Archive: Walsall's Famous Leather Industry Isn't Hiding Any More; Ross Reyburn Finds There Is a Renewed Interest in Walsall's History of Leather Making
Byline: Ross Reyburn
The Walsall Art Gallery, that somewhat puzzling pounds 21 million architectural oddity, brought an avalanche of publicity in trendy lifestyle magazines and colour supplements for the Black Country town after it opened in 2000.
A few hundred yards away life is rather quieter at another of the town's visitor attractions that pays homage to the town's status as a major saddlery manufacturer. But the knock-on effect from the new gallery has raised visitor figures at the Walsall Leather Museum to just under 30,000 a year.
Housed in an atmospheric former Victorian factory with arched leaded windows where leather goods were once made in the ring road street named Wisemore, the museum was opened by the Princess Royal in June 1988.
'The museum was seen as a way of raising Walsall's profile and confidence at a time when industry was in difficulties and the town was seen as a poor relation of Birmingham,' said curator Mike Glasson, a historian who previously worked at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.
'It was felt there should be somewhere in the town that celebrated a remarkable trade. Not many people seemed to know about it.
'Today we have more than 90 companies in the town all related in some way or another to leather production with about 2,500 to 3,000 people employed in the trade. Around the year 1900, there were about 10,000 people but saddlery was decimated by the coming of the motor car so companies had to diversify.'
Neat display boards give you an instant insight into the town's trade - for example you can learn how the number of saddlers and harness makers in the town catapulted from 29 to 6,830 between the years of 1801 and 1901.
Sketches abound of elegant advertisements for the town's leather products and views of the substantial factories of the town's leather goods firms - some of which managed to acquired a London address to get a higher sales profile.
There is reproduction of Lady Butler's dynamic painting of the Scots Greys charging at the Battle of Waterloo and a fine example of Victorian inventiveness in the advertisement for Barnsby's Patent Stirrup-Leather Bar, which could save your life if you fell off a horse as the stirrup would free itself from the saddle if your foot was trapped.
There are models of workers at their workbenches in the Bridle Workshop and hundreds of examples of leather industry products ranging from piles of suitcases to magnificent saddles. In a display case is the football used when Walsall - known as The Saddlers - shocked the nation by beating the famed Arsenal side 2-0 in an FA Cup match in 1933. In the museum rooms, former leather trade workers are there as demonstrators.
'What is special about this place is that it is a living and working museum,' said Glasson, who is currently writing a book about the town's leather industry. 'We have at any one time up to three demonstrators. 'Their life stories are fascinating - they have actually lived with the leather trade and you can ask the questions you want.'
Talk to Pauleen Porter, for example, and you can discover the drawback of machine stitching. 'There is not a machine that can sew like a hand-stitcher,' she will tell you. …