Cast Brasses

R.J. Bradshaw.

Whatever the views of individual collectors as to when or where working horse harness decoration first began in the British Isles, most collectors agree that cast brasses were the first to appear on the scene. Opinion is  similarily divided as to how, even these, originated, but once again, most collectors nowadays, are in agreement that the earliest decorations were simple, cast studs in a variety of shapes and sizes. The earliest types were probably even made locally by smiths or other skilled artisans but by the second half of the 19th Century the production of such things had evolved from a local, decorative cult into a national fashion with the bulk of their production centred in and around the West Midlands (See Birmingham & Walsall Pattern Books page).

The casting process used in the manufacture of these brasses has been described in detail in most publications on the subject, so we will not tread this ground in too much detail here; suffice it to say then, that once a pattern was made, this was pressed into a sand mould and cast molten brass was poured in to produce a raw casting that could later be worked by hand into a thing of beauty to adorn heavy horse harness. Anyone who wishes to learn about this process in detail however, can do so in the society DVD.

Below, a selection of early studs. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes and may be quite thinly produced. Some may be filled with lead, which was the method whereby most carriage harness decorations were made. Note also the steel pins on the reverse of these studs.

Early Studs

Following the simpler, cast studs from c.1850’s onward, came other types that began to exhibit a little more detail. Sometimes edges of the brass were finished by further hand-working or central areas of the pattern were often voided to give better decorative effect, especially against the darker hues of the leather harness. These studs were affixed to the harness by means of stout prongs or wires, and in many early types we can easily identify the forerunners of the hanging brasses that were soon to become so popular.

Stud Development Types

Above three early, types developed from stud patterns and below, three smaller types developed from rosettes or bosses. These, being early types themselves, seem to have hangers added almost as an afterthought.

Three Small Boss Types 

In the industrial centre of Sheffield for instance a certain type of studded decoration became so popular that these became known as “Sheffield Stars”. In this type of brass in particular we can see the early development, from stud into hanging brass. Following on from the possible influences from the decorative arts movement in the late 1850’s these simple brasses caught on and their production became a vast and lucrative industry (see Birmingham and Walsall page) and in the following decades many hundreds of different designs were produced by competing manufacturers.

Below, three Sheffield Stars (top) showing their variants with hangers added, beneath, which aptly display the development of cast horse brasses from stud types into hanging brasses, and in no other form of heavy horse harness decoration is this transitional stage more apparent.

Sheffield Stars

Most cast brasses display the small stubs on the reverse commonly known as "getts", which was probably brass casters jargon for these projections (which were originally an inch or two long), that were needed to, "get hold" of the brass in a vice, in order to finish it with a file. These take many forms although some relatively early brasses do not display these projections at all and were either obliterated completely (when more time was allowed to finish them) or in some cases, perhaps the casting channel or "sprue" issued from the top of the hanger allowing easier and more complete removal?

Below, four reverses showing the remains of the different types and positioning of "getts", with the exception of the first type, which has none at all.

Brass Backs

Below, three, popular cast types shown here (along with those in the border), as representatives of the type of decorations that were so popular during the Horse Brass Era (arguably c. 1860-1950).

Three Cast Types 

Although they are often thought of as a rural fashion, many collectors in recent years (knowing the centres of manufacture for such things), have rightly asked, are horse brasses therefore, actually a rural phenomenon at all, or did they first originate in and around the manufacturing centres themselves and slowly spread into the countryside?   One of the early, collector/writers Mr H.Robinson Carter writing in the Connoisseur of 1931 quoted his extensive correspondence with a Saddlers Ironmonger from Bristol who reckoned about 1860 as the beginning of these brasses, and it is very difficult to find mention of these in literature or the vast body of equine artwork much before this time.

The collecting of horse brasses as a popular pastime, commenced about 1895 and so enjoyed a regular airing in certain journals of the time, and other published works that focused upon the collecting of such things (see Library section). Perhaps the first to seriously record the sheer number of designs extant, however, was H.S. Richards’ in his three volume work, Horse Brass Collections (1944). This was followed steadily over the years by several specialist works culminating in fourteen volumes entitled, Collecting Horse Brasses, published the NHBS from 1995 onward.

Even now, rare and previously unknown types are still turning up and this will be further covered by another volume, A Collectors Anthology of Antique Horse Brasses by the author and Ian Jones who are currently serving committee members of the NHBS. Volume one is now out, and volume two is a work in progress so any collector who has a brass, cast or stamped, that is not covered by the aforementioned publications can contact me at, dickbradshaw1960@yahoo.co.uk and please feel free to include a clear, (digital if possible) jpeg of the brass for possible inclusion.

Below, six rare brasses taken from a representative section of a forthcoming publication that will focus upon such types.

Rare Types

Whatever your taste in horse brasses, there is no doubt that many collectors like to specialise and  it is our intention to cover as many of these areas as possible. This already includes Bell-brasses, Royalty, as well as several other types so we certainly hope you will continue to log on to our site for further additions and updates as the site progresses in the coming months.

Time for a quick snack before deliveries here, for the hard-working Dray Horses of Georges Bristol Brewery c.1909, bless em!

Drey Horses