, hooks, rings, and swivels. Backbands, or the chain crossing the saddle from either shaft, are forged, varying in weight from 4 lbs. to 12 lbs. Hooks, rings, and swivels, are both forged and cast in malleable iron.

Hames are of various descriptions. Some are made entirely of wrought iron and polished (for cart horses), others are made of malleable iron, plated with brass or silver, or (in many cases) covered with patent leather, and some are made of wood, coated with polished iron.

Steel and Iron Bits and Stirrups

What are known as steel bits are made chiefly from a superior quality of iron made in the neighbourhood. Iron bits are both forged and malleable. The leading kinds are “Snaffle,” “Pelham,” “Military,” and “Weymouth,” for riding purposes, and corresponding patterns for driving harness.

Stirrups are made in a variety of patterns, polished, and silver plated. The leading patterns are “Military,” the “Ladies' stirrup,” and the “Devonshire slipper.”

Spurs are made in a great variety; some to screw in the boot of the rider, others to fasten with a strap, and peculiar patterns for the South American and other markets.

Harness ornaments are made for bridles, saddles, etc. in brass and silver plated metal, in a variety of patterns, including crests, rosettes, and other devices. These are chiefly made of stamped or cast metal, the former being filled with lead to give additional strength.

Buckles are chiefly cast of malleable iron. They are polished, japanned, tinned, silver plated, or covered with black leather for harness, and brown leather for bridles.

Brushes are also of great variety. The more prominent kinds are oil brushes, varnish brushes, shoe brushes, paint brushes, clothes, hat, and hair brushes, and others for household purposes.

Saddle-tree making is a distinct branch of trade; and the quality of the saddle greatly depends on the excellence of these articles. They are made of wood, and some are so constructed that they will yield to pressure.

The harness and saddlery trade is confined to Walsall. There are about fifteen factories, each employing from fifty to 100 hands. In the cutting, making up, and stitching saddles and bridles, adults and young persons of both sexes are employed, but few children, except in the houses of the workpeople. In one of the largest of these factories no girls under eighteen are employed. But in the manufacture of other parts of harness, the leather being thinner, the stitching can be done by younger hands. The introduction of sewing machines into these shops has dispensed with a great deal of the labour of the younger girls. With this machine one woman can do the work of twelve girls in stitching buckles. It is generally the custom for the men to do the harder work in the factories, the lighter work is given out to women to do in their own homes.

The saddle and harness factories at Walsall are very neat and well built. No heat is required in any of the shops except for the comfort of the workpeople. It is, however, too much the practice in these shops, as elsewhere where women are engaged in sedentary employment, to keep the shop very hot and exclude all fresh air as much as possible.

The hours of labour in these trades are from 7 or 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. In the harness factories, overtime to 10 p.m. is occasionally resorted to, but not very frequently.

The wages in the harness and saddlery trades are rather above the average. The earnings of workmen vary from 20 shillings to 45 shillings per week. The girls and women can earn from 8 shillings to 13 shillings per week. The wages of apprentices for the first year is 3 shillings, in the latter years of their apprenticeship they get from 12 shillings to 14 shillings.

Bloxwich. Awl Blades and Saddlers’ Ironmongery

The Rev. John Barrow, Incumbent, says “There is scarcely any employment for girls here; a few work at filing tacks. The apprentices in the awl blade and saddlers' ironmongery shops work very long hours, much longer than at Walsall in similar trades."

Return to the
previous page