Devon Leather

2 March 2009



An outline history of a lost industry: nineteenth century tanners and tanneries by Martin Bodman.Here we publish a few excerpts:


Devon was among the leading counties making leather in 1840: the census in the following year indicated Surrey first with 507 tanners, Lancashire with 420 and Devon with 397. Yorkshire's West Riding had 355, followed by Somerset and Northumberland, both with 245.

These numbers included journeyman tanners and operatives as well as tannery owners. The county was well placed - hides were readily available, both locally and from overseas. This sale notice from 1834 indicates the significant industry in imported hides:

‘Auction .. Falmouth .. for disposing of about 2,400 damaged ox hides, just landed from the schooner, City of Exeter, William Long, master, from Rio Grande, forced into this port in distress, on her voyage up Channel.. At the same time will be offered for sale, the sound portion of the said vessel's cargo, consisting of about 2,250 ox hides .. The superior quality of the Rio Grande hides is well known to the trade.'

Oak bark became exceptionally expensive before and during the Napoleonic Wars - in 1790 an Exeter meeting of tanners from Devon, Cornwall and Dorset resolved: ‘That the free exportation of oak bark is highly injurious to the revenue, and to the tanning bufinefs [business] in this kingdom ..' and recommended imposing a duty on such exports.

Tanners were again in conflict with the government when it introduced a tax on leather manufacture in 1812.

After 1815 there was a slump in demand for leather and a number of tanners faced bankruptcy but oak bark was still expensive.

Chrome tanning was introduced in the late 19th century and greatly speeded up the process which, until then, had taken from a year to 18 months. The new process - the one really radical change in the industry in thousands of years - hastened the closure of many rural sites and by 1918 only ten tanneries were listed in the county.

In the boom from 1780-1850 as many as 115 tan yards were in operation; a further 60 possible sites may have existed in the eighteenth century.

An oak bark tannery can be seen at the National History Museum, St Fagans,outside Cardiff, where buildings and pits from Rhaeadr have been re-erected,complete with water-powered bark mill. But Colyton in Devon retains the last working oak bark tannery in the country.

J & F J Baker & Co's tannery at Colyton is the last real, live, working tannery in Britain to use high quality oak bark processing. Thomas Beed owned and occupied what is now known as Baker's tannery in 1841. At that date the premises included a second yard immediately below Chantry Bridge, together with a second house and garden. In all the estate covered nine acres. The downstream yard was disused by 1889.

By 1850 two brothers, Robert Buncombe Evans and William Nathaniel Evans, ‘appear' to have leased Baker's tannery but in 1860 they were bankrupt. The yard was offered to let in 1861:

‘To be let, by private contract, with immediate possession, all that desirable tannery, situated in the town of Colyton, Devon, late in the occupation of Messrs Evans, tanners. It comprises a dwelling house and offices, garden and lawn, together with a tan yard, drying shed, mill house, with cast iron drying room over, and every other requisite, in which the business of a tanner can be conveniently carried on...'

Between 1862 and 1866 W Baker moved in, although by 1873 John Baker was listed at Hamlyn's Tannery and also had premises at Chard in Somerset. He was here in 1883 as well. By 1902 the firm was trading a J & F J Baker & Co Ltd.

The book is fully illustrated and provides a gazetteer with extensive historical notes on 103 tannery sites throughout the county. Copies can be obtained from Martin Bodman, 25 Chaffinch Drive, Cullompton, Exeter EX15 1J, for £22 (including postage and packaging in the UK) and cheques should be made payable to Martin Bodman. Overseas copies will cost a little more.

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