A Family of Tanners


Montagu Lomax’s father, Thomas Smith, came from a long line of Ashbourne tanners who can be traced back to the  18th century. Montagu’s grandfather had moved his family from Ashbourne in Derbyshire, down to Bermondsey in London in the early 1800s. Bermondsey, on the south bank of the Thames, was a busy leather processing centre, but contemporary descriptions of the area convey the horrific living conditions endured by the leather workers – Dickens’s Oliver Twist was based in Bermondsey. The Napoleonic wars were raging across Europe at the time, resulting in  a huge demand for boots, saddles and harness. There was money to be made in leather, and the Smith family acquired a great deal of it, investing it shrewdly in property. By today’s standards, Thomas Smith would have been a multimillionaire by the time he was thirty.

Thomas Smith married a cousin from the Ashbourne side of the family. Their first child died as an infant from an unspecified fever, perhaps due to the unhealthy climate of the Bermondsey tanning yards.  It seems that the loss of his child was a crucial moment for Thomas, and he decided to use his wealth to leave Bermondsey behind.  He  bought himself a place at Cambridge University to study theology, eventually becoming a Church of England vicar. An astute businessman, he kept the properties he had bought in London since they were providing rental income, and continued to buy land and property throughout his life.

Montagu Lomax and his siblings were the first generation of his family  to be raised within the emerging middle classes of the mid Victorian era, and to marry the children of  vicars, and solicitors. Their comfortable life styles, public school and university education were bought with money made from the  leather industry (see The Story of the Reverend Smith’s Wealth). So I want to fill in a little detail here, about an industry which in the 18th and 19th centuries was second only to the wool trade in Britain.  It was a crucial source of revenue for the government with taxes imposed on hides bringing in enormous amounts of money. As cities grew at the beginning of the industrial revolution, meat consumption and therefore leather production increased. 

 The new toll roads begun in the 18th century, encouraged the expansion of travel. The increased numbers of carriages created huge demand for saddlery and harness. Leather was needed for upholstery, and shoes while  leather belts powered the factories of the industrial revolution. The demand for leather was endless, pushing  prices up and increasing tax revenue even more. The government needed to protect this lucrative income stream, so they legislated that hides should not be damaged during the slaughtering process. Hides then had to be inspected for quality and stamped by government inspectors. This meant that hides had to be traded through a single outlet in most large towns – Leadenhall Market served this purpose in London, which subsequently set the price for leather across the whole country.

Tanning itself was a filthy, smelly trade. To make leather from hides, the hides had to be cured. They were salted to prevent decay, and then soaked in water to remove the salt and dirt. The hides were then laid in lime pits to loosen hair and soften the skin so that it was easier to scrape away hair and fat. This residue was sold off to manufacturers of glue and soap – also foul-smelling industries, and of necessity, situated close to the tanneries. The lime was then removed from the hides by agitating them in pits containing enzymatic ‘bate’,  which before the production of chemical bate, relied on dog faeces. Next the hides were soaked for several weeks in pits of tanning liquid of increasing strength, usually made from oak bark although human urine could also be added. The stinking process was the tanning  method for centuries and for this reason tanneries tended to be grouped by rivers and outside the city walls downstream of a town’s drinking water. So it was that Bermondsey became the site that the butchers of London deposited their hides from the 14th century onwards. By 1792, a third of the leather in the UK came from Bermondsey, and by 1879 a grand leather exchange had been built in the town.

Tanners and curriers were separate trades before 1813 with entirely separate Guilds and apprenticeships. Curriers  were highly skilled tradesmen who finished the leather prior to its sale to the shoe makers and saddlers. Curriers, of which Thomas Smith was one, made substantial profits, considerably more than tanners, and to protect their income, tanners were forbidden to do any currying by Act of Parliament. After 1813, the old divisions between the trades were abolished and the boundaries blurred, but the curriers continued to act as the middle men between the tanners and the end users of the finished leather, so that many of them became extremely rich.

I found a reference to a court case from 1810 where  Thomas Smith’s servant  was accused of having stolen two pounds of leather. He was initially sentenced to seven  years transportation, but this was commuted to imprisonment because it was his first offence. Seven years transportation does seem a little harsh for such a small quantity of leather, but it was a very valuable commodity.

It would be so interesting to know whether Montagu Lomax ever told his friends about his father’s first career in the leather industry.

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