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SIDNEY CRUTCHLEY AND WALSALL'S EQUESTRIAN LEATHER TRADE

 

Documents

Sidney Crutchley preparing patent leather, the Boak, Walsall, circa 1970.

 

An Introduction to Walsall's Leather Industry

Leather is the commodity that made the town of Walsall famous. Even in the 21st century, many years after the demise of most of the industry in Walsall, several firms continue to service the saddlery and equine equipment markets. A short browse through lists of businesses currently operational in Walsall reveals the existence of an industry that most people believe has long since been assigned to the history text books. At the end of 2020 there were around 80 leather companies still trading in the town. In October 2020 a new training centre was opened to teach the manufacture of saddle, bridle and leather products, thus continuing the tradition of leather making in Walsall.

Some of the earliest records of leather working in Walsall date from the late 18th century when several bridle makers were operating in the town. In 1793, at the age of thirteen, George Cliff began his apprenticeship in the manufacture of bridles. His son Jabez Cliff founded an equestrian leather business in Portland Street, Walsall, which became known as the Cliff Barnsby company. Today Barnsby equestrian leather products remain in demand around the globe.

Following the trade's humble origins, Walsall's leather industry began to expand rapidly in the middle of the 19th century. Its growth was enabled by the skills of Walsall trades people such as Loriners, and additionally a local abundance of raw materials such as animal hides, iron ore and Limestone. The widespread use of horses for all manner of transportation needs ensured that there was a high demand for Walsall's high quality leather products.

By 1900, the leather industry in the Walsall had reached its economic peak, employing somewhere in the region of ten thousand people. For generations of 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 primary trade gave rise to jobs in supply industries such as Awl blade manufacture, for which nearby Bloxwich is noted.

Walsall's leather trade centered on the supply of equestrian goods, the main products being bridles, harnesses, riding whips and saddles. Walsall became a world leader in saddle making and associated manufacturing techniques, Walsall saddles were supplied to the Royal families and nobility of the world. Other products including belts, hip flasks and wallets were also made in the town, but saddles and bridles retained their primary importance for Walsall businesses. Nevertheless, in the 1930's Walsall supplied footballs for the FA Cup and the Olympic games, but the town's manufacturers never ventured into the realms of consumer leather products such as shoes or clothing.

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 encouraged the town's leather manufacturers to shift to producing specialty items. As the years passed by, the number of people employed by the town's leather industry declined dramatically. Today, there remain about one thousand leather industry jobs in Walsall. Many of the traditional supporting trades such as currying have disappeared, made redundant by a supply of cheap, 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 or so saddlers operating in and around the town, and long-established brands such as Cliff Barnsby and Whitehouse-Cox are still in demand.

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 available 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 metal working trades such as Awl blade or lock manufacture.

In common with most 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 who was 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 his adult working life in the spring of 1923.

Learning a Trade

According to the recollections of family members, Sidney began work with a leather firm called Darby's in Walsall. Despite the help of David Mills, Museum Assistant at the Walsall Leather Museum, I have been unable to confirm via surviving documents that this was the case. However, the 1935 edition of the Walsall Red Book shows that there was a firm of leather curriers called Levi Darby, who had premises on Bradford Lane.

Bradford Lane

Bradford Lane, Walsall, 1st January 2021.

Later in his working life, Sidney took a position with Handford Greatrex, a leather currier company located in Whittimere Street, Walsall, where the Morrisons supermarket stands today. The company was first registered on 30th November 1897, a new business that superseded the earlier company of Handford, Greatrex and Brother. The latter company were leather tanners with premises in Walsall and apparently, Paris.

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 role of the Leather Currier was to 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, it stood on the corner of Walhouse Road and Pershouse Street. Like Sidney, Ada also lived in Lower Rushall Street, and so probably knew my grandfather throughout 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, with the area becoming a notorious slum. The once grand eighteenth-century middle-class houses with their labyrinth of courts at the rear, began to fall into terminal disrepair. Around this time, my grandfather moved his young family a short distance to a house in Teddesley Street. The terraced house they obtained was built at the beginning of the twentieth century, and must have seemed relatively modern and new to Sidney and his young family on the day that they moved in. Certainly, their new home would have provided an improvement in living conditions, compared to those the family would have experienced in Lower Rushall Street.

It was whilst living at Teddesley Street that Sidney invested in an example of the latest thing in 1930s entertainment technology. He purchased a Cossor 3467 radio, new in 1934. This radio remains in the possession of our family today and was restored to working order by my father and I in May 2016.

Cossor 3467

Cossor 3467 radio circa 1934.

The video below shows the moment that the Cossor 3467 radio chassis was brought back to working order, following its restoration.

 

 

Difficult Times

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

Journeyman

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

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

My grandfather continued as a leather currier for the remainder of his working life, toiling on as his industry slipped irretrievably into decline. Despite highly 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 according to recollections the family did tour the country on 'Charrabanc' trips. The personal motoring revolution passed my grandfather by, he never learned to drive or owned a car.

When the second World War engulfed Europe, my grandfather enlisted to serve as an ARP warden. He was to spend many nights at the ARP station close to his home, located near to the Coalpool Tavern. His wartime duties involved long hours on patrol in his neighbourhood.

The End of An Industry

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

Patent Leather

Sidney Crutchley (left) preparing patent leather, circa 1950 to 1960.

Following the closure of Handford Greatrex, 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 was at one point designated a Grade 2 listed building by English Heritage, but unfortunately the building was destroyed by fire on 23rd July 2012.

The Boak

The Boak leather works, Walsall, 9th November 2008.

It was at the BOAK that the photograph at the top of this page 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
Updated 1st January 2021.