Buckles continued - the collapse of the trade

Steel buckles were the height of fashion. George III even appointed a steel buckle maker, John Worralow of Wolverhampton. His buckles were so fashionable and so well designed that he was soon exporting them to France. He also supplied the crowned heads of France, Spain and Russia. His work was not cheap - the Earl of Shrewsbury paid 180 guineas for a set of his buttons. The trade became enormous in Wolverhampton. Sketchley and Adams' trade directory of 1770 lists 118 lock makers. But next to them come buckle makers with 116. The other trades are also rans but steel toy makers are next with 30, followed by wood screw makers, watch chain makers and chape makers. The chape makers would, of course, have turned out enough chapes to keep many buckle makers busy; and the steel toy makers may have included buckles in their range; and the watch chain makers may well have been using steel. The same directory also notes three makers of japanned buckles.

We have seen that Worralow also produced steel buttons. Doubtless other local makers did too. Buttons were sometimes produced as matching sets with shoe buckles. More often shoe buckles had matching knees buckles, which secured the bottom of the breeches where they met the stockings just below the knee. But Bobby Shafto went to sea with silver buckles on his knee - not steel ones, which maybe he could not afford. How far other jewellery items were made in Wolverhampton is not known.
Steel buckles and other jewellery are not usually marked. Worralow sometimes put a tiny w on the back of his pieces. Sometimes a chape maker's name appears on the chape. But that is all. The only way Wolverhampton items can be safely identified is by provenance and this seems to be almost entirely lacking. (There is also a problem that the French took up making steel jewellery, some of which can be distinguished on stylistic grounds and some of which is marked France or Paris; and the Germans also became large producers).

Round about 1790 disaster hit the shoe buckle trade. Shoe buckles became unfashionable. Shoe ties became fashionable again.
Holland and Hunt record that "In 1791 a deputation of master buckle makers, from Birmingham, Walsal [sic] and Wolverhampton, waited upon the prince of Wales ... at Carlton House.  The object of their audience was to present a petition, setting forth the distressed situation of thousands of individuals in different branches of the buckle manufacture in consequence of the the fashion then prevailing of wearing strings.  His royal highness received the petitioners very graciously and, as proof of his sympathy, not only resolved to wear buckles himself but to order that his household should do the same." 

London makers petitioned other members of the royal family.  But it was to no avail. Hutton and Holland continue:
"The royal example and the royal command were alike nugatory, when opposed to the dominion of fashion - strings became general".  Hutton says that by 1812, "the whole generation of fashions, in the buckle line, was extinct: a buckle was not to be found on a female foot, not upon any foot except that of old age". It might be added that breeches and stockings, which called for the use of knee buckles, were also rapidly going out of fashion.

The result was, according to Swan: "Where there were 127 buckle makers at work in Wolverhampton, 68 in Bilston and 58 in Birmingham in 1770, their numbers had halved in 1781." By 1818 he notes that "there were only 12 buckle makers in Wolverhampton, 2 in Bilston and approximately 6 in Birmingham". 
The cause of this disastrous collapse is difficult to pin down. It is noted that the army phased out shoe buckles at about this time because they caught in the riders' stirrups. But that hardly suffices to affect fashion - the Navy kept their buckles until the 1850s. The time of the collapse seems to coincide with the French Revolution, when great ostentation in dress became unfashionable even in England.

It may also be that the fashion was played out - there was nothing new to be done with shoe buckles and fashion relies on what is new. Shoe ties were new and you could enjoy yourself learning fancy ways to tie them.
Shoe buckles were retained for court dress.  The Remembrancer of the City of London, flanked by the Sheriffs of London and Middlesex, about to present a petition to Parliament.  Note that each man has buckles on his shoes.

From Sir Benjamin Stone's Pictures, 1906.

Closer to home this photo is thought to be of the Recorder of Wolverhampton and may show F. A. Bosanquet, QC, appointed 12 October 1891.  He has buckles on his shows; his "pages" have steel buttons on their jackets and cuffs, knee buckles on their breeches and cut steel hilts to their swords.
Whatever the cause of this fall in popularity, the Wolverhampton chape and buckle makers had to find themselves something else to do to; and they did not seem to find it too difficult, though the post-Napoleonic economic slump would not have helped them.  George Wallis had a slightly different view.

George Wallis, one of the great Victorian art gurus, was born in Wolverhampton in 1811.

 In 1860, writing in defence of the Wolverhampton Art School, he talks about the cut steel industry in Wolverhampton.  Referring to "the fine steel workers of the 17th and 18th centuries" he says: "Let them remember that 100 years ago [sc. c. 1760] a large trade existed with France and Spain in the fine steel goods of Birmingham and Wolverhampton, of which the latter were always allowed to be the best both in taste and workmanship.  ... A century ago French and Spanish merchants had their houses and agencies at Birmingham for the purchase of the steel goods of Wolverhampton.  As I boy, [ Wallis left Wolverhampton in 1832, so he is talking about a date around 1822] I have addressed parcels to the last of these houses "Rogette et tu Peleur".  These fine steel ornaments, chains, chatelaines, sword handles, &c., were often purchased at their weight in coined gold - Spanish dubloons in one scale, steel goods in the other!  Single chains, by first class makers, would fetch 25 guineas.  The beaus and belles of the French and Spanish courts glittered on state occasions in the steel ornaments of the little Staffordshire town, the skill of whose artisans made made native iron glisten like diamonds. A relative of my own made an inkstand in steel, which was thought worthy to be a gift to the Queen of England.  As a child I have rolled upon the floor with rusty steel ornaments, as toys, which I would now delight to possess as an artist.  ... The Great Revolution in France put an end to the demand for fine steel goods for a time and hostile tariffs finished what revolution began".

Wallis tended to see things in black and white: thing were either wonderfully good or amazingly bad.  And his memory might be playing tricks and contracting dates.  But the impression of a great trade in high class goods, is clear enough - and so is its collapse.

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