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When the future prosperity of a Black Country town hung by a shoestring

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: August 11, 2014

By John Workman

  • Lichfield Street, Walsall in 1915, and (right) buckle manufacturers Thomas Evans & Son

  • A view of Walsall taken in 1915, showing St. Matthew's church on the horizon

  • Eyland & Sons, established in 1760

  • The Prince of Wales, later George IV, saviour of Walsall's buckle industry in 1792

  • Alfred Stanley & Sons, established in 1856 and manufacturers of buckles and clasps in nickel plate, gilt, and leather covered

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DURING research into the towns of the Black Country , institutions that can bring communities together, namely football teams, often give away huge clues about the town's industrial and historical past by way of their nicknames, the Glassboys of Stourbridge and the Saddlers of Walsall are two that spring to mind.

In its heyday Walsall was world renowned for its manufacture of bespoke saddlery and leather goods in general, and the full accoutrements for a horseman including spurs, bridles and stirrups. But at the end of the 18th century the simple shoe-string threatened the very existence of another well known industry in Walsall and also the future prosperity of the town.

A wonderfully kept hard back copy of the very first Walsall Chamber of Commerce Year book published in 1916 is full of advertising plates of local industries, the majority of which are connected with leather. But together with nuts and bolts, the locks, the chains, bridges and hardware, are the buckle manufacturers and we have lifted the following extract from a section called Walsall Industries to explain the predicament the buckle makers found themselves in in 1792:

"The adoption of shoe-strings as a substitute for the familiar buckle, caused considerable consternation in Walsall, and a representative deputation visited London and invoked the Court's intervention on behalf of the ancient custom of wearing the buckle. It was introduced to the Prince of Wales, afterwards George IV, by Sheridan, whose support was solicited, 'fearing that if the stagnation of trade caused by the patronage of shoe-strings and slippers continued, miseries, emigrations, and other horrible consequences must inevitably ensue'.

The Prince of Wales ordered the principal officers of the Court into his presence, and told them that from that moment they must discard the use of shoe-strings, while he expressed the hope that they would never offend him by not using so important an article of British manufacture as buckles.

The Dukes of York and Clarence followed his example and for a time buckles became fashionable, and most elaborate ones were used by the Royal Family, but by slow degrees they again fell into disuse. In 1820 George III discarded buckles altogether and the Walsall paper of the day declared that the town was ruined. However it wasn't to be, for although buckles were not used on shoes to the same extent as they had been previously, they were used for an endless variety of other purposes and Walsall found itself making more buckles than ever before.

One of the most respected buckle manufacturers was Messrs. Thomas Evans and Son, and it was Thomas himself who in 1866 proclaimed to his limited world that he was a maker of vest and brace buckles, and it was supplying the needs of the fashion industry that the foundations for success were laid for his business. In 1906 the company employed 200, but ten years later that number had doubled, and they manufactured a wide variety of buckles, from the smallest used for sandal belts to men's belt buckles.

The Walsall Chamber of Commerce Year Book for 1916 contained many more buckle manufacturers, two of which we have highlighted in this feature, Alfred Stanley & Sons of Wednesbury Road, and Eyland & Sons. Other names for the record include H Frost & Co Ltd, J Withers & Son Ltd, Alfred Bullows & Sons Ltd of the Long Street Works, John Birch &Sons Ltd of Brook Street, and C C Walker Ltd of the Despatch Foundry & Buckle Works, Stafford Street, Walsall.

It is true, no business is more typically associated with Walsall than the leather trade and all that pertains to it. But it was buckles that saved the day courtesy of a Prince of the Realm.

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