A new generation of saddle, bridle and leather-goods makers are learning their trades after the first dedicated training centre in Walsall for decades opened its doors to help young people into work.
The Walsall Leather Skills Centre is offering training to create jobs in the town while supporting the high-quality leather businesses upon which Walsall’s reputation has been based for centuries.
The training centre, in The Bridge, is funded by the Saddlers Company Charitable Fund, the principal charity of the Worshipful Company of Saddlers, a City of London livery company tracing its roots back to the 11th Century.
Working with Midlands-based training company Performance Through People, whose roots are in Walsall, the Saddlers Company Charitable Fund has converted vacant shop premises to provide a training workshop offering a wide range of saddlery and leather-goods courses including the Level 2 Leather Craftsperson and the Level 3 Bespoke Saddler apprenticeships.
Those behind the project hope it will help to plug a skills shortage and reinvigorate an ageing workforce in the town’s saddlery and leather industries. Twenty years ago, around 150 manufacturers were operating in Walsall’s leather industry, compared with around 80 today.
The investment by the Saddlers Company Charitable Fund in the new premises and this training initiative will help the local leather industries respond to the ever-present threat from overseas manufacturing, which has had an impact upon local jobs.
Among those to benefit are a new apprentice who is following in the footsteps of her saddler grandfather. Hannah Scoffham, aged 19, from Walsall, has changed course to begin an apprenticeship after originally studying health and social care at college. As well as learning at the new Walsall Leather Skills Centre, she will work alongside her grandfather Alf Peakman at Ideal & WRS Co. Ltd in Walsall.
Hannah said: “My grandad gave me a taster afternoon at work to see if I liked it and I knew it was what I wanted to do. It is a good industry. A lot of my friends are doing things like business studies at university but I’m doing something completely different that is also family-based as I get to work with my grandad.”
Alf started in the saddlery trade in 1973, working his way up from warehouse worker to saddler. He now makes saddles for clients including the Ministry of Defence.
He said: “Our saddles are used by the military including the Household Cavalry. From start to finish each one takes about two and a half days. It is great to see Hannah coming on board as I see a lot of myself in her at that age. It’s nice to have a younger member of the family to train and she is a good learner.”
Jared Robinson, also 19, from Pelsall, is retraining in leather skills after working in a pub. He said: “If I get good enough, I’d like to be able to work on the interiors of cars. I have a Morris Minor and would love to do it up.” Fellow apprentice Adam Milligan, 27, said: “I’ve been a chef and worked as a welder, but this is what I want to train to do.”
The Charitable Fund got behind the Walsall centre as part of its work under the Company’s Royal Charter, which empowers it to promote and encourage the craft of saddlery and related activities.
Patrick Burns, the Saddlers Company trade and training adviser, overseeing the workshop project, said the centre is part of a strategy to promote Walsall Leather as a brand. The Saddlers Company believes Walsall leather products are rightly recognised as among the best in the world.
He said: “This is an opportunity to ensure high quality bridle and saddle making remains in Walsall. The town is known for the quality of its saddlery with exports all around the globe.
“With a skilled, but ageing, workforce new blood is needed to sustain the knowledge and technical understanding critical for a successful modern industry. Leather products, particularly saddles and bridles, made in Walsall can command considerable prices because customers know they are of the highest quality, made to exceptional standards.
“With the opening of this centre we look forward to working with the Walsall leather industry to build a strategy that will sustain growth for their businesses, deliver employment opportunities for young people and create prosperity for the town. Given the twin challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit, we must do all we can to exploit the opportunities that are out there”.
Nicholas Mason, the Company’s Prime Warden, is from a family who were once saddle makers in Walsall. He said: “It is important to us that the Company has a physical presence in Walsall, one which encourages local people to engage afresh with a trade that speaks to the town’s history and heritage and its future potential. Saddlery is not an historic business but a forward looking one, with companies using the latest technology alongside traditional skills, all of which we want to see grow in Walsall.”
The Saddlers Company is delighted that this training initiative also has the support and involvement of the Loriners Company. The lorinery trade, which encompasses the metalwork featured on saddles, was once centred in Walsall. Their presence brought the saddlers to the town in the 1700s.
The training schemes, which mix workshop time with on the job training with employers, will develop skills around leather cutting, preparing, machining, hand stitching, and assembly, as well as lorinery. Four apprentices have already started their apprenticeship, with training provider PTP looking to increase that number significantly in the months ahead.
PTP say the centre is open at a time when the Government is highlighting apprenticeships as a key driver to help the UK get back on track after the Covid lockdown, with grants now available to support companies taking on apprentices.
PTP managing director Rob Colbourne said the centre opening would create much needed opportunities for local employment. He said: “There have not been leather or saddlery training centres in Walsall for a significant time, so anyone looking to learn had to travel further afield.
“Having left the Black Country to train, when they were fully skilled these staff could be employed anywhere and were often lost to the area for good. By putting the centre at the heart of Walsall, as a training business with its own proud roots in the town, we want to bring new talent to an established industry, creating an opportunity for our local companies to grow.”
Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street has welcomed the centre’s drive to build on the leather heritage of Walsall. He visited on Wednesday October 7 to see the first group of students in action. Mr Street said: “Walsall has an incredibly proud history of producing high quality saddles and leather products, which are used around the world as well as by the UK’s Royal Family.
“Not only will this new training centre build on that heritage, producing the next generation of skilled leather workers, but it will also help in the region’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. Sadly, people are falling out of work, but re-skilling and up-skilling is an effective way to get people back into jobs. This is exactly what this new centre will do, and the team at the Walsall Leather Skills Centre have my full support.”
Leather manufacturers from Walsall’s business community have welcomed the centre opening, seeing it as a vote of confidence in the town from the Saddlers’ Company. Victoria Coleman, director at Frank Baines Saddlery Ltd in Northcote Street, said: “We are thrilled about the launch of the centre and happy to support their work.
“It’s a really important recognition of the town’s history and heritage within the leather and saddle industry. We are pleased that there is now a commitment to training to keep these traditional skills alive and boost the town’s economy for many years to come.”
Rupert Fairfax, of Fairfax Saddles in Fryers Road, Bloxwich, said: “The people of Walsall are rightly proud of the town’s heritage in producing high quality saddles and leather goods. The launch of this centre will shape a positive future for new trained staff, the businesses and Walsall as a whole.”
When Covid restrictions allow, the centre will develop its offer to the whole community with evening classes, short training courses and heritage showcases.