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The British Leather Industry

The British Leather Industry

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.

Why Walsall?

It is unclear as to why Walsall became the centre for the British leather industry.

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

Around 1860 the sewing machine was introduced, 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.

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 adapted and many companies started to make and sell ‘fancy’ leather goods such as traveling bags, writing cases, hat boxes, belts and dog collar and leads.

By 1920, glove making became popular in Walsall too.

Cheap Imports

From the 1960s onwards, there was stiff competition from overseas, 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.

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.

Walsall Today

It is estimated that 70 Walsall based companies remain in the town today.

They either specialise in the highest quality of products destined for luxury markets in United States, Japan, Continental Europe and 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.

Independent Saddlers

In addition to Walsall based companies, there is an influx of independent trained Saddlers around the UK.

They 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 leather work and using British Leather and metalwork.

Buy British

So, if you decide to purchase a new leather item in the future, then be sure of its quality, craftsmanship, strength and durability by buying British handmade.

(Reference:   Glasson. M, 2003, The Walsall Leather Industry, Tempus Publishing Limited, Gloucestershire, pp. 7-12.)

“Be Bespoke, Buy British”

As an independent saddler myself, you are more than welcome to browse through this website or be brave and have something commissioned.

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