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25 November 2021

‘​The English Leather Industry during the long nineteenth century’: a project update

Picture of man

Hello! (again)

My name is Stuart Henderson, and I am a PhD student at the University of Cambridge studying the history of the English leather industry, a project in collaboration with the Museum of Leathercraft. You may have already had the chance to read my introduction from last year.

It’s been a long year.

The university campus has remained almost entirely closed for the past year and the ‘university experience’ has been an almost entirely ‘virtual’ one.  However, with everything ‘going virtual’, most researchers – myself included – have taken advantage of the opportunity to attend conferences and lectures the world over, experiencing a far richer range of people and ideas. What is more, embracing the lifestyle of something akin to an academic hermit has guaranteed I have read, researched, and recorded mountains of literature and data on the history of leather. A concrete start for any PhD. 

However, the flipside of this new virtual world has inevitably meant that the opportunity for any ‘hands-on work’ has been strictly limited, and even when considering all the benefits it is clear there is no replacement for experiencing history in the flesh. A realisation that became all too apparent after visiting the Museum of Leathercraft. 

It certainly did not disappoint. 

The museum’s collection is simply one of the most incredible collections in Britain. Of course, there are the highlights; prehistoric artefacts, the past possessions of British monarchs, the fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls and so on, but for me the most remarkable aspect of the collection is the sheer range of artefacts and the evident ingenuity of their creators. Beautifully decorated gilded leather artefacts. Native American brain-tanned clothing. Hand-crafted armour, trunks, boots, signs, tankards, decorated hawk hoods, a leather fishing boat, a leather palanquin, an enormous collection of historic saddles and furs, and of course, my absolute favourite piece – and what I definitely hope to ‘adopt’ in the Museum’s upcoming ‘adopt an object’ campaign – this incredibly handsome leather Toby Jug. 

(I myself am now the proud owner of several Toby Jugs. Similar to many Toby Jug enthusiasts, I inherited them from a long-line of family members unsure of what they were or exactly where they came from, but positive that they would be “worth something someday”. They currently live a solitary and uninterrupted life, scaring the neighbours’ children from my upstairs window.)

After months logged-in to the ‘virtual world’, I am now incredibly excited to start exploring the museum’s vast collection, and integrating it into the PhD project. It should be clear just how important the leather economy was to our history. The systematic use of hides and skins dates back some two-million years to the Australopithecus habilis, while tanning can be traced all the way back to the Ancient Egyptians, who discovered the ability of tanning leather with the use of tree bark. In fact, the working of hides and skins has been a distinctly human occupation, one with a long and rich history that spans the globe, taking unique and culturally significant forms in each village, state or country in which it was practiced. 

In the UK alone, even during the centuries prior to the dawn of modern tanning methods, hundreds of thousands of leather workers produced – and crafted with – anywhere between 20 to 60 million pounds of leather every year. Leather permeated every aspect of British life, from the hardy shoes of the rural labourer and the British soldier to the flash palaces of monarchs, the belting of stream trains, and the mantelpieces of eccentric jug collectors.  

The modern British leather economy in particular has a distinctly unique history, for while the majority of Early Modern industries saw an earlier and more gradual growth towards industrialisation, the leather industry had one key problem. Government. Widespread rules and regulations were set, oak bark and sumac were the only permissible tannins for tanning leathers. Clear tanning guidelines were set which, if followed, would result in an unusable leather. Inspections and fines were commonplace. Innovation was strictly limited. Long and divisive debates between the various guilds continued. It marks one of the earliest examples of exclusively government-led incompetence on a national scale, the beginning of a proud tradition still honoured to this day.

And yet, within the space of a few decades, everything changed. The regulations ended and the leather industry completely transformed. The rural craft began to fade and leather working became the bedrock of the development of many industrial towns and cities. Mechanisation became commonplace. Foreign hides and skins appeared from across the Empire, large factories emerged, and Britain became one of the largest leather producers in the world. The industry became defined by its innovation. By the end of the nineteenth century, a new, more efficient method for tanning – chrome tanning – became the norm. A revolutionary new method that accounts for approximately 90% of all tanned leather today. All of this, within the space of just half a century.

Unfortunately, despite the clear significance of leather, the work of various groups and organisations such as the Museum of Leathercraft, and the industries unique economic, historical, sociological, and legal history, the story of leather has remained something of a footnote within many academic disciplines, due in no small part to a belief in a lack of historical data and information. Thankfully, the Museum of Leathercraft puts any such qualms to rest. Such a collection now allows any and all researchers to begin exploring the history of humanities oldest manufacturing process, and after months of ‘virtual living’ and stay-at-home requirements, I for one am very excited to start exploring this collection, and finally reconnecting with our world. 

I would like also to like to take the time to thank the Museum of Leathercraft for their support with this project, as well as to all the staff and volunteers who throughout this pandemic have continued to work to keep this incredibly important and incredibly valuable collection of leather artefacts alive. 

Museum of Leathercraft
Grosvenor Shopping Centre
Union Street

01604 745681