Bermondsey in London was very like the Swamp. In the 14th century the butchers were allowed to store hides there and with oak bark available from nearby forests tanning soon followed. After the Great Fire of London in 1666 historic tanneries in the City of London were told to cross to the south of the River Thames and rebuild in Bermondsey.

Bermondsey remained as an important tanning centre until the 1970s. In 1908 the Worshipful Company of Leathersellers, a London Livery Company that has always been close to its industry, bought Bacon’s tannery in Bermondsey – close to Tower Bridge – and turned it into the famous Leathersellers College (now to be found at the Institute for Creative Leather Technology in Northampton). Bermondsey was the HQ for the British Leather industry for 400 years.

Last week I went back to Bermondsey. I have never worked there, although two groups I have worked for did have large plants, and my only previous visit had been in 1966 to collect the Donald Burton Prize at Leathersellers College. So it was good to return and see a vibrant community nestled on the south shore of the Thames with the ultra-modern Shard now dominating it and Shakespeare’s Globe demonstrating the vibrant creativity that has always been a part of the area. Amazingly many of the old tannery buildings have survived, converted into expensive apartments. And our predecessors enjoyed a glass of beer: Bermondsey is still full of famous pubs and bars associated with the leather industry. Most English towns had a Tanners Arms and a Skinners Public House where the hide and the skin tanners, respectively, used to socialise but Bermondsey was far better served and drinking houses were everywhere.

Cities originally started growing around industry and communications. River cities were full of merchants and international trade. London and New York were both of these. Nowadays cities have become an economic driver with startups and entrepreneurs an essential element in achieving this. Creative industries do well in cities, as an economy of knowledge requires proximity and density. So it’s no surprise to find International Leather Maker (ILM) has moved its office right into the dynamic heart of this area, the ancient Leather Exchange itself. The heritage of centuries of tanning evolved into the creative dynamism of a modern urban environment – with the bonus of good drinking houses.

Back in New York, according to a Leather Manufacturer report a few years later, when asked about leather “Mr Kuttner replied that considerable egg-yolk was being used in the factory at Gloversville, operated by James Kent, in which the firm Booth were interested, and that a substitute for this article would be very desirable. Schultz went to work at once to produce a satisfactory substitute but his efforts were unsuccessful. Kuttner then told Schultz that some of the alum tanned skins which were manufactured in Gloversville were used in covering the steel parts of women’s corsets; that the steel when moistened with perspiration, would rust; and the rust would strike through the leather and spoil the appearance of the corsets.” Skins were given to Schultz for him to see if he could find a way to stop this staining via a new tannage and shortly after he came up with his two famous patents for chrome tanning.

Curiously In the old Racky Restaurant there was no bar—no liquor or beer was served. The owner John Racky was noted instead for his fine Rhine wines. Not surprising, then, that a goodly part of Schultz’s successful research and development of chrome tanning was done using two large wine glasses! 

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Mike Redwood

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