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Part 5 of Bilston's History

Early Industrial Development Continued. : Buckle and chape making in Bilston

Technically a buckle consists of two parts: the “chape” is the operative part, which acts as a bearing for the “ring” which is the decorative part; the ring is attached to the front of the chape to make a complete buckle. There is no date for the start of this trade in Bilston. It may have been there from early agricultural days and was certainly there by the middle of the 18th century. Although buckle makers continue to appear in the records it is chape making which predominates and in the 18th and 19th centuries Bilston was making many, probably most, of the chapes which were turned into buckles in the Wolverhampton buckle making industry. Why this industry should have developed and flourished in Bilston is not clear but it may be derived from supplying the buckles and other metal items which were need for the harnesses of farm draught animals.

Chapes and buckles were made in small family concerns who would have sold complete buckles to factors; and chapes to Wolverhampton (and probably Walsall) buckle makers. The Rev. Ames noted, in 1729, that his two nephews, who were buckle makers, “began to work in the shop of my house att Priestfields”. They seem to have worked on their own account and in a workshop attached to the house – a typical arrangement. The registers kept by Ames include many other references to bucklemakers.

Lock making:

It might be worth noting here that there was some lock making in Bilston but very little of it. (The locks in question are security locks, not canal locks). The trade seems to have been monopolised by Wolverhampton and Willenhall. But some locksmiths seem to have done well. When John Hawkesford died in 1712 he was able to include in his bequests the sum of 5 for charitable distribution to poor widows. When his wife died about 6 months later she left 7.10s. for the same purpose. The first burial in the new burial ground, in 1727, was of a locksmith, John Lees and this took place “in the presence of a large company”.

There also seems to have been a trade in gun locks as R. R. Angerstein gives a list of prices: “Bilston: gunlocks, common ‘Traidel’ 15d each. Lock in ‘rest’, 6 1/2d to 7d. Wages for filing of above-mentioned locks, 6d. to 7d.”.

Enamelling:

Enamelling was, and is, one of Bilston’s most famous industries. Lawley says that it was present in Bilston “well before 1750” and suggests that Dovey Hawkesford first used enamels as a way of decorating, and adding value to, the boxes and other small items he was making. How Hawkesford came to be making copper boxes and other items in Bilston, Lawley does not say. The industry soon developed and seems to have been given a boost when workers from the Battersea factory moved to Bilston when that factory closed. It should be noted that the Bilston industry was not established by these workers from Battersea, nor is it true that the Battersea work was of higher quality than that of Bilston.

Trade remained good until fashions changed – and some have argued that Bilston was producing so much that enamelled wares became commonplace and therefore unfashionable. The trade seems gradually to have disappeared during the 19th century, though perhaps not completely. Enamelling on larger sizes of domestic wares took place on a large scale in Bilston in the 19th and 20th centuries, especially after T & C Clark, the local iron founders, discovered a way of enamelling on iron and steel. But small scale decorative enamelling may still have been around: when Susan Benjamin revived the trade in the late 20th century she was able to find people in Bilston who still knew how to do it. The crafts had many local revivals in the second half of the twentieth century.

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