BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK, Derbyshire

This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 25th March 1996 (p.7), and reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

The series is now available as a fully-illustrated paperback, published in 2006 by Wildtrack Publishing of Sheffield (ISBN 1-904098-01-0)

BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK: TANNERS AND LEATHER WORKS

The history of curing animal skins is too old to guess at; leather has been found with prehistoric remains and in Egyptian tombs. Recent by comparison, the oldest surviving examples of leather in the Peak are remnants of footwear dating from the Roman occupation, displayed in Buxton Museum.

Skins can be made resistant to bacteriological decay by steeping them in tannin. Oak bark was formerly the primary source of tannin, so the tanning process was common to country areas, convenient too for supplies of cattle hides. A town-based tanner was likely to buy his hides from local butchers or abattoirs.

The following advertisement is taken from the Derby Mercury: ‘Bark Peelers Wanted - To peel this season 1793 a large quantity of oak coppice timber at Bradley near Ashbourne. As the timber stands in five coppices any person may be treated with to peel any one lot or the whole by applying to Mr Buxton, Tanner, Ashbourne, or Mr Fearn, Timber Merchant, Bradley.’

A later advertisement refers to a forthcoming auction, on 12 October 1796, of a tanyard at Wirksworth together with a croft of about an acre-and-a-half, the property of Joseph Sattersfield. Established some 50 years and with a plentiful supply of water in a neighbourhood well stocked with oak timber, the business comprised ‘43 Pitts, 44 Handlers, 6 lime pitts, 3 drying rooms and 2 excellent bark mills’.

In the same year, the Derby Mercury printed an announcement from the Company of Tanners quoting extracts from Acts of Parliament passed under James I in relation to the illegal stripping of oak bark: ‘That no person or persons shall regrate, ingress, or get into their hands by buying, contracting, or promise-taking, any Oaken Bark, before it be stripped or after, to the intent to sell the same again, upon pain of forfeiture of all such Bark, so by him or them regrated, ingrossed, or bought contrary to the true meaning of this branch, or the full value thereof.’

Leather was essential to the two main trades of footwear and saddlery. A hundred years ago, saddlers and harness makers were in business all around the Peak, turning out saddles, heavy padded collars for farmhorses, and smaller items from blinkers to reins. Mills and factories needed machinery-belting and strapping, while men employed in heavy work had a need for leather breeches and protective boots. The railway created a market for hoods to link coaches together, upholstery and window straps for passenger carriages and hosepipes for watering engines.

TANNING AND CURRYING

All leather products depend in the first place on the skills of the tanner. A skinyard, or tanyard, operating by a stream used to be a familiar sight - and smell. An advertisement of 1800 reads: ‘Mr Philip Dawson and Mr Henry Dale have entered into partnership to carry on the business of tanning (late the property and in the occupation of Mr Job Holbrook in Compton in Ashbourne). Notice is hereby given that anyone who may have raw Hides, Skins, Kips, etc., to dispose of or any butcher whose slaughters are not engaged shall have the best Market Price and ready money for same.’

Ox hides were favoured for toughness, with cow and bull similarly suited to hard wear, while heifer produced a more supple leather. The softest leather came from calf skin, kid skin and other young animals - the ‘kips’ referred to above.

All hides were treated in the same way. The initial salting-down process was followed by a thorough soaking in water to remove the salt and dirt, hence the need for proximity to ample supplies of running water. The hides were next laid in lime pits - and lime was readily available in the Peak - to loosen the hair and soften the skin fibres. This made it easy to scrape off the hair and remaining flesh, the latter to be sold to soap and glue manufacturers, then all traces of lime were removed by agitating the hides in water containing an enzymatic ‘bate’. Dog dung often provided the necessary enzymes before the commercial production of bate.

The hides were next passed through pits of tanning liquid of increasing strength, then left to soak for about six weeks in the strongest solution before being very slowly and carefully dried under cover. Lastly they were handed over to be dressed and if necessary dyed by the currier, a skilled craftsman often in business on his own account. The currying process involved impregnating the leather with grease to leave it soft and supple, chiefly using ‘dubbin’, a mix of equal parts of cod liver oil and beef tallow. Heavy leathers were usually dipped in a tank of molten grease, commonly paraffin wax.

Leather was a major export and a tanner could be quite a wealthy member of the community. On the domestic front he was essential to the boot and shoemakers found in any village of moderate size. This interdependence is noticed in trade directories. In the 1830s, for example, a Wirksworth tanner and a leather dresser at New Bridge both enjoyed regular trade with three saddler/harness makers in Wirksworth and Cromford. Bakewell and Baslow each supported a tanner and two saddlers. A tanner/currier listed at Grindleford Bridge probably occupied the large premises on Goatscliffe Brook, partly taken over by Grindleford Laundry in 1913. The row of houses at the bottom of the hill approaching Grindleford from the Calver direction were built over the tanyard and originally named Tanyard Cottages, now Goatscliffe Cottages.

Grindleford tannery would have been a major source of leather for many boot and shoemakers. In the 1830s, in addition to those at Hathersage, Eyam and Stoney Middleton, others were to be found in Tideswell, Peak Forest and Calver. Three were listed at Hope and three at Bradwell, which until the end of the 19th century also had a tannery behind the old sawmill on Bradwell Brook.

Edale Mill on the River Noe was a tannery prior to its conversion to a cotton mill. A nearby house provided accommodation for the tannery workers; nicknamed Skinner’s Hall, the name has stuck.

The Staffordshire side of the Peak had leatherworks at Winkhill and Ecton. Saddlery was a speciality of Longnor, where quarrymen’s leather boots were produced within living memory. The demand for tough footwear in lead mining and quarrying areas was reflected in local businesses, as at Winster which in 1835 supported two leather dealers and seven boot/shoemakers.

A rare skill is represented in Bakewell Old House Museum in the form of ornamental leather-work depicting fruit and flowers, examples of a former cottage industry attributed to Stanton in Peak. This painstaking and attractive craft appears to have been unique to that village as far as the Peak is concerned and surviving pieces are extremely rare.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 25th March 1996;
Updated 18th January 2005.

POSTSCRIPT

There were a couple of a followups to the above article, published in The Peak Advertiser, 22nd April 1996.

Firstly, a reader from Grindleford wrote to the Advertiser to add a few more details about the Tannery in Grindleford. She pointed out firstly that the row of houses at the bottom of the hill approaching Grindleford from the Calver direction now named Goatscliffe Cottages were known originally as 'Tanyard Cottages' as was the hill. [Ed: this was, of course because they were built over the Tanyard; my mother would refer to them as 'Tanyard Row']

She also drew attention to the lack of mention in the original article of the Cordwainers, and their Liveried Company in London (their motto: "With Leather and Skill"). Her father had been a Hand Sewn Boot and Shoe Maker in Grindleford for over 30 years; then later when hand sewn shoes became too expensive, he became the village repairer. He was very proud of his profession - and - the word "Cobbler" was never to be mentioned in his presence.

The lady stated also that she still had her father's Apprenticeship Indenture from when he was apprenticed to a Thomas REVILL in Hathersage in the 1800's. His father paid ten shillings a week for this privilege!

Secondly, there was a further note from Julie, which will not be reproduced here as the information has now been included as part of the article, above (as has the note about 'Tanyard Row')

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 22nd April 1996;
Updated 18th January 2005.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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