A century ago, Bermondsey was full of industry - and much of that industry was tanning. Skins were cleaned, with the wool going to felters for hat-making and the flesh turned into gelatine, some used by nearby Crosse and Blackwell. The cleaned hides were then tanned - a noisome process involving dog poo and human urine, among other delights. I doubt many within smelling range of the area are sorry that those tanneries are gone.
They've left some lovely reminders behind, though. The London Leather, Hide & Wool Exchange, built in 1878, was more of a social club than a trading floor. Aptly, it's now a pub, but the tannery connection is visible not only in the carved name over the main door but also in five roundels depicting (idealised) scenes from the tanning process.
Next to the red brick and sculpted decoration of the Exchange is the larger, but more restrained, Leather Market in yellow London stock brick. Now studios and offices, this was where the hides and skins were traded when the tanneries thrived.
Beside the door is a small ghost sign, another reminder of the industry. It reads 'M Emanuel Ltd, Leather & leather pieces, Office ground floor, Leather Market'.
Describing the market in 1879, Charles Dickens Jr failed to conjure up much enthusiasm. Instead, he was preoccupied by the pungent odours all around:
The neighbourhood in which it stands is devoted entirely to thinners and tanners, and the air reeks with evil smells. The population is peculiar, and it is a sight at twelve o’clock to see the men pouring out from all the works. Their clothes are marked with many stains; their trousers are dis-coloured by tan; some have apron and gaiters of raw hide; an about them all seems to hang a scent of blood. The market itself stands in the centre of a quiet block of buildings on the left hand side of Weston-street, the entry being through a gateway. Through this a hundred yards down, a square is reached. Most of it is roofed, but there is an open space lathe centre. Under the roofing are huge piles of fresh hides and sheep-skins. There is no noise or bustle, and but few people about. There are no retail purchasers, the sales being almost entirely made to the great tanners in the neighbourhood. The warehouses round are all full of tanned hides; the yards behind the high walls are all tanneries, with their tens of thousands of hides soaking in the pits. Any visitor going down to look at the Bermondsey hide-market should, if possible, procure beforehand an order to visit one of the great tanning establishments. Unless this be done the visit to the market itself will hardly repay the trouble of the journey, or make up for the unpleasantness of the compound of horrible smells which pervade the whole neighbourhood.
I discovered the Leather Market and Exchange on a Victorian Society guided walk - one of their many excellent events - led by the extremely knowledgeable Stephen Humphrey.