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The constant throb of machinery echoed around the Crown Mills

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: September 03, 2014

By John Workman

  • Premises of James Bailey & Co Ltd in Wolverhampton Street, Walsall

  • The locks made for a variety of leather bags

  • The bag frame department was perhaps the most interesting

  • Manufactured items that were incidental to, rather than departments of, the staple leather trade

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WHEN Derek Whitehouse kindly passed on to us the Walsall Chamber of Commerce Book Year Book for 1916, we were stirred to plunder as much of the contents as possible simply because of its rich pickings and beautifully preserved content.

In previous weeks we have described how the buckle trade of the 18th century, a major industry in the fledgling growth of Walsall, almost went to the wall because of shoe strings, and the briefest of encounters with a story of an industry that came to dominate this Staffordshire town thereafter and made the name Walsall synonymous with the manufacture of leather goods worldwide.

But there were plenty of other manufacturers blazing a trail in the production of items such as toys, nuts and bolts, etc, and our third dip into the 1916 Trade Year Book has been like unwrapping the delights of a chocolate box, with the comprehensive story of James Bailey & Co. Ltd of the Crown Mills, Wolverhampton Street in Walsall, enhanced by beautifully drawn and printed full page colour plates of the works and some of the products the company made.

The following extracts are taken directly from the text in the 1916 Year Book. "In reviewing the many and varied aspects of the trade carried on at the premises of Messrs James Bailey & Co Ltd, it must always be borne in mind that Walsall is the hub of the universe in the leather and leather goods industry, and the steady development of this through the years has naturally opened up opportunities for the introduction of manufactures which are incidental to, rather than departments of, the staple leather trade."

The narrative describes the works premises as a "wondrously extensive manufactory" where the production of mountings for locks for all kinds of bags, trunks and cases, and also frames was carried out, allied with the manufacture of buckles, fittings, etc, which were largely used in military and naval accoutrements. The firm had a factory in Birmingham that made the tools for the production of the goods, and the narrative went on to say: "Nowhere better than at Crown Mills is seen the truth of the old assertion, that by manufacturing on a large scale the greatest degree of excellence is attained, and, moreover, the economic gain is such that the firm are able to offer their goods at prices which challenge all other makers the world over."

Visitors making a tour of the factory would have been impressed with the compactness of the works. In the main machine department where the stampings were made, heaps of skeletons of metal from which the lock-cases, handle-plates, and other small fittings were cut were in orderly profusion about the floor. Health and safety was treated seriously and in the polishing room exhaust hoods were positioned in front of each polishing spindle to extract the dust to a main air-shaft running the length of the building.

According to the narrative the big frame department was perhaps the most interesting of all, and because James Bailey was at the forefront of introducing machinery to replace manual work, the shop floor must have been a sight to behold for those used to manual labour: "One of the sights of the works is a very ordinary looking contrivance which, by the mere touch of a lever, will bend a straight piece of good British steel to the required shape and to a perfect right angle, a striking contrast to the time-honoured method of heating the raw material at the forge and then applying the crudest of utensils, the hammer. At one end of the room the steel lengths come in, they pass from one workman to another, and by the time they arrive at the opposite end of the room they have assumed the guise of bag frames."

References to the First World War are restricted to the final chapter where the use of a lot of warfare rhetoric is evident. "Messrs James Bailey & Co Ltd, are qualified as no other firm is for supplying the world and his wife with anything for which their name is noted. In the making of kit-bag frames they have taken the lead, and, to use a term no one will understand better than the German himself, by a process of attrition they have for years past successfully attacked the Teuton trade in this particular industry.

"Long before the clouds of war appeared on the European horizon, Messrs Bailey had made serious inroads on the German bag frame industry, and in open competition with her in the markets where hitherto she has held an acknowledged superiority, they have captured by merit alone a welcome proportion of the branches of the trade."

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