My old col­league Fred was a true crafts­man

Black Country Bugle - - YOUR LETTERS -

SOME time ago while at the Leather Mu­seum in Wal­sall, we had two vis­i­tors from New Zealand.

They asked about a sad­dle maker called Fred Pritchard, and whether any­one had known him. Dur­ing my time at Jabez Cliff, Wal­sall, I had known a Fred Pritchard and had worked in the same sad­dle shop. I men­tioned this to the vis­i­tors and much to my sur­prise the vis­i­tors were his daugh­ter Eileen and her hus­band.

Fred was not only a sad­dle maker but he was also an ac­com­plished pi­anist who played at dif­fer­ent venues in Wal­sall dur­ing his free time.

Fred and his fam­ily lived next door to the fac­tory at num­ber 37, Lower Forester Street. One of his roles was to stoke the boil­ers in the morn­ing and evening, so the fac­tory was a warm place to work in. He also was the key holder and opened and locked up the fac­tory when work was com­pleted for the day.

As a sad­dle maker, Fred made only the Lane Fox sad­dle, which re­quired a very high de­gree of skill. The Lane Fox was made for the Amer­i­can show mar­ket for the ‘gaited classes’.

The sad­dle tree was cut back, which was also de­scribed as ‘cow mouth’, which is con­sid­ered to fit a greater range of back struc­tures of the horse.

The seat of the sad­dle was built in the tra­di­tional man­ner, a painstak­ing, labour in­ten­sive op­er­a­tion de­mand­ing great skill and ex­pe­ri­ence. The flaps are out very wide to pre­vent the rider’s up­per leg com­ing into un­pleas­antly sticky con­tact with the horse’s hot flanks.

The de­sign of the sad­dle com­pels the rider to sit well back and thus makes the wide flaps a nec­es­sary fea­ture.

All sad­dles have a panel un­der the seat which fits onto the back of the horse. The Lane Fox sad­dle panel was one of a felt con­struc­tion and was covered by a thin hide, and put on when it was wet. This re­quired a great deal of skill as the panel was sewn on when it was wet and was a strain on one’s fin­gers, as the curved sew­ing nee­dle was very sharp.

When the panel was dry, as an ap­pren­tice I had to rub into the leather panel dub­bin, which was to give it ex­tra colour, and then pol­ished up when the dub­bin was dry.

It was not a nice job, as the dub­bin got un­der your fin­ger nails and it took a long time to clean your hands af­ter­wards. This was be­fore the ad­vent of pro­tec­tive gloves.

Fred was in­deed a crafts­man of high re­pute, who ex­celled on the Lane Fox sad­dles, his skills had been learnt from the old tra­di­tional Vic­to­rian sad­dle mak­ers, who laid the foun­da­tions of mod­ern, 20th cen­tury sad­dle mak­ing.

Dur­ing the course of the con­ver­sa­tion with Eileen, Fred’s daugh­ter, she had re­mem­bered when the bales of flock were kept in the dark cel­lar, and which had to be car­ried up two flights of steps to the sad­dle shop – which I did!

It was in­deed a Prous­tian mo­ment in time, when the noise of ham­mer­ing and the aroma of leather came back into my con­scious­ness. It was a sur­real ex­pe­ri­ence, one to be re­mem­bered.

Michael Doyle, 26 Bernard Street, Wal­sall, WS1 2LE

Fred stitch­ing the panel of a Lane Fox sad­dle. In the background is Roy Rick­etts

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