The November meeting of Stourbridge Historical Society took place on Thursday 15th November 2018. Our Vice President Trevor Sidaway welcomed 64 members, 7 visitors and Michael Glasson, a speaker who was new to the Society. He was the Curator of the Leather Museum in Walsall for many years. Michael’s subject talk was entitled 'Walsall: Town of a Hundred Trades.'
Michael began by explaining that Walsall’s High Street had recently been designated the second worst in Britain and explaining that he hoped the audience would see his home town in a more favourable light by the end of his talk. Walsall’s industrial heritage goes back 4000 years, it had a 30 feet coal seam underground and access to limestone clay and iron ore, so important for industry. There was a flourishing metal industry in the middle ages.
In the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries Walsall became a very important centre for the production of buckles. Also, by the 19th century it was the leading centre for stirrups and horsebits. Matthew Honey and Co. made stirrups for many countries including South America and the USA and also specialised in gaucho spears. The 19th century also saw the arrival of blast furnaces and the development of process for the malleable casting of iron which increased the range of items produced and assisted production. Walsall became renowned for electroplating and galvanising. Heavy industry was in evidence all along the canal.
Leather making is synonymous with Walsall and its most celebrated industry. In 1830 a lorimer named Thomas Meaton began making saddles to go with metal stirrups etc., which led to Walsall producing saddles for a global market and by 1890 Walsall was globally dominant in this field. Walsall had many tanneries as a result of the significant demand for leather. The coming of the car caused a decline in the demand for saddlery. The industry moved in part toward satchels, bags and purses and high-end products. A bag carried by Grace Kelly in the film Rear Window was made in Walsall. To this day leather bags made in Walsall are highly sort after. Michael explained that Japanese visitors to the Leather Museum shop quickly clear the shelves of high-quality bags produced by Whitehouse Cox in Walsall. The Lorna of London bags used by Queen Elizabeth II are made in Walsall.
Another industry which developed as stirrup making declined was the production of stainless steel. Wiggins of Bloxwich made the move from stirrups to stainless steel and they began making tea pots and cutlery. Robert Welch became their in-house designer for the very successful and world class Old Hall range. Michael spoke about many other industries which developed or diversified and became important for the Walsall economy. The Walsall Lithographic Company produced catalogues for saddlery and seats. In 1964 the Walsall Security Company produced the world’s first self-adhesive stamp. John Hawley and Company produced ropes, twines and cords. The discs for the Selfridges Department store in Birmingham were produced in Walsall. Michael explained that despite its decline as a manufacturing area Walsall still holds Four Royal Warrants. He summed up his talk by saying that he felt Walsall should be applauded for its excellence, innovation, adaptability and receptiveness.
Trevor thanked Michael for opening everyone’s eyes to Walsall’s diversity and announced that the next meeting will be the society’s AGM which will take place on Thurdsay December 13th. 2018.
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