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A leather bound town in the Black Country

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: August 22, 2014

By John Workman

  • E.T. Holden & Son, established in 1819

  • Harry Willis, maker of saddles, contractor to HM War Office

  • Advertisements taken from the 1916 Walsall Chamber of Commerce Year Book that reiterate just how important a part the leather trade has played in the history of the town

  • A 1916 pin-up ready to drive a motor car

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AT the height of the First World War the Walsall Chamber of Commerce issued their first "Year Book" that incorporated the interests of the trade and commerce of Walsall, Wednesbury, Darlaston and the surrounding areas.

Walsall had joined an elite group of towns, cities and areas up and down the country to issue a "Year Book", following hot on the heels of places such as Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, Bristol, Swansea and Belfast, and in a beautifully presented hard back copy there are dozens of pages of local companies advertising their wares, from leather goods to cast iron toys.

The Walsall Chamber of Commerce was instituted in 1881 and in the book's introduction the President of the Chamber of Commerce, C.F. Hurst, stated: "I realise the importance such a publication as this will gain if it comes with the full authority of the business men of Walsall." He continued: "The issue of such a book as this is obviously a matter of great moment, and the time of its publication is such as to render doubly imperative the necessity of every detail calculated to spread the fame of Walsall in foreign climes. The year of the great European war presents an opportunity for the commercial and industrial development of Walsall which knows no precedent , and in the lifetime of this or the succeeding generation is hardly likely to see its equal. It would, therefore, be alien to the traditions of the Chamber if they did not seek to reap the benefits afforded by Britain's naval supremacy."

Walsall, together with almost every other major Black Country town, developed and prospered because of one particular industry, and in Walsall's case it was leather that dominated. The adverts we have chosen to illustrate this fact are just a fraction of the companies and manufacturers of all kinds of leather goods, that appear in full page displays in the 1916 "Year Book". E.T. Holden , established in 1819, were tanners, curriers, jappaners, and manufacturers of leather from saddles and bridles to purses and bicycle saddles. They were also specialists with hog skins and were producing coloured enamelled cushion or buffalo hides for the fairly new phenomenon of motor cars.

H.R. Aulton & Co of the Warwick Works, Littleton Street in Walsall, were manufacturers of fancy leather goods that included such things as letter cases, purses, jewellery cases, shaving outfits, belts, dog collars and watch guards. W. Brookes & Sons, Ltd. were wholesale manufacturers of all kinds of saddlery and harness for every market and in 1916 had been established for over 150 years. Leather leggings looked very smart on a gentleman in 1916 and among a whole host of products, D. Power & Sons Ltd of the PlumeWorks, Walsall, was making a variety of designs including the "Simplex", the "Motor" and the "Ascot" shown in the advertisement.

The "Year Book" emphasised the importance of tanning and the leather industry to Walsall and devotes several lengthy chapters to both subjects: "No feature of business is more typical of Walsall's industries than thoroughness, and this is essentially true of leather and all that pertains to it."

The book went on to describe the early days of the tanning industry in the town: "Tanning has been in operation for a great many years, an art and mystery that was practiced in the very early days of Walsall's industrial development. Diligent search of the municipal annals would doubtless reveal occasions when the governing body of the town came into legal conflict with the proprietors of the tannery in consequence of the effluent from the premises contaminating some jealously guarded stream."

Under the heading saddlery and harness the book pulled no punches in its opening remark: "The whole world is the customer of the Walsall saddle-makers, and of the many trades in the town none can compare with the saddlery and harness industries, which claim precedence over all others. Blending the two into one trade it cannot necessarily lay claim to be the first to be adopted on any large scale, but it has far outstripped its rivals, and today it is easily the staple industry of Walsall."

The section on saddlery and harness went on to comment on how the war had effected the industry: "The demands of the war have imposed a tremendous additional strain upon the resources of the Walsall factories, and the natural desire of the younger workmen to seek the trench instead of the bench tended at first to make things awkward. But by extra exertion, and foresighted enterprise, the calls upon the Walsall saddle manufacturers have been patriotically met, and the part Walsall has played in the equipment of the allied forces in the field has been a conspicuous one."

The coloured plate that appears at the top of the page is indicative of the age and shows a young lady dressed in her cream leathers about to drive an automobile. It was reproduced by Bembrose & Sons Ltd, a company that worked in the letterpress, lithographic and general printing trade and suitably promote the overriding trade in Walsall in 1916, and that was leather.

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