George William Odey was one of the great tanners of the twentieth century

Redwood Comment
Published:  26 July, 2017
Mike Redwood

Hanging prominently on the wall of the main staircase of the Lairgate Hotel in Beverley, East Yorkshire, England is a portrait of George Odey CBE  (1900 – 1985). The portrait is by the Royal portrait painter Norman Hepple and was painted in 1973. 

As the eyes follow you up the stairs there is no doubt the artist has captured an outstanding likeness. I can testify to that since I worked for him at that time and was living in Beverley having been appointed Technical Director of Thomas Holmes tannery in Hull. The only condition that he laid down being that I shaved off my beard.

George Odey was chairman of the Barrow Hepburn Group; a position he held from 1937 until 1974 when he was made Honorary President. During those years, he built the group into one of the largest tanning organisations in the world. He is one of a few global leather industry leaders whose impact was remarkable and should not be forgotten.

His origins were simple, joining the Group, then called Barrow, Hepburn and Gale, as a secretary in the 1920s. The firm was formed in 1920 by the amalgamation of Hepburn Gale and Ross Ltd with Samuel Barrow, and was headquartered at 19 Grange Road, Bermondsey in London. Subsequently, it took over Richard Hodgsons in Beverley, Thomas Holmes in Hull, Kitchin in Leeds, and William George in Norwich.

After the acquisition of Hodgsons, George Odey was moved to Beverley as Managing Director in 1927 and by 1934 had elbowed himself into the group Managing Director role adding the Chairman’s role in 1937. It is fair to say that the Group prospered under his autocratic leadership, although some of the original families were unfairly marginalised, a fact which later impacted upon his more aggressive son. On the other hand, he did work with some powerful directors, not least Morley Wilson whom I got to know well and found to be a tough, uncompromising but very fair and clearheaded.

One message that comes clearly from the period, which is just returning to business today, is that George Odey understood that a business was part of the community. He lived in Beverley, was twice Member of Parliament of the area and put large amounts of personal and company resources into the local community. He personally contributed to buy property to stop the famous Nellie Collinson pub (where we went for a pint under the gas lights last week) from being destroyed in a road widening scheme, and the Hodgsons social club was the major driver of amateur sports in the town for many decades. Time and again he is mentioned as being involved in local organisations and helping to fund them.

Industrial demise

Under his Chairmanship, the group continued to expand buying a chemical business in the U.S. as well as trading organisations and shareholdings throughout the world. As with the other big UK tanning group, Booths, which had earlier built a big international presence much of this was associated with the old British Empire. As South Korea and Taiwan came to the fore and India moved to the export of finished goods rather than semi-processed leather, these historic British links were the wrong ones to have. A few years after George Odey retired, the UK tanning industry started its steady disintegration with only the few strong and determined participants still working today surviving.

It was all very sudden, since Barrow were expanding and hiring in Beverley and elsewhere between 1971 and 1973. Yet, in 1978, most sections of the Beverley plant were shut down with the loss of 750 jobs. Almost at the same time the other non-related large businesses in Beverley such as Armstrong’s shock absorbers also closed. In just a few years, Beverley switched from a manufacturing centre to what it is now; a middle-class county administrative and tourist town.

For a while, what had been part of Hodgsons Chemicals ran on in Beverley under the ownership of Clariant but, like Earnshaws and Yorkshire Chemicals, their days were really over. The huge tannery site was briefly a military museum but then in what was declared the biggest building project in the town since the building of the Minster a huge shopping centre was built on it.

This demise is typical of our industry in much of Europe and the U.S. in the latter half of the 20th century. It should not take away from the great work done by tanners like George Odey in growing the business so successfully long before anyone could have realised the whirlwind to come.

To walk back into the Lairgate Hotel and see George Odey looking down on us was still to feel in the presence of a great man, but no longer able to ask me to shave!

Mike Redwood

26th July 2017

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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Portrait of George Odey by Norman Hepple, 1973.
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