Robert Blakey was born in Morpeth, but moved to Alnwick when he was 13, and there learnt the trade of a wholesale furrier. He came back to Morpeth in 1815 when he was 20, and set up in business in Bridge Street, probably in the shop immediately west of the Black Bull.
He leased the entire burgage plot, with the shop at the front and his workshops in the long yard behind.
Men’s hats in those days were made of fur-felt. Robert sold hats, but didn’t make them. Instead, he supplied prepared furs to hatters all over the country, perhaps taking payment partly in hats and partly in money.
Although he was a working tradesman, he was also a scholar and well acquainted with the literary world of Edinburgh.
In 1830 or thereabouts he met MacVey Napier, a professor at Edinburgh University and the editor of Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Britannica had hitherto been purely a scholarly work, but in the 7th ed. Napier introduced articles on practical trades.
The following article is not attributed, but is certainly by Robert Blakey.
‘In the manufacturing of furs for the making of hats, the principal kinds of skins used are the hare, rabbit, beaver, and nuetra.
‘All these...are divided (into) seasoned and unseasoned skins. The former are...taken off the animal in winter, when the fur is...in the highest state of perfection...the latter...in spring, summer, and autumn.
‘The fur in the unseasoned skins is short, coarse, and hairy, and is generally not worth more than a third of the value of furs cut off the best-seasoned skins. The mode of manufacturing both descriptions is, however, the same....
‘Hare-Skins. The first mechanical operation performed upon the hare-skin is to open it with a knife down between the middle of the forelegs, taking great care that the skin be not torn; for there is a considerable waste of the fur if this be not attended to.
‘The skin must now be rubbed with...a rake, which resembles a common dinner knife, with teeth like a saw. This is used for clearing away all manner of dirt and dried blood....This cleaning is of very great importance; for the smallest particle of dirt or blood will greatly injure the fur for felting purposes.
‘The operation needs to be carefully and judiciously performed for another reason. If the workman be not attentive, he will tear up, along with the bloody and dirty parts, a considerable part of the good and clean fur; and thus great loss will be incurred.
‘Hare-skins... must (then) be damped on the pelt side with a little water, and placed under a heavy weight, pelt to pelt, to press them, so that all ridges and inequalities in the pelt may be removed....
‘Their outsides are covered all over with a kind of hair, which possesses no felting properties whatever, and this must be taken off with hand shears....(This is skilled work and) the greater part of the profits of a master depends upon the manner in which this shearing process is performed.
‘After...shearing (the pelt) presents an appearance altogether different...of a most beautiful jet black, which gradually becomes fainter as it approaches the sides of the skin.
‘After it undergoes the process of rounding...taking off all the irregular or angular pieces of skin, and making the pelt smooth and even, it is then fit for the cutting board.
‘The cutting boards of furriers are made of the willow tree, and are commonly about twenty inches wide, and from two to three feet broad.
‘They (must be wetted) at short intervals, when used, to make the wood soft, and to prevent the edge of the cutting knife from being taken off too soon.
‘These knives are sometimes made of common sheet iron, but more frequently of steel...on account of keeping their edge longer, and being much lighter for the hand.
‘A fine edge will not cut the fur off the skins; it must be a rough edge, which is obtained from rubbing the knife about every two or three minutes upon a piece of common freestone, of not too fine a grain.
‘These knives are from five to six inches in length and three in breadth, and resemble (those) used by grocers for the cutting up of cheese.
‘The skins are...split down the middle of the back into two halves. The cutting then commences at the head or cheeks of the skin, and always in the line of direction in which the fur lies.
‘The cutting knife is run quickly backward and forward against the first joint of the fingers across the skin; whilst at every two or three strokes the hand must be lifted up, to gather in the fur that has been cut, and preserve it in as fleecy a form as possible.
‘Care must be taken against chopping the fur; because, when this takes place, the felting principle in all furs is considerably weakened, and in some entirely destroyed.
‘An important point in the getting up of furs for sale is, to keep them in as unbroken or fleecy consistency as possible.
‘This (does not affect) their felting power; but the practice of the trade (is) to keep the different kinds of fur from being mixed with one another, and thereby in some degree to prevent adulteration....
‘Rabbit-Skins. The rabbit-skin is cut in precisely the same manner as that of the hare, only there is a considerable difference in the mode of dressing....
‘The rabbit-skin is covered over on the pelt side with...grease or fat, from which the hare-skin is comparatively free....If this operation be not well attended to, the grease will get mixed up with the fur, and damage it considerably.
‘The rabbit, like the hare skin, is covered over with hair upon the top of the fur; but this hair cannot be taken off by shearing...but must be removed by pulling it out. This is done with a short knife about three inches long, which is held so as to grasp the hair between the thumb and it, which is secured from injury by having a piece of buckskin leather placed over it....
‘The...best rabbit fur, used for the manufacture of the finest London hats, is (from) the east coast of England, particularly from Lincolnshire to Berwick, inclusively.
‘The rabbit fur is always stronger in the felting principle when got off rabbits bred on the sea-coast, than in...inland places....North of Berwick the rabbit-skin grows less, and the fur weaker and shorter; and the further north...the more inferior it becomes.
‘The same thing takes place on the west side of the island. The fur of rabbit-skins procured on the west coast of Scotland is...quite unfit for the manufacture of fine stuff hats.
‘Along the west coast of England the skins become larger and finer (but are always) of less value than those obtained on the eastern coast.
‘The rabbit-fur from Ireland is generally of an average quality; but what forms a curious circumstance in the natural history of that country is, that hare-skins, through every part of it, are of no value whatever. Their fur is totally useless, and consists principally of a kind of hair. The Irish hat manufacturers have, in consequence, to import all their hare fur from England.’