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In this latest column, Mike Redwood discusses the importance of historical figure and tanner Tom Poole on the occasion of his 256th birthday.
Tom Poole (1766-1837) was a forward-thinking tanner in the south of England. A plaque was recently placed on his house to celebrate his life of philanthropy on the date of his 256th birthday. This poem was written for the occasion by well-known poet and author Diana Barsham who, with her husband, currently owns the house.
Birthday poem for Tom Poole
They say, Tom Poole, you never lost a friend in all your life.
All those of us who know this house, know that is true
For never was there place
So warm, so welcoming, so much like you –
A man with loyal feeling for the past
But keen enquiry for the coming new.
Straight-forward, plain, and practical to see
Yet full of light and hidden depth
And rare, befriending generosity.
This was a house where books and learning mixed
With evil-smelling tannery pits
The stench of animal skin, of oak-bark stripped
Filled all your mind with fiery politics:
A mind “intense and frugal, apt for all affairs”
Yet paved with poetry and edged with lime-tree bowers.
In your deep heart, Tom Poole, a revolution stirred:
Like tannin’s brew, it spoke the language of a better world.
The poets came and went, the inspired men
Of science too: a new song formed,
A modern balladry where humble folk and mariners
With trees and hills and streams and hedgerow birds
Told magic moonlit tales in simple words.
For Coleridge you were a coat against the cold,
A steady ground to earth his mind’s wild spark:
As brother, father, mother, friend
You were the anchor of his wandering bark.
A muse for Wordsworth, from your likeness took
His shepherd Michael, that great masterpiece
Of love and loss. From you he drew
The tender heart’s most manly epitaph.
And so, Tom Poole, if you were with us now
You would, I hope, be pleased – and proud –
To see enamelled on this plaque
What you achieved and how your life is valued still:
For everything you did for Stowey’s good
We give you thanks. In Cottage, House and Library,
In Savings Bank and Women’s Walk, your name stands ever tall:
And so God bless you, dear old Tom,
And happy birthday from us all.
Diana Barsham, November 14, 2022
Thomas (Tom) Poole took over the tannery from his father and was keenly interested in technical and business advancement despite being in the rural town of Nether Stowey in the Southwest of England. He was chosen as a representative to meet with the Prime Minister in 1790 to discuss tariffs and the loss of oak bark created by the use of timber to build naval ships. Oak bark was the primary tanning material in the UK at the time.
He became friendly with the famous scientist Sir Humphry Davy, asking him in 1800 “what are the parts or properties in the oak bark which tan skins, and is cold water a complete menstruum (solvent) for those parts or properties?” He considered that “nothing is so little understood as the chemical theory of tanning, though nothing is of more importance, in the circle of manufactures”.
Sir Humphry Davy
Consequently, when Davy was given a three-month leave of absence by the London Royal Institution to prepare a series of lectures on leather, instead of crossing to the south bank of the Thames to Bermondsey where there was a concentration of large, diverse tanneries, he went instead to visit Thomas Poole and study his tannery.
Davy was awarded the prestigious Royal Society Copley Medal in 1805 for his work on leather. His work focused on the analysis and chemistry of tanning materials, and he greatly improved the method for the estimation of tannin, precipitating it with isinglass and weighing the dried precipitate. His method of analysis persisted until the end of the 19th century. He had a great understanding of the catechol tanning types and opened tanners’ eyes to the wider sources of tannins at a time when skilled botanists were starting to travel the world.
His friendship with Davy was linked with that of the poet Coleridge and their face-to-face discussions and correspondence. Poole is best remembered outside of the leather industry for his exceptional support for Coleridge to whom he offered hospitality, money and comfort. He found Coleridge a cottage at the bottom of his garden and paid him an annuity for life. Some of Coleridge’s greatest works were written in Poole’s library or garden, as referred to in Diana Barsham’s poem.
Poole also founded the local savings bank, funded a free school on land he donated, set up organisations to support struggling men and women (the latter still recognised by an annual “women’s walk”) and helped endless young people advance their studies and get established in business.
He was a tanner who understood the importance of his role in society and was deeply embedded within it.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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