Introduction - Walsall's Leather Industry

*** Updated 1st November 2005 ***

Leather is the commodity which made Walsall famous. Even in the 21st century, many years after the demise of the majority of the industry in Walsall, a number of firms continue to service the saddlery and equine equipment markets. A short browse through today's telephone book reveals a thriving industry most people believe has long since been assigned to the history text books.

The earliest records of leather working in Walsall date from the late 18th century, when a number of bridle makers were operating in the town. In 1793, at the age of thirteen, George Cliff began his apprenticeship in the manufacture of bridles. The company founded in Portland Street, Walsall by his son Jabez Cliff is still in operation in the town today, known as the Cliff Barnsby company.

Walsall's leather trade began to expand rapidly in the middle of the 19th century. It's importance grew out of the skills of local trades people such as Loriners, and local raw materials resources such as animal hides, iron ore and Limestone. The widespread use of horses for all manner of transportation fueled the growth which took place in the industry.

By 1900, the leather industry in the Walsall had reached its economic peak, employing somewhere in the region of ten thousand people. For many Walsall people, jobs 'In The Leather' provided some security during the economic hardships of the early years of the twentieth century and the great depression. In addition to employment within the leather industry itself, Walsall's trade gave rise to jobs in supply industries such as Awl blade manufacture, for which near by Bloxwich is noted.

Walsall's trade was based on the supply of equestrian goods. The main products were bridles, harnesses, riding whips and saddles. Walsall became a world leader in saddle manufacture and manufacturing techniques. Walsall saddles were supplied to the Royal families and nobility of the world. Other products included belts, hip flasks and wallets. In the 1930's Walsall supplied footballs for the FA Cup and the Olympic games. The town's manufacturers never ventured into the realms of shoe or clothing production.

As the utilisation of horses for transportation began to decrease, so inevitably did the fortunes of Walsall's leather manufacturers. At the same time economic pressure from foreign manufacturers with lower operating costs, caused the main business of the towns leather manufacturers to shift to specialty items. Over a period of years the number of people employed by the town's leather industry declined dramatically. Today, there remain about one thousand five hundred leather jobs in Walsall. Many of the traditional trades, such as currying have disappeared, replaced by cheaper, ready prepared hides from abroad.

In recent times, the reputation of Walsall's leather manufacturers as producers of fine quality saddlery has seen something of a revival. There are now around sixty five saddlers operating within the town, and long established companies such as Cliff Barnsby and Whitehouse-Cox are still leading the world in fine leather goods manufacture.

The Working Life Of Sidney Crutchley

The Early Years

Sidney Crutchley was born on September 9th 1908, at 1 back of 17 Field Street, Bloxwich. He was the son of James Ernest and Isabella Crutchley (nee Duckhouse), one of their six children. Like many in his family who came before and afterwards, Sidney's baptism took place at All Saints Church, Bloxwich, on October 7th 1908.

Due to the lack of records from the period, little is currently known about my grandfather's childhood or education. However during the early period of his life, Sidney and his family moved from Bloxwich to Lower Rushall Street in Walsall. It may have been this event which shaped the course of Sidney's working life, as Walsall's predominant trade at the time was the manufacturing of leather goods. Had he remained in Bloxwich, he may well have been employed in trades such as Awl blade or lock manufacture.

In common with the majority of others in the early years of the twentieth century, the prevailing economic conditions dictated that Sidney should seek employment from an early age. Sidney's family were firmly working class, his father being a brass finisher, and his mother a brush filler. Section 134 of the Factory and Workshop Act, 1901 required that any person under the age of sixteen, and seeking employment should prove their age with a copy of their birth certificate. In my Grandfather's case this document still exists, and shows he was just fourteen and a half years old when he began working in the spring of 1923.

Learning a Trade

According to the recollections of family members, Sidney began work with Darby's firm in Walsall. However, despite the help of David Mills, Museum Assistant at the Walsall Leather Museum, I have been unable to confirm this was the case. Later in his working life, Sidney took work with Handford Greatorex.

As was customary at the time, Sidney would have served a seven-year apprenticeship as a Leather Currier, being bound to his trade and learning his skills from journeyman leather curriers. Probably one of his first tasks would have been to make the tools which were peculiar to the process of leather finishing.

The Leather Currier would fashion tanned animal hides into strong and versatile leather, by a process which in 1923 was still largely a manual task. The currier would first scrub a moistened hide to clean away any deposits left behind after the tanning process. Then he shaved the hide to achieve the required thickness, as dictated by the end use. Next 'Dubbin', a mixture of oils and fats was applied to waterproof, protect and lubricate the hide. Finally, any surface finish such as patent or embossing would be applied. The whole process was time consuming, dirty and extremely hard work.

Family Life

On Christmas Day, 1929 Sidney married Ada Sherman at St George's church in Walsall. The church itself is long since demolished, but it stood on the corner of Walhouse Road and Pershouse Street. Like Sidney, Ada also lived in Lower Rushall Street, and so may have known my grandfather during her childhood. At the time of their marriage, Sidney again stated his occupation was a leather currier.

By 1930, living conditions in Lower Rushall Street were deteriorating rapidly to those of a slum. The once grand eighteenth century middle class houses with their labyrinth of courts at the rear, began to fall into disrepair. Around this time, my grandfather moved his family a short distance to Teddesley Street. The terraced house they obtained was built at the beginning of the twentieth century and must have seemed modern and new to Sidney and his young family.

Difficult Times

According to family recollections, sometime during the early part of his working life, Sidney found himself unable to secure work. Since this is earlier than my father's memories, it would seem likely it was between 1930 and 1940, the time of the great depression. One of Sidney's daughters recently recalled that her father would walk each day from his home, to the Austin Rover factory at Longbridge, Birmingham in search of employment.

Journeyman

The birth certificate of Sidney's daughter Dorothy Joan Crutchley, who was born in 1940, shows Sidney had achieved Journeyman Currier status by this time. He was now fully qualified and trained in his trade, and was able to produce leather to the highest quality and specifications, as demanded by his employer. Some of his products would have been exported, but much of it would have been supplied to the saddlers and bridle cutters who helped to earn Walsall it's reputation.

Working conditions for my grandfather at the Handford Greatorex company would, by today's standards have been harsh. Compared to other industries within the Black Country during this period, they would have been relatively good. The workshops had to be well lit and as most tasks were manual, noise levels were comparatively low. However the smell of leather would permeate my grandfather's clothing and was very noticeable to his family when he returned home.

My grandfather continued as a leather currier for the remainder of his working life, as the industry in Walsall slipped irretrievably into decline. Despite tremendously negative economic forces, Sidney's trade continued to provide a relatively good lifestyle for him and his family and they moved into a larger, rented property on Coalpool Lane in 1939. Regular holidays were a thing of the future, but the family did tour the country on 'Charrabanc' trips. The personal motoring revolution passed by my grandfather, he never owned a car.

When the second World War began, my grandfather enlisted as an ARP warden. He was to spend many nights at the ARP station near the Coalpool Tavern and on patrol in his neighbourhood.

The End Of An Industry

Finally on February 28th 1962 the Handford Greatorex company succumbed to the decline in the leather industry. The photograph on the left, above shows my grandfather with a group of Handford Greatorex colleagues applying a varnish, most probably linseed oil, to a hide with their brushes. The intended end product was most likely patent leather.

Following the closure of Handford Greatorex, my grandfather moved to the BOAK in Bridgeman Street, Walsall. A photograph of the BOAK factory building, otherwise known as the Ravenscarig Works, is shown below. The BOAK has now been designated a Grade 2 listed building by English Heritage, and should serve as a remainder of Walsall's once proud leather industry to future generations.

It was at the BOAK that the photograph above on the right was taken, showing my grandfather spraying a leather hide. Later family documents refer to my grandfather as a 'Leather Sprayer' rather than a currier, a sign of the application of newer manufacturing technology to an old trade.

Retirement

Sidney retired from the leather industry in September 1973, after completing fifty years as a Leather Currier and sprayer. Throughout his entire working life, he was absent from work for only a few days due to illness. He died on the 11th of September 1981 and was cremated at Ryecroft, on the opposite side of Coalpool Lane to his home. His wife Ada died on 1st November 2005, at the age of ninety-seven.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank David Mills, Museum Assistant at the Leather Museum, Walsall for his assistance in compiling this history.

 

GS Crutchley
September 2000, updated October 2003 and September 2005.