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Eighteen months ago, we were having dinner with Bob Higham and his wife Diana in their house in Berwick, on the border of Scotland and England. Recently having entered his eighties, he was still actively interested in the leather industry, and busy continuing to plan more cross-country walks to support charities such as the Nepal Leprosy Trust, where he had been a Trustee in the 80s and 90s, and the Berwickshire Christian Youth Trust.
However, not long after, Bob had a severe stroke and passed away on January 30. He was 82 years old. Bob was one of a diminishing number of leather industry veterans who studied at Leathersellers in London. In the last few years we have lost Steve Miller, John Basford and Philip Rothwell. Philip was in fact a contemporary of Bob at College. From Leeds there is an even smaller surviving group as it had small numbers of students and, from this, we recently lost Dr Robert Sykes.
The steady loss of this group marks a significant moment for the industry in terms of loss of knowledge and industry history. This group entered the industry when the big historic European tanners like Barrow Hepburn, Booth and Cogolo were still prospering. They arrived as well-trained leather technologists and chemists as the industry began its transformation from historic bucket chemistry to modern industrial chemistry. Increasingly traditional chemicals such as sperm oil were being replaced with precision materials as society started to seriously research the environmental implications. Leather moved from a rough and ready production while guessing float levels and assessing quality only by subjective measures to a much more scientific one, where leather became an engineered product with an appropriate artistic and craft content. The human hand and eye remained important, but narrow technical specifications were to be maintained with precision.
On leaving Leathersellers, Bob worked for some years in UK tanneries before joining the main trade magazine, which was to evolve into the modern Leather International. It was in his role as Editor here that I first met him, and watched as he carefully balanced the old clientele with the new fast developing international ones. While many competitors failed to successfully make this transition, Bob quietly created an international magazine with great content, supportive advertisers and a fine reputation. It is on this foundation that all the leather trade magazines coming from the UK have been built.
Mid-career, Bob left the industry to study divinity at Aberdeen University and entered the Church of Scotland as a Minister, serving many years on the remote Hebridean Island of Tiree.
Nevertheless, he always stayed in touch with the industry and was proud of his involvement in leather. He will be widely remembered in the leather industry as he made so many great friends around the world while Editor. With the closure of so much tanning capacity in the western world the modern industry has now fully globalised, so this sort of cohort will not be seen again. Bob Higham was one of its best.
Dr Mike Redwood
February 11, 2020
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