Tanning in Swannington

Tanning Hides

German woodcut of a tanner at work.

The availability of lime from nearby Breedon, quality water from the springs in Redhills, oak bark from locally coppiced woodland and manure from local farms enabled the tanning of large quantities of cattle hides to be carried out at the Tan Yard.

At least four tanners are known to have worked here and when one of these, Edward Orton, a descendant of a village Quaker farnily, died in 1746 an inventory recorded more than a thousand hides in process. The inventory shows that the skins of cows, pigs, horses, sheep, calves and dogs were being used. The presence of a Tan Yard within the village indicates a not unusual local operation in Medieval times for there was usually a leather worker in most villages. Trimmed hides after washing were suspended in lime pits to loosen hair and fatty tissue for periods up to several weeks.

The soaking time was critical so that when the hides were laid hair-side up on a beam they could be scraped with a double handled blade to remove hair and dirt. They were then scraped on the under side to remove fatty tissue. The hides were then treated with a warm liquid paste made by soaking hen and pigeon droppings and dog dung in water. This was a very skillful part of the process. The hides were then ready for tanning. They were immersed in tanning fluid, a liquor made by soaking oak bark in water, for several weeks, They were then laid out, interleaved with chipped bark in pits topped up with tanning fluid. There they stayed for about 12 to 24 months until they were removed, washed out and dried. In the 18th and 19th centuries it became important to reduce the time it took to produce the leather because so much money was held up in hides being processed. It was possible to speed up the process by heating up the liquids. This was achieved by installing steam heating pipes through the treatment pits and our locally produced coal helped this process. The industry appears to have survived until the mid 19th century and the cottages of the workers still survive. There were a number of shoemakers employed in the village using the product.