Remembering a time when tanning had nothing to do with the sun

Women peeling bark.
Women peeling bark.

WHILE searching the Morpeth Herald for 1893, the editorial, pictured left, caught the eye.

This short extract highlights the importance of the leather-tanning industry in Morpeth.

Throughout the country most small market towns and outlying hamlets had their own tanyards producing differing leathers depending what they were to be used for.

Leather was, and still is, used for a great variety of objects – bags, cases, purses, clothing, book covers and wallets, but the three major allied trades were the saddler and harness maker, together with the boot/shoe maker.

And so what were the main requirements for the manufacture of leather up until the 1850s when a new quicker method was discovered using chrome salts?

There were three main constituents in the process, water, tree bark and animal hides.

In the case of Morpeth, these were all readily available, rivers and streams provided the water, there was a good supply of bark from the woodlands in the surrounding area, up the Wansbeck valley and even further afield, and finally there were sheep, cattle and goat hides from the local market, together with skins from deer, rabbits, foxes and other wild animals.

Of these three elements, water and hides were in good supply, but the bark was slightly more difficult.

Bark from most species of tree could be used for tanning, but that of the oak tree was favoured in view of its higher tannin content.

The bark was peeled from the trees in the spring when the sap was rising. Seasonal labour was employed to carry out this work, probably engaged by the local woodman.

The trees were peeled as soon as they were felled, the woodcutters lopping branches and stripping the trunks with women stripping the lighter boughs.

After peeling, the bark was laid out to dry on trestles and then carted to the tanner’s yard for storage undercover, ready to be ‘ground’ either by hand or in a horse-driven bark mill, whence it was ready for the tanning process.

An advertisement in the Morning Chronicle 1809, for an auction of timber and bark at the Hope and Anchor Inn, Morpeth indicates the sale of local bark.

‘Lot 6. In Chapel Wood, 602 do, numbered with scrives – 115 do, crossed. The whole of the above timber is of good size, good in quality, and suitable for ship building and carpenters work; the oak bark is also of excellent quality.’

The process of tanning started with the arrival of the hides from the market/butcher to the skinner, who would soak them in a lime solution (animal urine would sometimes be added to this solution), and afterwards he would scrape them clean before passing them on to the tanner.

His job would be to lie and move the hides into pits containing varying strengths of oak bark solutions. This part of the process could take up to 18 months.

After drying the tanned hides carefully, the tanner would pass them on to the currier whose role was to beat and stretch the hides to an equal thickness and finish them with oils and colours.

As indicators of the importance of the leather industry a look at the seven Guilds set up in Morpeth in the 1550’s reveals that four out of the seven included tanning and its allied trades. Furthermore, searching through the 1851 census for Morpeth shows the number of people employed in the industry: 27 cordwainers, 11 curriers, one glover, 16 saddlers, 70 shoe/clog makers, two skinners and fellmongers and 28 tanners. In addition to these trades, woodmen, carriers and labourers should be included.

In the 1850’s there were four tanyards in Morpeth, plus one skinnery situated beside the River Wansbeck at the foot of Dogger Bank.

Of the tanyards,, the largest fronted onto Newgate Street opposite the old Beeswing, and stretched across to Cottingwood Lane. The layout of this tanyard and its component parts can be seen on the 1853 drainage plan shown. There was a tanyard running down to the Wansbeck, east of the Elliott Bridge, a third site was on Bridge Street, running north from the road in line with the Telford Bridge, and finally there was a small tanyard in the middle of the new car park east of the bus station.

These sites can all be found on the first edition of the large scale OS map of Morpeth of 1860.

A problem associated with the tanneries if you happened to live nearby was the smell, highlighted here by an article from the Newcastle Courant.

From 1850 onwards adverts appeared in the local press for the sale of the tanneries, the start of their decline in the rural areas. Quicker methods, competition from abroad, larger tanneries in urban areas and the reduction in demand for harnesses and saddles with the demise of horse power for travel and work on the farm all contributed to their passing.

A further search of the census returns for Morpeth, this time for 1871, gives us the following surnames for some of the last tanners in the area: Johnson, Nichol, Nicholson, Clarke, Fryer, Potts, Frame, Barnett, Sharp, Watson, Leadbetter and Jenkins. Maybe there are descendants still living in Morpeth today.

The 1893 Herald editorial referred to at the beginning of this article says the only visible sign of this industry in the town is the Tanners Burn and a drying house. Alas the house has gone, but today we can add the name of the Skinnery Bridge over the River Wansbeck and, on having a search around the churchyard of St Mary’s, four tombstones have been found inscribed with the names of tanners from the past — John Atkinson, Tanner died 1847, Gabriel Dunn, Tanner died 1787, John Marr, Tanner died 1791 and William Woodman, Tanner died 1803.