Thursday 17 October 2013

Ghost signs (100): Bermondsey leather

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


HughB said...

What a splendid building - those lively carvings banish anonymity and make the viewer feel included in the processes of the business (if the surrounding smells haven't already)!

Sam Roberts (Ghostsigns) said...

There's also this one on Tanner Street. Out of interest, how much are those walking tours?

Stephen Barker said...

Caroline, I read this blog with interest. In the 1980's I worked for a firm of Leather Merchants in Leicester Bevingtons & Sons. The business had been founded in the Eighteenth Century originally as tanners in Bermondsey. Once a month I one have to travel down to London to review the accounts of the office retained in London, which occupied the ground floor of the tannery warehouse, the tan pits had been filled in to create carparking. The rest of the building had been converted to flats.
The London business had 2 elements, the main part was the sale of skins to the clothing trade for leather jackets, etc. The busiest period was the run up to Christmas, payment was often large sums of cash. The smaller part of the business was the sale of leather for the repair of organs. The man who dealt with this side of the business came in once or twice a week but had been with the company all his life and was full of interesting information about tanning and the import of leather.

In the office were old leather bound ledgers from the days when tanning was carried out. Each department had its own ledger and these were all different in there layout of the columns. These were printed to order each year.

For this business they had imported untanned skins from abroad principally India and Pakistan other materials were sealskin, snakeskin and sheepskins. Over time the tanning was carried out overseas and the tanned skins were imported so the business had evolved into leather merchants. By the time I left the transfer of manufacturing had started with shoe uppers being made abroad for completion in this country. There are now no major shoe manufacturers left in Leicester.

In the Nineteenth Century Bevingtons' commissioned large glass plate photos of one of their tanneries and some of the processes. I have seen reproduced copies of the photos which are of a very high quality. I believe the original photos/plates were donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

CarolineLD said...

Sam, that's a great one - a good excuse for me to go for another wander around! I think the walk was £11.

Hugh, I think 'lively' is the perfect word for the carvings.

Thank you Stephen, that's fascinating. I love the detail of leather for organs as a specialist business. I grew up near Street, Somerset - home of Clark's shoes who have also moved manufacturing from the UK.

Ralph Hancock said...

One of the consequences of using leather for organ bellows was that mice ate it. In the 19th century you could buy a harmonium, which had small foot-pumped bellows inside the cabinet, with 'Mouse-Proof Pedals'. Here is a photograph of these devices; you can just see the words at the bottom of the metal pedal, just above the wooden base:

Andy P said...

These photos brought back some good memories as I worked at M. Emanuel Ltd from when I left school in 1979 until 1982. It was a very small business with only the boss (Ralph Emanuel), a secretary (Joan), a rep (Dennis Fenton), a warehouseman (Roy), and me as a junior warehouseman. The entire company (offices & warehouse) was the middle floor of number 3 Leather Market. I also worked for a paper merchant named GF Smith & Son at number 2 Leather Market from 1982 until 1986.