A good day in the field, as we like to say here at Purdey, can be made great by the right accessories. We don’t just mean our beautiful shotguns and rifles; it’s a sentiment writ tangible by our wide array of sporting accessories, created for us around the UK by a host of master craftspeople employing age-old and traditional skills to make objects of exceptional form and function. And there’s no better example than our leather gunslips, cartridge bags and cartridge belts.
They’re fashioned by the brother/sister duo Garry Baines, 52, and Victoria Coleman, 47, and located in the leather heartland of Walsall, near Birmingham.
Like Sheffield for steel and Stoke for pottery, Walsall is feted for its leatherworking history. Its legacy dates back over two centuries, enjoying some stratospheric boom years during the First World War, the town then a main artery for supplying harnesses and saddles to the conflict’s horse-mounted troops. (These days, Garry explains, its legacy is more innocuous: “We’ve got a local shopping centre called the Saddler Centre, and a football team called The Saddlers.”)
The company was founded in 2018 as an offshoot of Frank Baines Saddlery – the lauded saddlemakers their father, the eponymous Frank, founded in 1981, and which Garry joined as an apprentice at 16. “I had to quit school!” he says. “Starting at the bottom and learning the basic skills around leather and the craft, taught by our father.”
After Frank retired, Garry and Victoria inherited the operation. Looking to branch out and make a specific name for themselves, they turned their attention to the kind of rarefied country pursuits – and the de rigeur leather accessories – that Purdey is so immersed in. Their saddles, Garry explains, are 99% exported, and they wanted to refocus some business on the UK – shooting accessories, field sports and fishing were a perfect pivot.
The relationship with Purdey started the old-fashioned way. Baines “got in the car, drove to Audley House and knocked on the door”.
He started prototyping designs with the Purdey team; testing and sizing slips (in-tune with Purdey’s specific stock designs, action minutiae and barrel lengths), cartridge bags and belts over the course of a year. The design process was in consultation with Audley House’s resident historian and archivist Dr Nicholas Harlow and Purdey's in-house design team. “It was a lot of travelling backwards and forwards,” Garry explains. “Because I ain’t got a gun licence. I’m a golfer! I’ve never shot a gun in my life!” Soon, the range was set, and company has been producing runs of exemplary leather field accessories for us ever since.
The day-to-day reality of creating an accessory for Purdey is labour-intensive but linear. The leather-making company doesn’t undertake the fragrant, visceral job of tanning hides itself, so they purchase English and Irish leathers from a Walsall company that dresses, colours and oils it.
After some initial quality control, leather patterns are drawn on a computer and cut with a mix of laser (simply to “make sure they’re symmetrical and true”) and hand techniques (“because a laser cutter can’t identify a scar in the material, and so on”), before being machined and stitched. Given the exemplary quality of the wares, a single item could, if it was being hypothetically worked on by a single artisan, take an entire day to finish. There’s no production line, either; each tranche of products is made collectively by a team of leatherworkers. The overall operation is tiny: six people in all at the company (though they’re expecting some expansion next year, given the hearteningly fecund nature of the business), and Baines himself still undertakes a lot of the hands-on leatherworking, “as well as trying to run everything else! I’m a general dogsbody.”
As with many archaic skills, there’s something of a lack of new blood coming through. “Our leatherworker Bradley – my nephew – makes most of the pieces for Purdey. He’s 30, and came to us with no leatherworking skills at all. And we’ve another three apprentices in-house between the shooting and the saddles. I wish there were more because our workforce is getting to an age where they’re starting to retire.”
But Baines’ dedication to Walsall’s artisan heritage is imperturbable. Along with a host of fellow local saddlemakers, he founded the Walsall Leather Skills Centre, and he’s both a livery and freeman of the Worshipful Company of Master Saddlers in London.
At the heart of it, the love of the job comes from seeing a functional, beautifully-made product appreciated by its user – whether the kind of sportsman who replenishes their inventory every season, or someone like a farmer, who might keep a gunslip for years as an alluringly patinated heirloom-in-waiting.
“I just love to see it in the field, people using it and the comments that come back from people saying, ‘What a nice piece of kit.’” says Garry. “How well it’s been made and how well it does its job. That’s where I get my satisfaction.”