Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
The Leather Market buildings in Weston Street are substantial Grade II listed Victorian buildings and probably the most solid reminders of the prominence of the leather trade in Bermondsey in the 19th century. The extent, scope and importance of the industry in the first part of the 19th century was described in ‘Illustrated London Vol 3’, edited by Charles Knight:
“A circle of a mile in diameter, having its centre at the spot where the Abbey once stood, will include within its limits most of the tanners, the curriers, the fellmongers, the wool-staplers, the leather-factors, the leather-dressers, the leather-dyers, the parchment makers, and the blue-makers. There is scarcely a street, a road, a lane into which we can turn without seeing evidence of one or other of these occupations. One narrow road – leading from the Grange Road to the Kent road – is particularly distinguishable for the number of leather factories which it exhibits on either side; some time-worn and mean, others newly and skilfully erected. Another street, known as Long Lane and lying westward of the church, exhibits nearly twenty distinct establishments where skins or hides undergo some of the many processes to which they are subjected. In Snow’s Fields, in Bermondsey New Road, in Russell Street, upper and lower, in Willow Walk, and Page’s Walk, and Grange Walk, and others whose names we cannot now remember – in all of these, leather, skins and wool seem to be the commodities out of which the wealth of the inhabitants has been created.”
It was a dirty, bloody and stinking process that involved soaking the hides and skins in urine and lime to loosen the hairs and remaining flesh that was often in a state of putrefaction. After removing the remaining hair and flesh with a dull knife, dog faeces (‘pure’) were then pounded into the skins to soften them. Tanning had been banned from the City of London as the associated stench was so foul and the industry in London had made its home in Bermondsey outside the jurisdiction of the City of London. Here there was the necessary running water from the Neckinger and other tidal courses, and was close to supplies of oak bark used in the tanning process. By the end of the 18th century, it was estimated Bermondsey produced one third of the leather in the United Kingdom.
The Leather and Skin Market in Weston Street was opened in 1833, built by a company formed of local tanners and leather-dressers. It was described as a series of brick warehouses lit by a range of windows and an arched entrance at either end. There were two trading areas in open quadrangles at ground level, one where skins and hides were traded,
and the other dealt in finished, dressed leather though it was said most of the business of selling the latter was conducted in the surrounding warehouses.
London’s leather market had previously been located at Leadenhall Market alongside the beef market but relocated to the new market in Bermondsey. Initially, only skins, that is untreated pelts from sheep (including the fleece) and calves, were traded in Bermondsey, and hides from oxen and horses used in the production of heavier leather continued to be bought and sold at Leadenhall but over time this business also moved to Bermondsey.
The skin market was oblong in shape with semi-circular ends. The central area was paved so that carts transporting skins could enter the market and offload their goods (see illustration to the left). Surrounding this area was a pavement for pedestrians covered by an arcade supported by pillars. The space between two adjoining pillars formed a bay, there were 50 in all, where skin salesmen, laid out their goods for inspection by potential buyers for the production of wool, leather and parchment.
In 1878, a new building was built next door to the Leather Market and emblazoned with the inscription The London Leather, Hide and Wool Exchange and said to be a gentleman’s club though it’s fair to say a lot of business was probably conducted there as well. The new building incorporated a pub and there is still one today now called the Leather Exchange. Built at a time when architectural sculpture was coming into vogue, the building displays five stone reliefs that depict stages in the transformation of raw skins into processed leather.
Despite having been such a huge local industry, tanning in Bermondsey declined in the 20th century. There were many reasons for this. There had been changes in the means of production of leather and other places developed as centres for tanning, notably Liverpool and Leeds where rents were cheaper. Though large quantities of leather still continued to be manufactured in the area, by the beginning of the 20th century, Bermondsey had become a wholesale centre for the sale of processed leather and leather goods manufactured elsewhere. The replacement of horses by motorised transport drastically reduced the demand for saddlery and by the 1960s, many goods once made from leather were now made from man-made synthetics. Bermondsey was heavily bombed during the second world war and many tanneries and associated buildings destroyed or damaged. Bevingtons and Sons, one of the leading leather producers, moved to Leicester in the 1970s and and the last working tannery in London, S.O.Rowe & Son PLC of Tanner Street, Bermondsey, closed in 1997.
The eastern part of the Leather Market where the Skin Market had stood was demolished having been badly damaged during World War II and flats built in its place. The western part, fronting onto Weston Street, survives. Both the remainder of the Leather Market and the London Leather, Hide and Wool Exchange survived the threat of demolition in 1993 and now offer flexible workspace and studio accommodation.