The history of the leather-making industry in Bermondsey is a fascinating one that dates back hundreds of years to at least the fifteenth century.
The combination of a good water supply, oak trees and plenty of space to keep animals led to Bermondsey producing one third of all leather in the country by the 1790s.
Dubbed ‘the land of leather’, it was also popular for leather making because manufacturers there were free from the regulations and restrictions imposed by the city authorities at the time.
Among the well-established tanneries to spring up in Bermondsey were those of John and Thomas Hepburn who had owned tanneries in Long Lane since the eighteenth century.
The Bevingtons also began business at Neckinger Mills (a former paper factory) in 1806, while John Barrow and Sons began in Wilds Rents in 1848 and went on to expand into three tanneries at The Grange.
From 1865, James Garnar was also producing leather from another tannery (the process that converts the protein of the raw hide or skin into a stable material) at The Grange.
For some, it is probably difficult to imagine a Bermondsey where cows were kept and as many as eleven tanneries lined Long Lane, but, as local historian Patricia Dark explained, it was a very different place back then.
“In Bermondsey you’ve got lots and lots of water because of the Thames, and then you’ve got the oak trees on the hill further south and had lots of cows,” she said.
“The reason it was based in Bermondsey is because it’s a horrifically smelly process and requires a lot of space and in the early nineteenth century north and south of central London was a lot less built up than it is now.
“You couldn’t just slaughter a cow elsewhere and ship it in so you had to have them nearby.
“After the cows were slaughtered for meat, the skins would be given to the tanners, and it was a lot easier to keep a cow onsite and sell the milk to the surrounding people as well.
“The leather industry was one of the biggest employers in Bermondsey. It would have required an awful lot of labour but it probably wasn’t as big as the docks were.
“In some ways I think it’s really sad because there were a lot of highly-skilled workers living in Bermondsey and to a certain degree all those skills and that knowledge aren’t around central London anymore.”
New inventions also materialised from the Bermondsey leather industry during the nineteenth century, including a machine for splitting hides, skins, pelts or leather, patented by the Bevington brothers.
Bevingtons’ successful leather manufactory at Neckinger Mills relied on the Neckinger, a tidal stream which provided the tanners and leather-dressers working there with water twice every 24 hours.
When Henry Mayhew, a social investigative journalist, inspected Bermondsey in1850, he reported that “the tanned material required for this great manufacture is prepared almost exclusively in Bermondsey”.
“On every side are seen announcements of the carrying on of the leather trade; the peculiar smell of raw hides and skins, and of tan pits, pervades the atmosphere, and the monotonous click of the steam engines used in grinding bark assails the ear,” he wrote.
Today, the Leather Market buildings in Weston Street are probably the most solid reminders of the prominence of the leather trade in Bermondsey, which sadly declined in the twentieth century.
Bevingtons and Sons, one of the leading leather producers, moved to Leicester in the 1970s, and the last working tannery in London, S.O.Rowe & Son PLC of Tanner Street, Bermondsey, closed in 1997.