Town of a Hundred Trades

Walsall: Town of a Hundred Trades
Walsall has been home to an amazing variety of trades and industries. Here are
a few of them:
Walsall has a very long history of metalworking, in common with most West
Midland towns. The local iron ore deposits were being worked by the 14th century,
and by the 16th century the town was known for specialising in saddlers`
ironmongery (bits, stirrups, spurs and other metalwork for the horse), as well as the
making of items in brass and pewter. Over succeeding centuries a number of other
specialist metalworking crafts developed such as the making of locks and keys- for
which Willenhall became world famous- chains, buckles, horse brasses, hand tools
(particularly for leatherworking), nuts and bolts, small metal castings of all kinds,
galvanised products such as metal buckets, and electroplated wares. The late 19th
century saw the growth of heavy engineering firms which manufactured massive
structures such as railway bridges and steel frameworks for entire buildings.
Walsall`s best known clothing firm, John Shannon and Sons, employed some 2000
people in its Edwardian heyday. In the 1920s there were half a dozen manufacturers
producing men`s and women`s shirts, overalls and suiting.
Electrical Fittings
Walsall has been home to a number of companies producing electrical equipment
such as dynamos, electric motors and measuring instruments, and fittings such as
plugs, sockets, switches and circuit breakers. Probably the best known company was
JA Crabtree, whose extensive Lincoln Works was a local landmark until its
demolition in the 1990s.
The Streetly Manufacturing Co pioneered the production of high quality, brightly
coloured plastics for everyday use in the 1930s, using their patented `Beetle`
material. Another Walsall company, Alfred Stanley, produced countless plastic cap
badges for the British armed services.
An important local industry, the best known firm probably being the Walsall
Lithographic Co. whose speciality was the printing of trade catalogues for the local
leather and metal working industries, and embossed labels of all shapes and sizes.
The company went on to produce the world`s first self adhesive postage stamp (in
Food and Drink
Food and drink have been processed in the Borough as long as people have lived
here - Domesday Book records a corn mill in Rushall (probably in the Butts area) in
1086 for example. Dozens of small businesses in the town once baked bread and
brewed beer. Among the better known businesses in the 20th century were Pelari`s
ice creams (founded by an Italian immigrant, Giuseppi Pelari), Smith`s flour mills in
Birchills, Mack`s pickles, and the Highgate Brewery, founded in 1899 and still
brewing today.
Saddlery and Harness
A tannery existed in Walsall by the 15th century, but the real growth in the local
leather trades did not take place until the 19th century when a number of local
loriners ventured into making saddlery and harness. Within a few years Walsall had
become the UK`s leading centre of saddlery and harness production, and by the
1890s there was a thriving export business supplying everything that could possibly
be required for the horse. At their peak in 1900 the local leather trades employed
close to 10,000 people. With the coming of the motor car the trade went into steep
decline and it was only in the 1960s that it revived, as horse riding once again
became a popular activity. Today Walsall is the leading European centre of the trade.
Fancy Leathergoods
The coming of the motor car forced local leather manufacturers to diversify into new
products, as demand for saddlery and harness plummeted. For much of the 20th
century the industry was kept busy making fancy leathergoods (such as handbags,
wallets, and purses), luggage, pet accessories, gloves, and sports goods such as
footballs and golf bags. Although the trade is now much diminished in size, a
number of companies (including two Royal warrant holders) still manufacture top
quality leathergoods in the Borough.
Walsall companies have made bicycles, horse drawn coaches and carriages, canal
boats, and parts for motor cars. Rubery Owen of Darlaston made chassis frames for
motor cars, lorries and buses,(including one of the very first car frames, made in
1896) and Helliwells of Aldridge manufactured the celebrated Swallow Doretti
Miscellaneous Products
Other Walsall-made items have included:
artificial teeth; baskets; bricks and tiles; cardboard boxes; clay plant pots; clogs;
church bells; church organs; files and rasps; fittings for fish and chip shops; fishing
tackle boxes; gas tubes; glue; golf clubs; gunlocks; horse grooming brushes; horse
shoes; hydraulic presses; ice; iron fencing; mineral waters; patterns and moulds;
pneumatic egg boxes; ropes and tents; rubbergoods; sacks; shaving brushes;
spectacles; scales and weighing machines; tin chapels; tin openers; umbrellas;
washing machines; wheelbarrows; wooden paving blocks; wooden water pipes and
barrels….to name but a few!
M. Glasson, 2008