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Chester Castle by Francis Nicholson. Hemingway (1831) describes this as a "portion of the walls may be taken as the least pleasant, or rather as the most disagreeable in the whole circuit, not only because of the narrowness and darkness of walking path, but on account of the offensive stench arising from some pyroligneous acid works betwixt the river and the workshops of skinners; who from immemorial have carried on their trade on this spot." The factory was closed shortly afterwards and replaced by an extension of the jail.

In medieval Chester one of the the main industries was leather goods manufacture. There were skinners, tanners, glovers, shoemakers and saddlers in profusion. Local landmarks include "Shoemakers Row" and the "Gloverstone". As well as leather from dairy farming pelts and skins were imported on a huge scale. Both tanned and raw hides were sent from Ireland to Chester, together with tallow used in waterproofing, but skins were considerably more numerous. In 1525-6, for example, Chester received some 2,200 hides, over 13,000 lambskins, 10,200 sheepskins, 2,300 badger pelts, 1,100 calfskins, 640 marten and otter skins, 300 fox skins, 90 goatskins, and 50 hart skins. Alum and oil, used by Glovers and Tawyers to prepare light leathers, also came from Ireland. Prices for skins in the luxury market rose fast between 1500 and 1550, marten tripling in price and otter quadrupling, and Irish skins were sold in London after preparation in Chester. In 1536 Chester was brought into the national customs system for leather and in 1537-8 customs duties were paid on 10,681 tanned hides in five Spanish and five Chester ships. Figures for later years ranged from 700 to 1,600 hides, with Spanish merchants exporting the larger share. The privileges of the various trades and their asssociated guilds were jealously guarded (see: "Charters") - in 1433, the Mayor and Sheriffs of Chester were ordered to find and punish all ‘foreigners’ who used the trade of skinner and shoemaker within the liberties of Chester.

Hemingway (11831) writes:

  • "From the earliest era of which we have any records it is clear that one of our principal local manufactures was that of dressing the skins and hides of animals. Thus in the translation of a transcript I have given out of the greater Doomsday book vide vol ip 125 marten's skins were known as an article of consequence in the time of Edward the Confessor. A great portion of our early imports consisted of large quantities of kid and lamb skins from Leghorn and other parts of Italy which were dressed here and then manufactured into gloves. The dressing of sheep and calf skins also formed a large branch of manufacture. Such indeed may be considered the staple of the place and gave rise to that immense pile of warehouses and work shops on the borders of the river known by the name of Skinner's street. In this description however must also be included the tanning trade which was carried on here to a great extent and which seems to have had its seat principally on the north side of Foregate sreet. Horn lane now called Steammill street is said with great probability to derive its name from the number of the horms of beasts which were there piled together and formed a kind of fence or boundary on each side of the road. It may also be noticed that in digging foundations for houses on the opening of Seller street a great number of tan pits were discovered. Both these branches of manufacture have greatly declined particularly the former there is now no direct importation of the Italian leather and the dressing of it as well as the glove trade have chiefly migrated to Worcestershire. The remains of the skinning trade are now in the hands of Messrs W and T Topham and Messrs Rogers and Pover and the whole of the workshops and warehouses principally occupied in the branch have been pulled down the site of which is to be encircled by the city walls in order to enlarge the precincts of the castle. The tanning trade though much reduced is still carried on to a considerable extent."

Divisions of trade in the leather industry were fine and complex. The English term Cordwainer, meaning shoemaker, first appeared around 1100. By the late 13th century a distinction grew in England between Cordwainers, who used only alum 'tawed' cordwain, and the other shoemakers who worked with the inferior 'tanned' hides. Cordwainer worked only with new leather, whereas a Cobbler worked with old. Cobblers have always been repairers, frequently prohibited by law from actually making shoes. Some even going as far as collecting worn out footwear, cutting it apart, and remanufacturing cheap shoes entirely form salvaged leather - hence the term "cobbled together" for somerhing made of diverse parts in a possibly rough and ready manner.

The area around Barker's Lane (now Union Street) from the Lavaux Map (1745).

Tanning and leather working were important enough to be among the earliest crafts to develop guilds. Although the shoemakers emerged victorious from the dispute of the 1360s, and thereafter some of their number were engaged in tanning, the tanners remained active and apparently congregated in and around Barkers Lane (later Union Street), close to the company altar in St Johns church. Hides were imported from Ireland, or supplied by the city's butchers and other local traders. The cobblers, always among the largest and humblest occupational groups, had a Row in Bridge Street, but were also scattered throughout the city. the saddlers, who in the 14th century also had a Row in Bridge Street, may well have had a further base in Eastgate Street and beyond the walls, near the tanners. Never as numerous as the cobblers, they were apparently richer and occasionally held civic office. Other leather workers included a few parchment makers, also perhaps based outside the Eastgate, and glovers, mainly in Lower Bridge Street. The status of the latter and the importance of their trade apparently increased in the late 15th century, when three became sheriff and one mayor. By then, although Bridge Street apparently remained the focus of manufacture, retailing may have been in Eastgate Street, where Glovers' Row was recorded in 1426. Skinners, who were particularly prominent in civic life in the mid 15th century, declined in numbers thereafter. They traded especially in squirrel, although rabbit, fox, and beaver were also known.

History of Leathermaking

As soon as humankind began to stand upright and travel long distances there was a need for materials to offer bodily protection. Hides and skins were the only sizeable sheet materials available to help meet these needs. Hides could be used raw but were not flexible and were liable to putrefaction if they became humid. So some form of treatment to prevent bacteria being able to eat them away was required. This is the definition of tanning.

The Lavaux Map of 1745 shows the location of the Skinner's Hall at the end of what is now Duke Street.

The English word for tanning is from medieval Latin "tannāre", derivative of "tannum" (oak bark), from French tan (tanbark), from old-Cornish tann (red oak). While an animal is alive, its skin is soft, flexible, very tough and hard wearing and essentially semipermeable: meaning that although water vapour can travel out, it is not able to penetrate and come in. This changes when the animal dies. If the skin is then kept moist it deteriorates by rotting, and if it is dried it goes hard and brittle. Tanning converts the protein (collagen) of the raw hide into a stable material, which will not putrefy and is suitable for a wide variety of purposes. Tanning materials form cross links in the collagen structure and stabilise it against the effects of acids, alkalis, heat, water and the action of micro-organisms.

Historically, this process was considered a noxious or "odoriferous trade" and relegated to the outskirts of towns or even to sub-classes of society. Throughout the early Middle Ages, in countries under Muslim rule (such as Spain), tanning and leather craft remained in Jewish hands because of the low status of the profession. The famous Cordoba leather was exported to North Africa and Europe, including to Chester. The Moors in Cordoba specialised in two trades, the silversmiths and the production of cordovan leather, called 'cordwain' in England. Originally made from the skin of the Mouflon sheep, found in Corsica and Sardinia, this leather was tawed with alum, tanned with Sumac and finished with oils to produce leather of unequalled quality. The method was supposedly known only to the Moors. English Crusaders brought home much plunder and loot, including the finest leather the English shoemakers had ever seen. Gradually cordovan leather became the material most in demand for the finest footwear in all of Europe.

14-15 City Walls at the base of the Wishing Steps in 2014. The two town houses on the City Walls at the end of Duke Street used to be a single house and were built by a Skinner. Both houses have extensive cellars behind the face of the walls. In 1990, the rear room of this property still bore coats of arms on the walls of places associated with the leather trade, and the windows to the front had complex folding and sliding wooden shutters of ingenious contrivance. Curiously, the passage running through the house from the front to the back door is said to have been a public right of way.

The medieval leather industries of Chester appear to have been located to the east of the City in the area along and to the south of present day Foregate Street. Trades based there include Fullers, Tanners, Saddlers and Shoemakers.

Skins typically arrived at the tannery dried stiff and dirty with soil and gore. First, the ancient tanners would soak the skins in water to clean and soften them. Then they would pound and scour the skin to remove any remaining flesh and fat. Next, the tanner needed to remove the hair from the skin. This was done by either soaking the skin in urine, painting it with an alkaline lime mixture, or simply allowing the skin to putrefy for several months then dipping it in a salt solution. After the hairs were loosened, the tanners scraped them off with a knife. Once the hair was removed, the tanners would "bate" (soften) the material by pounding dung into the skin, or soaking the skin in, for example, a solution of animal brains. Bating was a fermentative process which relied on enzymes produced by bacteria found in the dung. Among the kinds of dung commonly used were those of dogs or pigeons. Between the mid-sixteenth and the mid-seventeenth centuries one-fifth of the annual new admissions to the freedom of the city of Chester were leather workers, although later in the seventeenth century the proportion declined. The profits were unequally distributed, while the merchants of Chester exported large quantities of dressed calf skins from the port under licence, they claimed (in the Rolls of the Freemen) that "the countrey adjoyneinge [did not afford] anie other commodities transportable." Glovers at Chester in the late sixteenth century could afford to buy leather only in small quantities, "never more than 2os. together at one time," and could not expect to make more than four shillings profit a week.

Exports from Chester to the continent were dominated by tanned calfskins. This trade was regulated under a licence granted by Elizabeth to the Chester merchants in 1584. This licence, which allowed the merchants to export 10,000 dickers (sets of ten skins: from decuria, the Latin word for a bundle of ten hides) of tanned calfskins within twelve years, was intended to relieve the Chester merchants who had suffered heavy losses through piracy and shipwreck during the 1570s. The licence was slightly altered in 1586 and then renewed in 1598, 1605 and 1629, thus continuing the privilege down to the Civil War. The value of this licence became immediately obvious in the years after 1584; before 1584 a type of woollen cloth known as Manchester cottons had been Chester's principal export to the continent, but thereafter tanned calfskins dominated this trade. A number of Chester merchants had been exporting tanned calfskins to the continent before 1584, that is before they were legally entitled to do so. During or shortly after 1581 the privy council set up a commission to inquire into the alleged export of tanned calfskins from Chester, and it is clear from the wording of the document authorizing the inquiry that the privy council had been given information which suggested that at least some of the calfskins had been bought from tanners living in Derbyshire. Another document which seems to refer to the same commission laid down the questions which were to be asked of those who had any information concerning the smuggling of calfskins at Chester. The commission eventually took evidence from twenty-two people, most of whom were directly involved in the smuggling of calfskins, and it appears that in the year beginning March 1581 quantities of tanned leather and calfskins had been exported to France and Spain in five ships. A number of Chester merchants were directly involved in this illicit trade and one of the merchants felt that there were many who were 'Culpable in Carring and conveying over of Calveskynnes and leather'. On one occasion two customs officers had been manhandled during the night as they attempted to stop a quantity of leather being loaded into lighters to be carried down river to sea-going ships, and on another occasion a customs officer had been deterred by gunfire from searching a ship which was suspected of carrying a cargo of leather. Even after the merchants had obtained their licence in 1584 it seems that some leather was smuggled out of the port. This probably occurred because the licence only covered tanned calfskins and not other varieties of leather. Thus the shipment of 15 dickers of tanned hides to Spain by one of the merchants in 1608-9 was investigated by order of the privy council.

Economic factors contributed to the decline of the leather industries in Chester. The Chester tanners attempted to take political action to defend their interests in the early 18th Century, when new duties were imposed on tanned and untanned skins and the export of oak bark to Ireland (where a rival leather industry was growing, and iron-founders had reduced the supply of local oak bark by deforestation) was depriving the Chester tanners of this important raw-material. In effect, the Chester tanners were struggling against the gonvernments need for revenue and against the economic interests of Irish tanners, the oak bark exporters and British curriers and shoemakers. The Chester tanners had the support of their MP, Peter Shakerley, but all their petitions were rejected and the trade continued to decline.

"Chrome tanning" became attractive after the 1860's - this was the first major change in the tanning process for over 2000 years. The first steps towards this new process were made by Frederick Knapp of Braunschweig, Germany. His UK patent 2,716 (1861), through John H. Johnson, covered iron, chrome, manganese, and other metallic salts in combination with fatty acids to form insoluble metallic soaps, so that the iron in the pelt might not be washed out. It is effective on skins which will be used for softer, stretchier leathers, such as those found in purses, bags, briefcases, shoes, gloves, boots, jackets, pants, and sandals. Hides which are tanned with minerals are pickled first in an acid and salt mixture. From there, hides are soaked into a chromium-sulfate solution. This process is much faster than vegetable tanning. The rise of chrome tanning coincided with the clearance of much of the ancient oak forests of Cheshire, which had been the principal source of oak bark used in tanning.

Raw Materials

The raw materials for tanning came from several locations. There were the hides and skins, tallow, alum, lime and various sources of tannins. Some of these are mentioned in the Port Books of Chester, others are not. Many of the goods involved in the leather trades were imported from Ireland and it is useful to note the various phases which this trade went through between 1600 and 1820:

  • 1500-1550: prices for skins in the luxury market rose significantly between 1500 and 1550, marten tripling in price and otter quadrupling, and Irish skins were sold in London after preparation in Chester. In 1536 Chester was brought into the national customs system for leather and in 1537-8 customs duties were paid on 10,681 tanned hides in five Spanish and five Chester ships;
  • 1550-1600:
  • 1600-1605: war with Ireland - Chester was the military supply base;
  • 1605-1640: generally expanding trade between Chester and Ireland, benefitted from the putting down of pirates in the Irish sea;
  • 1641-1650: violent dislocation of trade through Irish Rebellion and English Civil War. Ireland was left much ruined by the Cromwelliam Wars;
  • 1650-1680: recovery of trade, with especial importance of the Irish cattle trade. Government legislation began to interfere with the trade in the earlier 1660s by imposing duties on imported live cattle, followed in 1667 by a total ban. Smuggling flourished, and when the Act temporarily lapsed in 1679 the trade resumed on a large scale: in 1680 more than 12,700 head of cattle and over 41,000 sheep were imported;
  • 1681-1735: a period of decling trade, especialyy due to the governmental ban on importing live cattle from Ireland. The ban was reimposed in 1681, forcing Chester's leather industry into a greater dependence on imported Irish skins and hides, which numbered 3,000 or more a year c. 1705 but became fewer in the later 1710s;
  • 1735-1775: the reconstruction of the Dee failed to recover the Irish trade. Trade moved from importation of leather related goods to linen;
  • 1775-1820: final decay of the Irish trade, when almost all of it moved to Liverpool.
The Lavaux Map of 1745 shows the location of the "Skinner's Houses" between the Castle Wall and the River Dee.


For much of the period 1558 to 1625 Chester was the busiest port on the west coast north of Bristol despite the expansion which was occurring in the trade of Liverpool, and especially in the Anglo-Irish trade of that port. At Chester a modest trade was conducted with France and Spain, and occasionally with other continental countries, but the largest sector of Chester's trade was that conducted with various Irish ports of which Dublin was by far the most important. The leather craftsmen of Chester, and especially the glovers, benefited directly from this trade, drawing a large part of their basic raw material from Ireland. Large numbers of animal skins were imported and about 90 per cent of these comprised sheepskins or sheepfells. Kidskins were also imported from Ireland in quite large numbers in some years, and the skins of badgers, otters, martens, coneys, deer, foxes, goats and calves were occasionally brought from Ireland, but only in very small quantities. Some hides for the heavy branch of the industry were imported from Ireland, but this trade seems to have been insignificant until towards the end of the reign of James I. There was then a considerable increase in the number of hides imported and the development of this trade continued into the reign of Charles I. In addition to the supplies of raw skins and hides, small quantities of dressed and tanned leather were occasionally shipped over from Ireland, as in 1592-3 when eight dozen dressed sheepskins and 25 dozen tanned kidskins arrived at Chester.

The Chester and Liverpool port books, suggest a significant decline in the export of skins from Ireland in the early seventeenth century. It is not difficult to explain such a fall in one of Ireland's most important exports: the Irish rebellion against the English reached its climax in the last years of the sixteenth century and early years of the seventeenth century had an adverse effect on the Irish economy. In addition to the imports from Ireland small quantities of skins and hides were imported from the Isle of Man, and occasional cargoes arrived at Chester by the coasting trade. The peak year in the Manx trade was 1592-3 when 8,080 sheepskins, 50 goatskins and 4.5 dickers of hides were imported. In the same year 38,650 sheepskins were carried to Chester from Liverpool, and such shipments seem to have become a fairly regular feature of the coastal trade between Liverpool and Chester from the 1590s.

Some of the skins and hides which were imported at Chester passed through the city to other manufacturing centres. London was the most important centre of the leather industry during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the Chester Sheriffs' Custom Entry Books occasionally record that some skins or hides had been sent to the metropolis. These books record that in 1565-6 a pack of fells and a fardel of skins were sent to London, the latter being taken by 'John Scous caryer'. Similarly in 1576-7, 1578-9 and 1579-80 some coneyskins were said to have 'gon to London' while in 1570-1, 1580-1, 1581-2 and 1592-3 small quantities of skins were said to have 'gon' out of the city. It is impossible to say what proportion of the skin and hide imports were processed at Chester, but the shipment of skins to Chester from Liverpool and the infrequent references to skins leaving the city suggest that the bulk of the imported skins and hides were consumed by local craftsmen.


One of Cheshire’s oldest industries is salt production, salt being used in the preservation of food-stuffs, the curing of leather and later in the chemical industry. It is associated with the ‘wich’ settlements: Leftwich, Middlewich, Nantwich and Northwich. "Wic" is an early English placename element, which means a settlement with craft activity. Salt was first extracted from springs and later (after 1690) mined from rock salt. Salt was exported to Ireland from Chester were it was used for the preservation of fish and skins, but this, especially after 1450 this was replaced by Breton and Gascon exports from the Bay of Bourgneuf. After rock salt was discovered near Northwich a steadily increasing volume of trade followed the River Weaver, down to the Mersey and thence to Liverpool. On the return the vessels carried Lancashire coal. After improvements to the Weaver navigation after 1721 the salt trade grew significantly and became a major factor in the growth of Liverpool. The roads linking Chester to Northwich were poor, and as a consequence Chester took little part in the handling of the mid Cheshire salt trade.


Lime was used in Britain from the Roman period onwards. Most was mixed with water, a process known as ‘slaking’, to produce hydrated lime (calcium hydroxide). This product formed the basis of plasters, mortar and concrete. Good quality lime was also used in lime-wash, for waterproofing walls and lightening interiors, for bleaching paper, as a disinfectant, in medicine and later for soil improvement. It was also used for preparing hides for tanning. The simplest method of producing lime was by using a ‘clamp kiln’. This was not really a kiln at all, but layers of fuel and limestone stacked together in a mound, covered with clay or turf and slowly burned in a method similar to that used in charcoal burning. A later development was the purpose-built lime-kiln.

Rocks of lower Carboniferous age crop out only in a small inlier in Cheshire, at Astbury, just south of Congleton. Here massive, thickly-bedded, pale grey limestones (the Astbury Limestone) were once extensively quarried, principally for lime-burning. No exposures remain; the workings are now flooded and the stone is largely worked out. There were kilns for lime burning on the Astbury quarry site itself. Limestone remains stable up to 800° C and so the kilns would have been fired up and kept running 24 hours a day, the limestone was loaded in layers, first a layer of coal then limestone, and then coal, etc. It was fired and once finished the large lumps of stone were pulled out and water poured over them, this caused slaking which was then turned into paste.

Hemingway, writing in 1831, states that there was "formerly" a lime-kiln on the Roodee and Pigot (1815) mentions the same as being within a hundred yards of Chester Castle - noting the proximity to the gunpowder store against the castle wall. This location would suggest that limestone was brought in by the River Dee. There was also a lime-kiln at Neston which was presumably supplied by coal from the nearby colliery. A port had been established at Neston in the 1550's and coal was shipped to North Wales from there (prior to the 1850's): returning ships could bring back limestone for the lime-kiln. However the Denhall pit was only sunk in 1759 and it is unlikely that the lime-kiln was there before that date. Lime was also produced near Gwernaffield and Pantymwyn from where it could be transported to Chester. It is known that limestone quarried near Caergwrle (Flintshire) was burned for lime and exported into Chester. Export along the Bridgewater Canal carried lime from Derbyshire well into central Cheshire both for agriculture and for extensive tanning industries centred on Altrincham, Knutsford and Lymm, although it is not known if Chester was supplied by this route.


Aluminium-based alums have been used since antiquity, and are still important in many industrial processes. The most widely used alum is potassium alum. It was used since antiquity as a flocculant to clarify turbid liquids, as a mordant in dyeing, and in tanning. After the fall of Constantinople many residents left the city and fled to other parts of Europe. One of these, John de Castro (the son of a textile agent in Constantinople), took to the Pope (Nicholas V) the secret of alum making. In 1461 alunite was discovered at Tolfa, in the papal states of Rome, and was quickly exploited as a virtual papal monopoly. In 1463 4 mines employed 8000 men. Up to about 1500 supplies of alum for the UK came from various foreign sources. But during the 16th C. it was imported mainly from the Papal and Spanish mines, neither acceptable to Henry VIII.

As king, Henry Tudor was heavily involved in the Potassium Alum trade, a participation through which he accumulated a large part of his great wealth. In 1503 Pope Julius II endeavoured to once more raise prices which caused an economic slump in the Low Countries and forced the Habsburgs Maximilian and Philip to flout Papal decrees and deal with the Muslims. Maximilian was Holy Roman Emperor and as such it was not possible for him to openly disobey a papal edict therefore it was decided to go via England, and Henry VII. The King loaned his great ships Sovereign and Regent to the scheme which was undertaken by the Frescobaldi bank of Italy and they sailed to the Ottoman Empire to bring back Alum to England. From here Henry’s own broker Ludovico della Fava, who was also a representative of the Frescobaldi Bank, brokered deals to sell the mineral onto the Low Countries. Henry claimed money not only from the Alum itself, but also on huge import charges and customs duties, helpfully arranged by Edmund Dudley. In one single occasion a ship brokered by Henry, Dudley and della Fava brought in £15,166 which in modern estimates is around £10m. In May 1506 the Pope was forced to issue a papal proclamation forbidding the involvement of all persons secular and ecclesiastical from trading with any alum that didn’t come directly from the Papal mine at Tolfa. Julius amusingly declared that his Alum, rather than being for mere profit, was ‘reserved and consecrated to the preparations for a great crusade against the Sultan of Constantinople’.

In 1545 the search for domestic sources began. There were no fewer than six attempts, made between 1545 and the end of the century, to produce alum, twice in Ireland; in Cornwall, the Isle of Wight, Dorset and Bournemouth. All failed. Alum comes from comparatively rare shale layers, and from the beginning of the 17th century the only easily worked native shale bed was from outcrops found along the Cleveland (Middlesbrough) coastline. Thomas Chaloner – owner of the Gisborough Estates – visited the Tolfa region of Italy in about 1600. Whilst there he visited the Papal alum quarries and, it is thought that he recognised the rocks as being similar to those on his estates in Yorkshire. Legend has it that Chaloner then ‘persuaded’ a couple of alum workers to abscond with him. In one of the country’s earliest examples of industrial espionage, he is said to have secreted them in barrels, loaded them onto his boat and sailed home with the alum maker’s secret. When the pope learned of the English gentleman’s deception, he cursed Chaloner, his family, its future ventures and his descendents forever. The Alum Shale Member forms the upper part of the Whitby Mudstone Formation and was deposited in a reasonably well-oxygenated marine environment around 186 million years ago. The Challoners had a connection with Chester: originally from Rhuddlan, Flintshire, the Chaloners were resident in Denbigh and Chester by the sixteenth century and members of the family took park in a financially ruinous attempt to improve the Irish alum industry (which supplied some alum to the glovers of Chester). It was possibly through this Chester connection that the eventual value of the Yorkshire alum beds became apparent.

The shale was excavated, calcined on brushwood fires and finally crystallised via the heating of large shallow pans containing a mixture of the calcined shale and locally-produced human urine - often collected from the homes of the alum miners and their families. By the 18th century, the landscape of northeast Yorkshire had been devastated by this process, which involved constructing 100 feet (30 m) stacks of burning shale and fuelling them with firewood continuously for months. Alum and oil, used by glovers and tawyers to prepare light leathers, also came from Ireland

Bark and Bark Mills

Oak bark was the prefferred source of "tannin": a general term which includes a range of materials. The tannin compounds are widely distributed in many species of plants (including gallnuts, Sumac, witch hazel, tea leaves, oak bark), where there is some evidence that they play a role in protection from predation (including as pesticides) and might also help in regulating plant growth. Tannins may also have an "antifreeze" effect within the plant. Despite their use for centuries in tanning processes, individual molecules such as Ellagic acid, Gallic acid, and Pyrogallic acid were first described in detail by chemist Henri Braconnot in 1831. It is the tannins that make acorns and sloes incredibly bitter and unpleasant to eat. The bitter, astringent taste of tannins can discourage browsing by herbivorous animals.

The area around Barker's Lane, which had become Union Street, prior to the constuction of Bath Street. Note the "Tanyard Court" north of Union Street - an indication of the local leather industry. To the northeast is an extensive area of slum courts: as with those of the city centre, they developed on the sites of disused stabling behind coaching inns following the arrival of the railways.

In the case of Delamere Forest, once a royal/ducal hunting forest forming part of the Forests of Mara and Mondrem, this would have included damage to trees by deer. This was especially true of the English (Pedunculate) Oak, which has a higher tannin content than the White (Sessile) Oak, and deer will preferentially eat the latter. The majority of the modern Delamere Forest falls within the Mouldsworth Gap, a break in the Mid Cheshire Ridge which runs north–south through the centre of Cheshire. This region originated at the end of the last ice age, when glacial meltwaters formed a vast lake in the West Cheshire basin which burst through the sandstone ridge, and deposited large amounts of sand and gravel across an extensive outwash fan on the eastern side of the ridge. Hence in Delamere Forest the higher tannin English Oak predominates despite the local conditions (sand and gravels) being such that Sessile Oak would be expected.

All barks are best collected in the spring (April to June) when the sap starts to rise in the trees, the leaves are just coming out and the bark will peel easily. Trees grow new bark between spring and summer. This is the time of year when the bark is just forming but has yet to harden onto the tree. The cardinal rule is not to kill the tree. The old English public holiday (abolished 1859) commonly known as Oak Apple Day or Royal Oak Day and celebrated on the 29th May is generally believed to be a celebration of the restoration of Charles II in May 1660, however, it has been suggested by Christina Hole (Traditions and Customs of Cheshire) that the custom of wearing an oak sprig (or more properly an oak gall) may be older and possibly associated with the "oak harvest". In Thomas Coward's 1903 "Picturesque Cheshire", he relates how when, in the 16th Century, Richard Done listed his expected profits from Delamere he claimed "half the bark of all fallen oaks". Years later in 1626 Sir John Done wrote complaining that Delamere was "wind-blown wood, but birches and a few dead oaks fit for nothing but bark". Coppicing is an alternative way of harvesting oak, but it is very inefficient and expensive as Oak can only be coppiced over a 20-50 year cycle. It is probably that while coppicing was used at Delamere for thin building timber (under the peasants right to "lop and top" and thus obtain wattle strips and stakes), bark harvesting for tannery use was by the removal of bark from live trees. Nevertheless the toll on the forest was heavy - most of the deforesting of the twin forests of Mara and Mondrem seems to have taken place in Medieval or Tudor times - possibly also due to the proximity to the medieval salt wiches of Nantwich and Middlewich, with their wood-fuelled salt pans. Of the rest, of what is today known as Delamere Forest, much has also continued to be cleared and felled up to modern times. Part of the forest was reclaimed at the end of the eighteenth century to the extent of 4,023 acres, besides Old and New Pale farms of 755 acres under a lease from the Crown. By that time much of the natural vegetation had been destroyed by exploitation and little but low quality heathland remained.

Traditionally, bark harvesting was done by women and children who then sold the bark on to Tanners who had it ground to a fine dust. In Chester there was a bark mill at Handbridge. Oak bark milling produces copious quantities of fine, penetrating dust. Most tanneries would have a bark shed where plates of bark were dried before barking and ground bark was stored. Baskets of bark were carried to the tanning pits where the bark was added to cold water and allowed to steep for several weeks before use.

Bark was not the only source of tannins. Chemistry Lock on the Canalside in Boughton was built c1773 by Samuel Weston (active 1768-1804) for the Chester Canal Company and named after the former chemical factory which stood nearby which, acording to some accounts, produced naphtha. Other sources have the factory producing materials for the leather tanning industry such as "gallic acid" or "tannic acid" from oak-galls or "oak-apples". Oak galls are balls of bark and the excretions of wasps. They host wasp larva, and grow when a gall wasp (fam. Cynipidae) punctures an oak tree and deposits their larva into the hole. This causes the tree to secrete tannic and gallic acids (English oak galls comprise 15 to 20 per cent of gallotannic acid), creating a spherical gall nut, oak gall, or oak apple. They typically have a hole where the wasp larva pokes its way through to escape. A Thomas Jones and a Robert Lewis Jones are both recorded as having operated factories nearby at the start of the 19thC: these were located on the south side of the canal just a few feer upstream of Chemistry Lock and could be reached from Tarvin Road by the now (almost) vanished "Chemistry Lane". Robert Lewis Jones was quite an innovative chemist. The patent records for 1846 list a patent to:

  • Robert Lewis Jones of Chester, railway agent, for improvements in reducing charcoal and similar matters to powder aud in treating same when in a state of powder so as to them suitable to be used in place of vegetable black, drop black, lamp black and other matters: March 5 six months.

Robert Lewis Jones became the first station manager (and later station-master) at Chester Station in 1847 and he later lived at Brook Lodge on Hoole Road (next door to what is now "The Grange"). Phil Cook provides the following additional information:

  • "Gordon Emery, in ‘The Old Chester Canal-A History and Guide’, records the change of name in 1810, when Mr Jones of ‘the chemistry’ was instructed to lay no more soil on the towing path. In 1807 he had been granted permission to take cooling water from the canal for his steam engine, on condition that cinders from the engine be used to repair the tow path, and that he paid an annual rent of two guineas. Mr Jones, proprietor of the Gallic Acid Works near the Spittlefields, appeared on the Tithe Map for Great Boughton, on a site 80 yards east of the lock. The small chemical works probably used oak galls and bark to make the acid which was used in tanning. The name Chemistry Lock had become officially associated with this lock by 1856. The Canal Company appointed Samuel Dunning as the lock keeper, Hoole Lane and Chemistry Locks. Major and Co., listed as manufacturing chemists here, may well have taken over from Robert Lewis Jones, but after fires in 1845, 1852 and 1861, when the walls were ‘Much shaken such that the building will have to be erected afresh’, the works were transferred to Queensferry and eventually became part of the Midland Tar distillers."

A little investigation reveals that the Jones brothers were effectively distillers making both naptha and oak extracts. The firm of Joseph Turner & Co. was established in c.1860 as manufacturers of printing ink, based in Chester. The Cheshire Post Office trade directory of 1857 lists Major & Turner, printing ink manufacturer, of Great Broughton, Chester. Available evidence suggests that they constructed Queensferry Chemical Works during the oil boom of the 1864-5, and may have produced crude oil from cannel coal found locally to the works. An advert of 1868 shows that, at that date, they contined to manufacture greases and lubricants (most likely from local coal oil), but also traded and refined imported oils and coal tar chemicals. The business continued to expand and diversify, and was well-placed to refine the coal tars produced in the coke ovens of the north wales steel industry. The firm was formed into a limited company in 1884, and merged into the Midland Tar Distillers Ltd in 1933. Production continued at Queen's Ferry until c.1948.

Robert Lewis Jones also invented "improvements in regulating clocks by electricity" in 1857. In the same year the Magnetic Telegraph Company acquired the patent and began to use Jones' clocks in its offices. The public appreciation of such clocks it measured from the large electric clock it had in the window of its office at the Cotton Exchange Buildings, Liverpool, controlled by the Observatory at Bidston. On February 4, 1861 it counted the number of people who "took the time from the clock" between 6am and 5pm – the number totalled 1,860. The same Magnetic Company was involved in the Holyhead-Liverpool telegraphic link through Hilbre Island. Eventually the Cotton Exchange even had a direct telegraphic connection to the Cotton Exchange in New York.

Pyroligneous Acid

Pyroligneous acid, also called wood vinegar or wood acid, is a dark liquid produced by the destructive distillation of wood and other plant materials. The principal components of pyroligneous acid are acetic acid, acetone and methanol. It was once used as a commercial source for acetic acid. In addition, the vinegar often contains 80-90% water along with some 200 other organic compounds.

On 13th August 1812 the North Wales Gazette reported:

  • "Mr. Andrew Patten, of Manchester, has obtained a patent for a discovery in Tanning Leather, by the use of Pyroligneous, or Wood-acid. The process is as follows. The hides to be tanned are to be first limed, haired, fleshed, aud beamed, in the manner in general used by tanners after which they are to be well washed, and cleared of the lime and masterings, and then immersed into a pit of weak liquor made from oak bark, in which they must remain for five or six weeks, and he handled well till they begin to bloom then they are to be taken out and immersed into a pit of pyroligueous acid for about a fortnight, more or less, according to the substances of the hides. Before the pyroligueous acid is put into the pit it must be well filtered, or cleared from the oily or tarry matter — In order to bring the hides as nearly as possible to the colour which is generally given to leather, they should be removed into a pit of strong ooze, or bark liquor, and be suffered to remain there for three or four weeks or they may be put into two such leys three or four weeks, then they may be taken up and dried for sale — if the hides are very heavy they must lie longer in the acid and in the hark liquor."

Further information on this process is given in The Medical and Physical Journal, Volume 28. Andrew Patten's co-inventor was Charles Hankinson of Chester - who gives the occupation of Tanner in the patent.

Pigot's Directory of Chester lists three pyroligneous acid manufacturers: Gaman & Palin of Stone Bridge, Thomas Jones of Tarvin Lane and George Topham of "Botany Bay" (on the Canalside between Cow Lane bridge and Queen Street). The second of these is the same Jones as named at Chemistry Lock. McGahey, who lived quite near "Botany Bay" shows a factory of some kind near the end of a short canal branch, with thick, black smoke belching from its tall chimney-stack. The only other place in McGahey's view which produce such copious amounts of smoke is the gasworks in Cuppin Street. The factory is possibly Topham's pyroligneous acid factory. The Gaman and Palin partners appeared in court during a vote-rigging case relating to the 1826 election, and from this we learn that the factory at Stone Bridge was originally run by the Jones family - possibly the same Jones' thst moved to Tarvin Road (see: A narrative of the proceedings at the memorable contest for the representation of Chester, in 1826.). The factory near Chester Castle was demolished in 1830 when the castle was enlarged.

7 Northgate Street in 2014. The figure is St Crispin: patron saint of shoemakers, tanners and other leatherworkers: and this John Douglas design was built on the site of "Shoemakers Row".

Guilds and Companies

The importance of the leather industry in the economy of Chester becomes apparent when the various occupational groupings are considered. More leather craftsmen became freemen than did the craftsmen of any other major occupational group in the city. Of 1,871 craftsmen who became freemen of the city during the period 1558-1625, 416, or 22-23 per cent of the total, were leather craftsmen. More shoemakers and glovers were made free than craftsmen of any other occupation, and the tanners were surpassed only by the tailors of whom 112 became freemen during 1558-1625. The leather industries of Bristol, employing some 17 per cent of the city's labour force in the early sixteenth century, and of Gloucester, employing about 11 per cent of the town's labour force in the early seventeenth century, were relatively less important than that of Chester. Even the leather industry of London was relatively smaller than that of Chester, although in absolute terms the London industry, employing some 6,000 craftsmen in the early seventeenth century, was con- siderably more important. Throughout the country the leather industry played an important part in urban economies, employing not less than about 8-10 per cent of a typical town labour force, and it is clear that the industry was a major prop to the economy of Chester. Northampton was perhaps one of the few towns where the leather industry was as important as it was at Chester. In 1524 the Northampton leather crafts were employing about 23 per cent of the town's labour force.

  • Skinners: Stewards of the Skinner’s Company are named in a Pentice Court roll for 1448-49 and the Company is amongst those listed in a Mayor’s book for 1475-76. In 1483, Edward, Prince of Wales, ordered that "no skinner or shoemaker was to practice that trade in Chester without licence of the company on pain of £10". In 1608, there were 36 masters in the Company. The skinners mainly pursued their trade in the south part of the City, near the river. Skinners Lane was closed in the early 19th century because of the re-building of Chester Castle. In 1835, there were only two members of the company, but it had revived by 1863, when new rules and regulations were issued. The Lavaux Map places the Skinner's Hall at the end of what is now Duke Street. However, the Glovers also claim to have occupied the site.
  • Wet and Dry Glovers: Wet glovers produced their gloves in leather; dry glovers used other materials, such as cloth. Glovers are recorded in Chester from 1380 and stewards of their company are named in a Pentice Court roll in 1445. They are amongst the companies listed in a Mayor’s book for 1475-76 and in the 16th century joined the parchment makers, to produce the play ‘The Raising of Lazarus from Death to Life’ in the Chester cycle of Mystery Plays. In October 1562, when one of their members, John Harvey, was elected a Sherriff of Chester, they were involved in a serious dispute; some of the company were summoned to Ludlow to appear before the Council in the Marches of Wales. Glove making was for long said to have been on of Chester’s staple industries and survived the destruction of all the glovers houses under the walls of the City in the siege during the Civil War. The Company is said to have had its own meeting house by the City walls at the east end of Duke Streetand sublet it, receiving rents from the Beerbrewers, the Innkeepers, the Slaters and the Dyers. According to Lysons, tho manufacture of gloves declined considerably in the early yoars of the nineteenth contury when the numbor of employees was loss than three hundred and most of those woro womom. By 1835 it had 22 members.
The location of Sadler's Tower. Cow Lane Gate, a single tall archway spanning the street, was built in 1630 and taken down in 1773. Cow Lane later became Frodsham Street.
  • Tanners: The tanners probably existed as an organised body in 1361, when they offered the Black Prince twenty marks (£13 6s 8d) and a perpetual annual payment of 6s 8d for letters patent forbidding others to meddle with this craft. This Charter, granted in 1362, was rescinded in 1370. In the list of companies in a Mayor’s book for 1475-76 they appear under the alternative name of "Barkers", because oak bark was used in the tanning process (c.f. Union Street: once "Barker's Lane"). By the later 16th century, they had established their position as the company producing the first on the cycle of Mystery Plays, ‘The Falling of Lucifer’. Despite this privileged position, the Tanners appear not to have received a new charter of incorporation. In the early 18th century, they corresponded with Chester’s members of parliament over the tax on leather and the export of oak bark to Ireland. Tho Ohector Tannors woro hard hit by the tax of 1711 laid "upon hidos and skins, tanned, tawod or dressed, for prosecuting the war and other of her Majosty's most necessary occasions". They were in active touch with Potor Shakorloy, their member of Parliament, who kept then informed of the national situation and firmly voiced in Parliament the views of his constituonts. Tho City Tannors wanted relief from the duties laid on loather and restrictions on tho export of oak bark to Ireland. But in spite of active petitioning, the Company and citizens of Chostor wore unable to alter the situation. Peter Shakorloy was not returned at the election of 1717, the duties on loather continued, and oak bark was increasingly shipped to Ireland, which produced greater quantities of leather. Tho numbor of mombors of the Tannorst Company doclin©d from about fifty at the beginning of the 18th Cent. to less than twonty five in the seventeen fifties. The Chester Directory for 1795 named six tanners; the 1797 edition named ono.
  • Saddlers and Curriers: Saddlers are recorded in Chester from 1392-93. In 1472, their company was given a monopoly by Edward IV to last for 40 years. In the 16th century cycle of Mystery Plays, the Saddlers produced ‘The Castle of Emmaus and the Apostles’. In 1639, the company was granted another charter, on this occasion by the City. The saddlers amalgamated with the curriers, who were leather dressers. Only two curriers became freemen of Chester during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I and nearly all the inventories of shoe- makers record quantities of train oil, or tallow, or both. This suggests that the Chester shoemakers purchased leather direct from the tanners and curried it themselves to their own specifications.The Company was one of the three responsible for presenting prizes for the Shrove Tuesday races held on the Roodee after 1540. During the 16th and 17th centuries, they fought to protect their craft against the shoemakers and the cutlers. Their dispute with the latter was over the sale of spurs. The Saddlers originally had their own meeting place, the Saddler’s Tower on the City Walls at the east end of Abbey Street. It was demolished in 1774. By 1835, in spite of the continuing demand for their products, the Company had only 5 members. Interestingly, trade protection measures, so often associated with profit and insularity, were also enacted by companies to prevent their own members monopolising trade to the detriment of their brothers. To this end, the rule preventing any brother from owning more than one shop can be found in all company books. Thomas Persyval, of the Saddlers and Curriers Company, was one of many who fell foul of this law when, in 1603, he was ordered by the Assembly to ‘...exercise his occupacon... in one shop only’.
  • Cordwainers: As early as 1356, one of the Chester rows was known as ‘le Corvyserrow’. It was not surprising that the title of Cordwainer was selected by the shoemakers themselves. The first English guild of shoemakers to call themselves Cordwainers was founded at Oxford in 1131. It was also the choice of the London shoemakers, who organized a guild before 1160, and also the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers likewise used this title in 1272. It seems that whenever shoemakers have organized, they have shown a clear preference for the title Cordwainer, conscious of the distinguished history and tradition it conveyed: originally there was a distinction between Cordwainers, who used only alum 'tawed' cordwain, and the other shoemakers who worked with the inferior 'tanned' hides - this later dissappeared. The earliest surviving charter granted to a Chester company was granted to the shoemakers by Edward, the Black Prince, in 1370, reversing a decision made eight years earlier which forbade them to meddle in the tanner’s trade. For a brief period in the 15th century, the Cordwainers and Shoemakers were amalgamated with the Skinners. In the 16th century cycle of Mystery Plays, the Shoemakers produced the ‘The Coming of Christ to Jerusalem’. In 1550, the expenses of their play included 19d for riding the banns; 2s 8d for a dozen boards for the carriage; and 22d for 2 ½ yards of flaxen cloth for Mary Magdalene’s coat. Together with the drapers and the saddlers, the shoemakers were responsible for providing prizes at the Shrove Tuesday races. In 1835 the Company was said to have once owned a meeting house in a rock near St John’s Church, now the Hermitage. It was then still quite large with about 30 members. In 1626, the Shoemakers Company expelled their own steward, William Allen, for having two shops, one of which lay in Wrexham, outside the city walls but obviously not thought outside company jurisdiction.

Prosperity varied among these groups. While figures are hard to come by some insight can be seen in the probate records between 1591 and 1640. The values of Glowers estates (1601-38) ranged from £1593-£23 (with the high figure being 75% trade goods in stock). Tanners (1584-1638) were worth between £305-£35 with a fairly constant level in stock (and a slow throughput - so tying up quite some capital) and the wealthier have further capital tied up as non-trade goods, presumably in the tanyard and equipment. Shoemakers appear to have carried few trade goods in stock and had similar overall wealth to the Tanners. To put these figures in context £100 in 1600 would buy goods worth around £22k in 2019, so these are not fantastically wealthy people.

Robert Brerewood's inventory (1601) lists a limehouse at the waterside and skins soaked in lime valued at £16 16s. Od. which included lamb, sheep and goat skins. In addition he had some 63 horsehides in stock and possibly some more tanned leather. Similarly John Gregory (1602) had 'Leather in the lymes' valued at £3 3s. 4d., and Thomas Harvey (1613) had leather in the limes valued at £37 18s. Od. and 48 dozen tanned calfskins in stock. It may be that these glovers were using a lime process to prepare skins for tawing18 and that they were merely acting as middlemen in the trade of tanned leather. But it is equally possible that they were infringing the rights of the tanners and combining the two branches of the industry possibly, as in the case of Harvey, to exploit the licence to export tanned calfskins.

The leather crafts, employing a larger number of workers than any other occupational group, played an important part in the economic life of Chester, but members of these crafts played a relatively less important role in the government of the city. During the period 1558-1625 Chester was ruled by 71 mayors but of these only 8 or 11-26 per cent can be identified as leather craftsmen. These 8 comprised 6 glovers, including Robert Brerewood who was mayor on three occasions, and 2 tanners. If the attainment of mayoral rank be viewed as an indicator of social and economic influence, it is clear that the much smaller group of overseas merchants was considerably more powerful than the leather craftsmen, or any other occupational group in the city. Among the sheriffs of the city the leather craftsmen featured more regularly, numbering a total of 26, or 19-11 per cent, out of 136 who held office during this period. Of these 11 were tanners, 9 were glovers, 3 were shoemakers, 1 was a skinner and 1 a saddler. The information concerning those who held office as mayor or sheriff suggests that socially and economically the glovers were a more important group than the tanners, and that the latter were more important than the shoemakers, saddlers, skinners and curriers.

Robert Brerewood was by far the richest and most influential of the leather craftsmen of Chester and far more information is available concerning his life and activities than for any of his contemporaries. Brerewood was at least a second generation Cestrian. He was the son of Robert Brerewood, also a glover, who was sheriff of the city in 1531. He became a freeman of Chester in 1556 and later married Elizabeth the daughter of Thomas Horton of Chester.162 As we have seen, his trading activities took him outside the normal scope of a glover's business and he died in 1601 an extremely rich man. His inventory, listing goods valued at nearly £1,600, suggests that he was nearly three times as rich as any other glover, only two of whom possessed goods valued at more than £500, while only one tanner and one shoemaker possessed goods valued at more than £300. He was also considerably richer than nearly all the Chester merchants who traded with the continent during Elizabeth's reign.

Traditional tanning did not change for hundreds of years. This engraving shows the inside of a "beamhouse" with a treatment pit and a "Scudder" working on a hide draped over the "beam".

Vegetable Tanning

There's an old saying:

  • "In the leather process the main thing is the stench: lime, alum, salt, flour, arsenic make it quite white and beautiful. Egg yolks, piss and dog poop give it a special smoothness. Therefore, it is a high-sweet, the tender kiss on the white womens' glove."

The traditional process comprised the following steps:

Skinner's Processing

In Chester the Skinners were based along what was called "Skinner's Lane" between Chester Castle and the River Dee and between the Old Dee Bridge and the present site of the Grosvenor Bridge. The Skinners yards between the walls of Chester Castle and the River Dee were swept away when the castle was expanded in 1830,


The tanning process begins with obtaining an animal skin. When an animal skin is to be tanned, the animal is killed and flayed before the body heat leaves the tissues. Useful by-products at this stage are hooves and horns. This can be done by the Tanner, or by obtaining a skin at a slaughterhouse, farm, or local fur trader. Skinners might also deal in hides which are not intended for tanning, but will be preserved by processes such as "tawing". Tawing is a method that uses alum and aluminium salts, generally in conjunction with other products such as egg yolk, flour, and other salts. The leather becomes tawed by soaking in a warm potash alum and salts solution, between 20 and 30 °C. The process increases the leather's pliability, stretchability, softness, and quality. Adding egg yolk and flour to the standard soaking solution further enhances its fine handling characteristics. Then, the leather is air dried (crusted) for several weeks, which allows it to stabilize. Tawing is traditionally used on pigskins and goatskins to create the whitest colors. However, exposure and aging may cause slight yellowing over time and, if it remains in a wet condition, tawed leather will suffer from decay. Technically, tawing is not tanning. Depending on the finish desired, the hide may be waxed, rolled, lubricated, treated with oil, split, shaved and dyed.


This is salting for preservation, done quickly to prevent putrefaction of the hides from bacterial action which can start to two hours after slaughter if the temperature is not below 7 Celcius. Obviously Chester had good nearby sources of salt. Hanging them to drain the blood is also important. The salting preservation method primarily drains the skin. It is essential that the salt (chemical: sodium chloride) is fresh. A salt which has already been used for preservation contains too many microorganisms and therefore does not guarantee good preservation when reused. The salt should not contain impurities, due to iron compounds. Likewise, only very small amounts of calcium or magnesium compounds may be present as impurities. The method of salting is free from cooling, but must be carried out very conscientiously in order to avoid putrefaction of the skin. Sufficient salt is required to completely saturate the skin so as to stop any bacterial growth. For this reason, the rawhide has to be salted with 40 - 50% salt in relation to the skin weight. This equates to more than one centimetre layer of salt on the flesh side of the skin. Therefore, a skin with 40 - 50 kg requires approximately 20 - 25 kg of salt. The process involves sprinkling the skin with solid salt (dry salting) or by treating the skin with salt solutions (wet salting). Salted hides can be kept for several months and are resistant to temperature fluctuations. However, they must be stored in a certain manner after drying. Skin areas cannot touch or lie on each other. Salted skins are a favourite food for mice and rats. The hides should not be kept in a humid environment as they soon become a breeding ground for insects which lay their eggs on them.

Beamhouse Processing


In soaking, the hides are soaked in clean water to remove the salt left over from curing and restore the moisture so that the hide or skin can be further treated. This process also removes dirt, manure and blood.


After soaking, the hides and skins are taken for liming: treatment with "milk of lime" (an alkaline agent). Liming loosens the top skin and hair, so that it can be removed more easily, loosens meat and fat residues for removal, removes proteins that would affect the leather quality, swells the leather fibres and opens up the skin structure, so that the fibres loosen and the tannins used later in the process can readily penetrate.


When scudding (or fleshing), connective tissue and meat residue are removed from the flesh side of the skin.

Tanyard Processing

Deliming and Bating

Hides are treated with enzymes, similar to those found in the digestive system, to break down proteins. As a result the hides become softer. The duration of the bating process depends largely on the desired softness of the leather being produced. The softer the leather required, the longer the bating process. Bird droppings and dog faeces have were known to have been used for this procedure prior to the development of industrially-produced chemicals.


This process makes the fibres of the hides more receptive to tanning. Pickling increases the acidity of the hide.

The location of Flookersbrook Tanyard (colour) on a modern map (black and white). The large number of tanning pits are clearly shown in blue.

Tanning by ancient methods was indeed extremely foul-smelling and hence most tanneries were situated in the outskirts of towns. The use of urine and animal faeces, combined with the smell of decaying flesh due to the absence of conservation options was what made ancient tanneries so odoriferous and the profession of tanner unpopular. The skin is made up of one third protein (collagen). Tannins preserve the flexibility of these protein strands and the entire tanning process prevents the protein filaments from hardening and becoming tacky on drying. ‘Parchment’ is not tanned and hence different to leather. It is hard and translucent. Tanning makes the leather resistant to decay (self-decomposition by microorganisms). The swelling of the fibres on wet leather is prevented. Temperature resistance is significantly increased. Untanned skin shrinks in water at 62 ° C. However, in some cases the binding of tannins to the leather fibre is washable and unstable. This can be observed in methods such as tawing, tanning with fats and oils and brain tanning. The simple process of treating dried rawhide with oils resulting in parchment is not called "tanning" and parchment cannot be referred to as leather. Another well-known kind of tanning is tanning with fats and oils. Therefore, fatty animal substances such as brain, fish oil or tallow are used. Chamois leather is the result of such a tanning method. One of the oldest tanning methods is ‘Tawing'. This converts the animal hide using a mixture of alum (aluminium sulphate) and saline. Tawing produces white leather. This tanning process is not permanent because the tannins can be flushed out by water. Therefore this type of leather is not washable. Tanning with fats and oils is one of oldest methods known to mankind and has been practised since about 6,000 BCE. Vegetable tanning dates back 4,000 years (Bronze Age). Since the discovery of Ötzi in the ice of the Alps it is evident that several leather types were prepared for various uses even 5,000 years ago. Not every plant contains the same percentage of tannin. Tannin is mainly a substance that is released during stressful reactions of the plant (e.g. parasite attack). Within the same plant, the tannin content varies: Oak bark contains about 10% tannins (in older trees about 5%) and oak apples up to 70%. The resulting leather is light brown. Spruce bark has 15% tannins. However, in spruce wood it is a maximum of 1%. Also, this leather is light brown. Chestnuts can reach 10 percent tannins in wood of old trees. The leather is medium brown and chewy. Willow bark has 10% tannin and delivers yellowish leather. The bark of old birch contains 10% tannins. The resulting leather is also yellowish and soft, but resistant. Valonea has a very high tannin level with 32%. The leather is tough and solid. Galls or cecidia contains 55–65 % tannic acid. As mentioned above, these are over-growths on plants through the eggs of insects. Around the larvae, tannin-containing growths develop. The countries of origin are Hungary, Yugoslavia and Austria. The vegetable tanning process takes about 20-30 months. Per Skin about 30 kg of bark or 20 kg of fruit or 90 kg oak wood is needed.

The tanning of animal skins with animal brain mass is an almost forgotten method and is rarely practised today. Historically, brain tanning was mainly done by North American Indians who also used smoke as a way of preserving the skins. This leather was also called "Indian leather" and "buckskin". This tanning process was also familiar to the Zulus in Africa, the Sami in Scandinavia and the different groups of people from Asia. The hides of all mammals are suitable for brain tanning. The larger the skin, the harder the work. Advantages of brain tanning: The brain was always readily available after the animals were killed and tanning with brain is a very fast process. It only takes a few days. Also, the technical effort is low and it is easy to make the leather soft. This method involves 100% natural products, so there is no need for additional "chemistry". But there are disadvantages. Brain tanning is high on manual labour and the process is not as easy, compared to alternative tanning methods. The skin layer of the hair side, as well as the fat and flesh remnants of the back, must be carefully and thoroughly removed so that the brain can fully penetrate the fibres. This is the only way to ensure the leather gets beautifully soft. The brain mass must be pressed into the fibre with considerable effort. Basically, the brain can be used for all animals. Usually, the brain mass of an animal is enough to make leather from its skin. It is available at the slaughterhouse or butcher, if one does not have the head of the animal. Brain is quickly perishable. Therefore, needs to be used immediately. The use of brains and the idea that each animal (except buffalo and giraffe) has just enough brains for the tanning process have led to the saying: "Every animal has just enough brain to tan its own hide, dead or alive."

Finishing Processing

For innumerable centuries, "currying" was one of the ancient and essential leather industries. It cleaned, scraped, stretched and finished the tanned hides by oiling, waxing or colouring them to the desired surface finish. The “curry” in the phrase “to curry favour” comes from the Old French verb conraier — “to prepare”. If a skin is divided into several layers over the entire surface, this process is called "splitting". Thicker leather, mostly cow leather, which is 5 to 10 millimetres thick, is split. The obtained layers are designated as grain split or top-grain split and flesh split. Sometimes, the leather is thick enough for a middle split. The split, separated from the grain split, is also called drop split. The drop-split leather is rough on both sides like the back of a leather. The grain split is considered more valuable. The fibre structure is substantially denser in the upper layer of the grain side and is thus tear-resistant. The grain split is referred to as smooth leather when tanned.

Tannery Sites in Chester

As noted above, the leather tanning industry was malodorous, and tanners were active in the poorer areas of the city. Perhaps not by co-incidence these poorer area's became in several cases associated with religious minorities - possibly due to alienation from the mainstream church. OS maps from 1874/5 identify tanneries at the following locations:

  • Flookersbrook (John Rowe, Thomas Walker): A cattle market was long established at "The Ermine" (a name associated with the skinning trade but from the arms of the Hurlstone's) on the boundary of the City liberties. A tannery existed on the site of what is now Halkyn Road.
  • Brook Street: A tannery existed on the western side of this street, which led to the George Street cattle market.
  • Union Street: formerly "Barker's Lane" was known for tanning and nearby was found "Tanyard Court".

Nowadays (2019) it is generally accepted that the tanning industry poses many dangers to both the environment and those that work within it. The primary environmental threat involves the dumping of solid and liquid waste that contains leftover chromium and other hazardous compounds. This is commonplace in regions without strong environmental/workforce protection standards, which also happen to be the primary regions where leather is tanned, such as China, India, and Bangladesh. Work within the tannery itself is still fraught with dangers — often the result of inadequate or non-existent worker protections. These includes slips and falls on improperly drained floors; exposure to lime, tanning liquor, acids, bases, solvents, disinfectants, and other noxious chemicals; injury from heavy machinery or flaying knives; drowning, being boiled alive, or buried in lime, which all remain terrifyingly real hazards.

Sources and Links

Related Pages

  • Time: what happened to Robert Jones after he left the chemical works at Chemisty Lock;
  • Brerewood: a Chester skinner who founded a noted dynasty, and what became of them;
  • Chester and Ireland: information on trade;