‘The land of leather’: Bermondsey’s history of leather making

Admin (02 February, 2017)

Bermondsey was producing one third of all leather in the country by the 1790s

14837Loading raw hides at Barrow Hepburn and Gale Grange Mills Credit: Southwark Local History Library & Archive

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.

Tannery of Samuel Barlow & Brothers in 1876 which later became Barrow, Hepburn, & Gale Ltd Credit: Southwark Local History Library & Archive

“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.

Contribute
SUSAN HURLE says:

My Ancestor George Griffin worked as a leather dresser in Woodstock Oxfordshire for the glove making trade in that area, but later the family moved to Bermondsey and I guess it was a better paid job but the area was awful compared to Woodstock which is still a beautiful place to live

Fred Stocking says:

Both my grandfather & his youngest brother were leather dressers in the 1880’s/ 1890’s in Bermondsey. Then about 1898 they went to Godalming in Surrey to work in the leather factory there. After about 6 years my grandfather moved back to Bermondsey with his family but his brother decided to remain, and brought his family up there. Their names were Robert Matthew Stocking & Prince Arthur Stocking.

Sandra Fisher says:

My 3x and 4x great grandfathers William and George Johnson were fellmongers who lived and worked in Bermondsey. Fellmongers prepared the skins for the Tanner’s.

Robert Fairchild says:

My Marks cousins migrated from the glove industry of Yeovil to the leather industry of Bermondsey where their Marks, Fisher, Baverstock, and Jarman descendants worked for generations. My Hodder and Jenner ancestors migrated from the glove industry of Yeovil to the glove industry of Gloversville, New York

Gillian Crossley says:

I have a branch of my father’s family, surname Wild, who were all leather dressers in the 1800s. Originally from Manchester, most of them moved and settled in Hunslet, Leeds in Yorkshire, but many of them traveled to Bermondsey, lived there one or two years, and then returned to Manchester or Hunslet. It seems as though they knew it wouldn’t be a permanent move because they didn’t baptize any children in Bermondsey, preferring to wait until their return to Manchester/Hunslet to baptize them all at once.
I can understand ancestors moving from Lancashire to Yorkshire and other nearby counties in search of better work and better pay but Bermondsey seems a long haul for a low-income family to make in those days, yet it seems that this was quite common amongst the leather dressers, and that they came from all over Britain. Does anyone know if this was simply due to the higher wages in London or was it in order to specialize in their craft? Or both?
Any comments would be most welcome. Keep well everyone!

Bernard Oastler says:

My father’s uncle registered a leather company called Oastler and Palmer in 1890. It was based in Market St and the tannery was in Grange Road. He was an alderman in Bermondsey about the same period as noted on the foundation stone of the TA that was demolished some time ago. He died a wealthy man (£80,000) sometime after 1918. My parents met while working in the Barrow, Hepburn and Gale leather factory around 1925. Several of my fathers brothers also worked there and my siblings and I used to enjoy the children’s Christmas parties in the 1950’s. My mother also worked at the Alaska Factory as a young girl.
It wasn’t all biscuits in Biscuit Town.
Bernie Oastler

jeremy Nickerson says:

Nickerson Brothers Limited
I am a direct descendant of the Nickerson family who owned the Tannery in Alscot Rd on the corner of Spar Rd my late father worked there until its closure in 1958/9 . But due to family problems he left the firm . His name was Derek Nickerson at the time the manger was Albert Law. The firm trades from 99/101 Worship Street for few more years. Dad was the only person of his generation to work in the firm he always called it the factory.

Mike Drew says:

My mothers family is Kindred from Bermondsey. Various family members worked at the tannery, docks or were merchant sailors. My Grandfather William Kindred had a younger brother Dick who worked at the tannery and when it closed down he moved to the tannery at Edenbridge in Kent. I have fond memories of them all.

Janet Vine says:

My great grandfather was a tanner in bermondsey late 1800s

Malcolm Lee says:

My ancestors (William and John Beach) worked first (around 1820) in leather dressing for a Mr Fisher (premises not yet traced), and then in late 1840s set up their own tanning business, first in Wrights Buildings, Grange Road that burnt down in 1850 and then in Willow Walk opposite Bricklayers Arms railway station. William Beach later set up a new enterprise in Chelmsford.

P Higgins says:

My ancestors (Higgins) all worked in the leather industry in Bermondsey from 1846 onwards, when Daniel Higgins came over from Ireland. They lived in Long Lane, Gratwick St & Abbey St.

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