Bermondsey Leather Trade


Leather workers

By the mid-19th century parts of Bermondsey had become a notorious slum - with the arrival of industrial plants, docks and immigrant housing.

Bermondsey was London's main leather-working centre - all the factors necessary for the expansion of the trade were to be found in Bermondsey; open countryside, a constant supply of water and of oak bark from the surrounding countryside; hides from the butchers of London; a plentiful supply of cheap labour, and a good market for the finished product over the river in the City.

Many other related trades flourished with the leather trade – wool and hair was separated from the skins and sold for hat-making, as were horns, which were used to make combs, spoons, knife-handles and musical horns.

The area was extensively redeveloped during the 19th century and early 20th century with the expansion of the river trade and the arrival of the railways. One industry that came to dominate central Bermondsey, away from the riverfront, was the processing and trading of leather and hides. Many buildings from this era survive around Leathermarket Street including the huge Leather, Hide and Wool Exchange (now residential and small work spaces). Hepburn and Gale's tannery (disused as of early 2007) on Long Lane is also a substantial survivor of the leather trade.

Barrow Hepburn & Gale, Bermondsey

Barrow Hepburn & Gale Tannery 2007

The growth of Bermondsey was due to the leather trade. The tanning pits of Bermondsey had a supply of water from the tidal Thames and was used as a motive power by tanners and leather-dressers; also plenty of oak bark for tanning was still to be had close by.

1703 a charter of incorporation was granted to all persons instructed as apprentices in tanning for seven years who exercised their craft in the parish. They must have of their number from fourteen to twenty-four assistants, out of whom they must elect annually a master and two wardens.

1750. The tanners were numerous, and carried on here a more extensive business than in any other part of the country. Some members of allied trades, fellmongers, curriers, leather-dressers and parchment makers, were established in the parish, and calico printers, dyers and pin and needle makers were represented in a small degree.

1792 a third of the leather in the country came from Bermondsey.

1832 the leather trade had outgrown the market in Leadenhall, and in this year and the next the existing leather market, whose frontage is in Weston Street, was erected by the principal tanners of Bermondsey.

1842. The wealthier residents had left the parish. A thickly populated district along the waterside was inhabited by coal porters, whippers, longshore labourers and jobbers, corn porters, costermongers, watermen and sailors, whose earnings were irregular. The rest of the parish was occupied by working tanners, fellmongers, leather-dressers and other labourers. Four to five persons, on an average, slept in one room, standards of cleanliness and temperance were low, and the population subsisted chiefly on bread and potatoes.

London Leather Exchange 19th cent
London Leather Exchange 2007

Bermondsey Leather Market.—This great leather or hide market lies in Weston-street, ten minutes’ walk from the Surrey side of London-bridge. The neighbourhood in which it stands was devoted entirely to thinners and tanners, and the air reeked with foul smells. At twelve o’clock the men poured out from all the works. Their clothes are marked with many stains; their trousers were discoloured by tan; some had apron and gaiters of raw hide; an about them all seemshung a scent of blood. The market itself stands in the centre of a quiet block of buildings on the left hand side of Weston-street. Most of it was roofed, but there was an open space lathe centre. Under the roofing were huge piles of fresh hides and sheep-skins. There was no noise or bustle, and only few people about. There were no retail purchasers, the sales being almost entirely made to the great tanners in the neighbourhood. The warehouses round were all full of tanned hides; the yards behind the high walls were all tanneries, with their tens of thousands of hides soaking in the pits.

Parts of the building, including a clocktower and slaughterhouses were destroyed by bombing in WWII. The adjacent Leather Exchange building dates to 1879 and is now occupied by various offices and workshops including glassblowing.


Bermondsey 1850 to 1939