Welcome to Best Value bespoke saddles
A Dying Breedby Keith Jenkin, SMSQF of Minster Saddler We count ourselves fortunate indeed to have the services of Edward Lawrence a Master Saddler with forty-seven years’ continuous service in the trade.  He joined Champion and Wilton of London in 1956 and served a five-year apprenticeship with them.  Champion and Wilton were founded in 1780 and had premises in Oxford Street, opposite Selfridges, in London’s West End.  At one time they employed over one hundred saddlers making saddles, harness and other saddlery items and became, as holders of the Royal Warrant, the most highly respected firm in the country and I don’t doubt that many a stately home will still have a Champion and Wilton saddle tucked away somewhere in their tack room.  Obviously, in common with every other saddlery firm, the motorcar decimated their business when the harness side fell away to virtually nothing.The saddles they made were true bespoke saddles, hand made in the traditional manner, involving several fittings.  This method has now largely died out by virtue of cost and most of today’s riders are completely unaware that most saddles were made in this way until the middle of the twentieth century.  Nevertheless, our competitors continue to denigrate our made to measure system and we continue to emphasise that we do not pretend that our system is the same as the outdated bespoke method employed by Champion and Wilton and their contemporaries.  Our method is simply an up-to-date process taking advantage of the economies of scale available from the modern Walsall saddle makers’ methods of production.  Still I suppose they would not keep banging on about it if our method were not causing them problems.  I suppose we should be flattered!
Champion and Wilton were taken over by Giddens, another large London firm, in 1962, shortly after the death of Major William Palmer Wilton who was the last of the Wilton dynasty.  Giddens themselves naturally trained apprentices as did most saddlers in common with every other trade and many boys on leaving school became apprenticed in one trade or another and in consequence resultant skilled tradesmen were plentiful, valued and respected.  Regrettably due to misguided policies by both politicians and industry alike apprenticeship schemes have largely died out.  Instead our government wants half the population to be university graduates many of whom will leave university with degrees in subjects which will not obtain them gainful employment, but will leave them deep in debt.  Meanwhile skilled tradesmen in most trades will become fewer, could it be a case of too many (aspiring) Chiefs and not enough Indians.
Meanwhile, for the present, we still enjoy the skills of Ted Lawrence whose knowledge of the Saddlery Trade is encyclopaedic.  But in common with most “time served” saddlers, he does not agree with the practice of re-flocking saddles without taking the panel out, a method taught by some saddlery colleges and others where many of today’s saddlers are trained.  In any event it is not possible to remove old flocking from a panel and then re-stuff it without taking the panel out and re-lacing it back in again, but in twenty or thirty years time there will be hardly anyone left capable of doing this job outside Walsall where 99% of all English saddles are made.  Meanwhile because of Ted’s experience and skill we are able to overhaul and renovate second-hand saddles and supply them modified to a template to fit a specific horse and most of our trade in used saddles is uniquely supplied in this way.
Unfortunately, like me, Ted is no spring chicken and when his skills are in time lost to us they will be impossible to replace.  But not to worry, we will have lots of graduates, many of whom will be obliged to accept employment in occupations where a degree is far from necessary.  Would it not be more sensible for the government to make every effort to encourage industry to reinstate apprentice schemes?