My old colleague Fred was a true craftsman
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