The Nineteenth Century: A Time of Expansion for Walsall
Already Britain’s expanding overseas empire as well as her involvement in the Napoleonic Wars was having a considerable effect on the quantities, as well as types of lorinery products made in the town. Pearce’s Directory of Walsall gives the numbers of men employed in the trade, and allied trades, in 1813 as follows:
- 15 Awl blade-makers
- 3 Martingale hook-makers
- 1 Brass coach founder
- 30 Platers
- 10 Bridle bit-makers
- 2 Roller buckle-makers
- 1 Bridle tong-maker
- 2 Tin pelham-makers
- 10 Buckle-makers
- 23 Stirrup-makers
- 1 Buckle stamper
- 4 Saddle tree-makers
- 1 Coach iron founder
- 14 Saddlers’ ironmongers
- 2 Coach brassfounders
- 3 Spring saddle bar-makers
- 1 Brass coach harness-maker
- 3 Stay-makers
- 1 Bridoon-maker
- 14 Snaffle-makers
- 2 Curb and roller buckle-makers
- 2 Tinned snaffle and bit-makers
- 7 Curb-makers
- 6 Spur-makers
- 8 Coach bit-makers
- 1 Snaffle and bridoon-maker
- 2 Chape-makers
- 25 Bit-makers
- 1 Black chain-maker
It is interesting to note the degree of specialism of some of these craftsmen. There are buckle and roller buckle-makers. There are also snaffle, bridoon and pelham-makers. All these three refer to different types of bits (the snaffle and bridoon being very similar in design and function).
It is also interesting that curb chains for bits are obviously made by different individuals again, the craft of chain making using different techniques to bit forging.
The impact of the Industrial Revolution, too, had a considerable effect on the growth of the lorinery trade in Walsall. In 1811, the process of making malleable iron castings was developed in Birmingham. It now became possible to cast metal articles without them becoming brittle, by placing them in annealing ovens after casting.
From the mid-nineteenth century also, nickel, both in malleable form and used as plating, was developed commercially and became widely used in the trade. These two advances in technology had the effect of making it more economic to make the goods in factories rather than in small workshops. Casting, plating and drop forging gradually took the place of hand forging until, in 1939, only about four hand forgers were left.
The establishment of lorinery from the eighteenth century as a major trade in Walsall was responsible for the subsequent growth of the leather and saddlery trades, not the other way round, as some have been led to believe. It is doubtful whether Walsall would have achieved its world wide reputation for high class saddlery, harness and leather goods, had it not been for the already flourishing saddlers' ironmongery trade.
Both trades together boomed during the second half of the nineteenth century as Britain’s Empire grew, her military commitments increased and her supremacy in maritime commerce ensured plentiful overseas markets for her manufactured goods.
Changes in the Twentieth Century
The coming of the motor car was largely responsible for the decline of the lorinery trade over the last eight decades or so. There was a brief resurgence of fortunes during the First World War owing to the need to keep the cavalry and horse-drawn artillery well supplied. However, after that, many firms diversified or turned over to making metal parts for motorcar bodies.
The trade in Walsall, and indeed Great Britain as a whole, has declined dramatically since then. The explosion in the use of the horse for leisure purposes over the last thirty years or so has benefited the saddlery trade, but not the loriners.
British firms cannot compete with the low production costs of countries like South Korea, India and China. The majority of saddlers’ ironmongery is now therefore imported. The one exception to this has been saddle tree manufacturing and here the British makers have seen a boom. There are currently ten companies in Walsall making saddle trees, compared to three in 1985.
The turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen the sad demise of many famous lorinery names in Walsall. The period has been one of mergers and closures, with famous firms like Eland, Matthew Harvey and Eldonian being consigned to the history books. Some trade names, such as Cotterell, may continue under new ownership but the goods themselves are usually bought in.
However a few companies are still carrying on the tradition of producing high-quality lorinery items in Walsall.West Midlands.
It used to be the case that the name “loriner” only applied to those who hand forged their products. However, casting, drop forging and electro-plating processes have almost entirely taken over from hand forging and “loriner” has now come to mean anyone who is engaged in the production of saddlers’ ironmongery.
Until the end of the eighteenth century, bits, spurs, stirrups and other harness parts were forged in wrought iron. Thereafter steel became the preferred material. Pieces were hand forged, using a hammer, an anvil and a source of heat, from a bar of wrought iron or steel. When the shape had been achieved the article was then filed smooth and burnished, probably using a “plane” and “hank”, a useful tool for burnishing right into the corners and insides of loops.
Most of the tools used by loriners for hand forging and burnishing are similar to those of other types of metal smiths. A good description of the process and some of the tools involved can be found in R.A. Salaman’s “Dictionary of Leather-working Tools”. Salaman obtained some of his information about these tools from a retired Walsall loriner, William Stone. A collection of Mr. Stone’s tools is to be found in the Walsall Leather Museum.
Casting became a more economical alternative to forging after the invention in 1811 of the malleable iron casting process. Brass and later nickel were also cast in the same way. The metal was either tapped from a furnace or heated in a crucible and then poured into a prepared sand mould. The castings were then either filed and polished in the same way as hand forged items or in the case of larger factories, they were polished in the barrel house, or in “mopping” and “bobbing” shops using mechanical polishing machines.
From the mid nineteenth century the plating of cast iron bits with either brass, silver, nickel alloy or tin was common – huge plating vats being used for the purpose. Much of the harness furniture was brass plated while silver plating was in demand by South American customers. The stamping of sheet brass to make horse harness, harness decorations and the like was also a process widely used.
In fact the production of stamped bits caused an outcry among the hand forgers of bits in 1892. They wanted to prevent stamped bits being sold as cheaply as forged bits and demanded that they be sold as cast or stamped bits. Manufacturers vied with each other to produce a rust free alloy from which to make items of horse furniture, such as J. H. Hawkins’ Genuine “Never Rust”.
Many different patents were also taken out in respect of bit and stirrup design. Experiments with non-metal materials started early. In particular kind mouth pieces for horses with soft mouths were made from rubber compounds. Eldonian famously introduced an 18/8 quality stainless steel for metal work. Synthetic materials, such as nylon and plastic have also been introduced in recent years.
The Home Market
At the height of the expansion in the lorinery trade, over one hundred years ago, the British market for such goods was booming. With the Industrial Revolution had come a consequent improvement in the road systems, both in towns and along the high road.
This had led to a huge increase in horse-drawn traffic of all varieties, ranging from stage coaches to heavy lumbering waggons drawn by teams of cart horses and lighter commercial carts pulled by van horses. Private driving turnouts became common among the wealthier classes while riding horses were used both for business and pleasure. Hunting came into its own as the most popular of country sports.
A large number of horses were also used in the army as cavalry chargers, officers’ mounts and for the transport of equipment and guns. Saddlery, harness and its fittings were developed to meet all these different requirements.
Some bits were invented specifically to prevent horses from indulging in bad habits such as pulling, rearing or getting their tongue over the bit. Some were designed for horses with soft mouths and others to control hard-mouthed animals that played up or ran away with their riders or carts. Other bits, while looking vicious, were purely ornamental and were designed for use on the carriage horses of the gentry.
English spurs have always tended to be small with only a slight rowel (disc at the end of the spur arm). However, they were usually of the best quality hand forged steel and were essential for any officer or gentleman who wanted to cut a dash! Stirrups were designed both for appearance and for safety.
The Overseas Market
The overseas market was almost as important as the home market for the expansion and prosperity of the saddlery and harness making trade in Walsall during the nineteenth century. Large consignments were regularly sent all over the globe and some manufacturers, like Matthew Harvey, produced catalogues specifically for overseas customers.
Britain’s colonies were among Walsall’s best customers, especially India, Canada, the South African Cape and Australia. The South American countries too relied largely on Walsall for their saddlery and harness.
The Walsall loriners were as equal to the task of providing ornate harness furniture for the South Americans as the saddlers were to the task of producing beautifully worked saddles and bridles. The bits are on the whole very severe and would have had drastic effects on a horse’s mouth if misused. It must be remembered, though, that bits and spurs had to be fierce so that the rider could get a swift reaction from his mount if faced with a charging bull!
Walsall also prided itself in having made sets of harness and trappings for many foreign princes. This work would often include the use of precious metals or semi-precious stones. It also led to firms specialising in harness decoration and heraldic chasing, since it was important that a prince could be distinguished by his state harness.
Such specialists were Messrs. Oakley and Son of Bridge Street and Mr. Harry Gill of Vicarage Street, who made all the heraldic work for the harness used at the 1902 Coronation Durbar in Delhi.
From the 1880s, however, trade both with Europe and with the colonial markets began to dwindle. The interruption of trade during the South African War led the colonies to start producing their own saddlery and harness.
South America began to do the same in the 1890s and to protect their industry with tariffs. This was a significant factor in the decline of the saddlers' ironmongery industry in Walsall and elsewhere.
This is not to say that the foreign market has disappeared altogether. For example Stanley Bros have worked on a special order for the Saudi Arabian Royal Guard in recent years.)