HORSE BRASS

Walsall was a centre of bit and buckle making as long ago as the 16th Century. By 1686, when Dr. Plot wrote of his visit to the town, Walsall 'was given over to the manufacture of spurs, bridles and stirrups'. Saddler's ironmongery, which included any of the ironwork required for the working of horses such as bits, buckles, chainwork and specialised fittings for saddles, was prominent amongst the manufacturers of the town.

The Century saw a great increase in the use of horses on farms and the roads, so it was to Walsall that the harness makers looked for the increasing supply of hamess furniture. By the Century, Walsall had become the largest centre for manufacturers of hames fittings and their products were exported all over the world.

At first, these Walsall products were sent out to saddlers and harness makers in other towns and villages and only in 1830 did Walsall start its own saddlery and harness making industry. This was begun by Thomas Newton who was also the first manufacturer to produce a catalogue of his products, called 'Saddlery of All Nations' — and from this small beginning the trade soon flourished as the demand for horses and their harness in Victorian Britain reached boom proportions.

                             HORSE BRASS HISTORY

It was into this established centre of manufacture that the horse brass was introduced by an unknown opportunist who started to make them to meet the demand for a new fashion in harness decoration.

There are many known examples of decorations used on horse harness dating from the time when man first domesticated the wild horse and took a pride in ownership. As early man was very superstitious, the first form of decoration would appear to have been a talisman to ward off evil spirits from harming his horses. Throughout history various forms of talisman have been attached to the horse harness — from flashing objects to ward off the 'evil eye', to passages from the scriptures hung in purses around the animals' necks to appease their owners' gods.

The pendant type horse brass, as we know it today, was introduced into this country as recently as the 18th Century. It was probably brought here by an influx of Romanies who arrived in Britain about that time. These people were, and still are today, a very superstitious race and it was very probable that they decorated the foreheads of their horses with a shiny object to protect them from evil. Not only did they have a motive for such decoration, they also had the necessary skills of working in metal to produce these talisman from sheet brass.

All the earliest known horse brasses are hand made from sheet or latten brass. They were cut out using hand tools and were often hammered into shape. One of the easiest ways of recognising a handmade brass is by the hammer marks on the back. They are, however, very rare and prized by collectors. The evidence for attributing the origins of horse brasses to the Romanies is the use of Romany motifs in all the early brasses — ie. hearts, moons, stars, sun-flashes, etc.

It was some years before our carters took up the use of these brasses for decorating their harness and so starting off the era of horse brasses.

During the Century, the improved state of the roads led to an increased use of carriages by the gentry for their travels about the country. They started the fashion of decorating their horse harness with family crests, at first worked in silver and later in nickel, or white metal. Walsall was one of the centres which developed the necessary skills to produce these miniature works of art.

The first signs of the lower order of horsemen, the carters and wagoner’s, decorating the harness of their horses, was in the form of brass ovals and shields, as though imitating the family crests displayed on the blinkers and saddle pads of the elegant carriage horses.

A study of contemporary paintings shows evidence of these brass decorations in the early Century, but it is not until after 1850 that we find illustrations of the pendant type of horse brass. Certainly they are known to have existed earlier and there are many dated examples from the first half of the 19th Century, but they were not in common enough use to attract the attention of such artists as Stubbs, Pyne or Herrings, all of whom produced detailed pictures of harness work-horses.

Around 1850, horse brasses suddenly became fashionable probably as a result of an unknown manufacturer in Walsall seizing the opportunity to satisfy the carters' desire to create a display of harness decorations as fine as that on carriage horses. Many of the early manufactured brasses have a form of 'crest' featured in their design. Walsall was already producing crests for the carriage harness and it was only a small step to produce similar ornaments in brass inside a hanging frame, for wagoners to sport on their harness.

2,000 DIFFERENT DESIGNS

Hundreds of factories, from the largest down to the one-man business, started to produce these horse brasses. Over 2,000 different designs are believed to exist, though some of the differences in the patterns are very slight — probably where manufacturers copied popular designs of their rivals.

Many of the larger manufacturers produced beautiful and elaborate catalogues of their products. One of the earliest of these was by the firm of Matthew Harvey of Bath Street, founded in 1838 and still going strong today. Their pattern room contains many of the original lead patterns shown in their catalogue of 1888.

Another firm which has kept a large collection of their early patterns is Stanley Bros. of Long Lane. This firm, founded in 1832, is the oldest in the town still producing harness fittings.

Among the patterns to be found, apart from purely geometric designs are various trade motifs. For example, the millers' horses could be decorated with brasses incorporating wheatsheaf’s or windmills into their design; the farmer could choose from a variety of horse designs, and there were locomotive designs for railway carters. The brewers had a choice of barrel patterns and there were even crossed saws and tree motifs of timber merchants.

Commemorative brasses were also produced to celebrate special occasions particularly those connected with royalty. Queen Victoria's Golden and Diamond Jubilees produced a wonderful crop of special brasses. Each subsequent royal occasion has produced its quota of designs. The recent Golden Jubilee of our present Queen saw the manufacture of dozens of different designs of horse brass for the occasion — most of which were made in Walsall.

METHODS OF MANUFACTURE

The earliest method of producing horse brasses in quantity was to cast them in sand. The original patterns were modelled in lead by a pattern maker for use in the casting process. These lead patterns were then pressed into sand filled boxes, about 10 patterns to a box. Channels were formed in the sand to connect each indentation of a pattern so that the molten metal could run into each impression in turn. The rough castings were then polished to give a smooth surface. Originally this was done by clamping the brass into a vice, using two projections especially cast into the back of the brass for this purpose. The face of the tightly held brass could then be filed and polished. After polishing, the projections were cut off and their remains can usually be seen on old cast brasses.

By the turn of the Century, sanding and polishing machinery had superseded hand filing and polishing so the projections became superfluous and were removed from patterns. The hand filing and fettling of the early cast brasses gave them a superior finish not seen on the later, mass produced ones.

Machine-stamping of brasses from sheet metal commenced about 1880. Matthew Harvey's was one of the leading firms in this field of manufacture. The earliest method was to stamp out the pattern, one punch at a time, using a fly press. These early stamped brasses can be recognised by the irregularities in the spacing of the design. In later years, when the fashion for horse brasses was at its height, it became more economically viable for a few of the larger manufacturers to have more costly tools made which could stamp out the complete design in one hefty blow. Those later stamped brasses are recognisable by the symmetry of the design, a feature lacking in the earlier stampings.

The smaller manufacturers continued to produce brasses using the older casting methods and when the demand for heavy horse harness decorations began to dwindle after the First World War it was the production of machine stamped brasses that was to suffer most the casting of brasses continued and later took up the renewed demand brought about by the souvenir shops.

The firm of W. Thacker & Sons of Fieldgate, recently re-started the manufacture of stamped brasses using some of the old dies and punches, but the old 'drop-stamp' machine has been replaced by a modern power press.

W. Thacker & Sons were noted for the manufacture of the smaller range of decorations, particularly those for use on the lead reins and for decorating the blinkers of the bridles and also the cart saddles. These decorations were stamped out of sheet brass using fly presses. For better quality work these used to be back-filled with molten lead. Each piece is fitted with 'shanks' as a means of attaching them to the leatherwork.

Rosettes stamped out of brass are another speciality of Thacker’s. These were worn on the bridle where the brow band meets the cheek strap. The beehive pattern was the most common to be found on heavy horse harness.

Apart from the pendant type horse brass, there were other forms of decoration produced to brighten the harness. These included the 'fly terret' (commonly known as a 'swinger') — a miniature brass swinging in a ring mounted on a stem and often matching the design of a horse brass. It was usually worn on the top of the bridle — its original purpose being to keep the flies away from the horses' ears during hot weather.

Another form of decoration which started life with a real purpose was the bells. In their original form, they were large bells mounted above the collar in sets of from 2 to 5. Their ringing was loud enough to be heard at a distance which would act as a warning on oncoming wagon teams — especially in narrow lanes. Later bells are miniature by comparison with the originals and made in various combinations principally for mounting on the saddle.

Hame plates were designed to decorate the top strap of the collar hames. Like the fly terret, they often matched a horse brass pattern.

The hames, fixed to the collar, provided the necessary attachment from which a horse could pull its load. Again, Walsall was the biggest centre for their manufacture and the firm of Walsall Lock is the only one still producing cart horse hames in this country. For show purposes, these hames were cased in sheet brass. Under the brass casting a steel covered wooden core provides the necessary strength. Walsall Lock is also the last manufacturer of chain work for the heavy horse harness.

Another form of decoration was the noseband plate which was attached by two threaded studs and secured to the noseband with nuts, with an internal leather cover to protect the horses' nose. These were often hinged, either in the centre or using two side hinges allowing for movement with the horse's breathing. These produced an ideal 'advertising medium' for saddlers and harness makers to display their name and town or village in which they traded.

So, we see that although the manufacture of harness furniture of the heavy horse died for almost 30 years, enough of the know-how and patterns survived in Walsall to meet the needs of the renewed interest in the heavy horses over the past twenty years and for many years to come.

S.R. Pink
2012