Welcome to the Friday slot where our writer in residence, Paul Andruss shares exclusive posts for Smorgasbord, or I borrow his own posts from his blog to share. This week some less than fragrant history on the production of leather. The next time you are enjoying the soft leather of your new gloves and enjoying that particular aroma that issues forth from said objects, be grateful you were not living 200 years ago…
Leather manufacture was always a noisome business. Noisome as in smelly, not noisy: that was the slaughterhouse. Although with all those animals terrified by death and all the blood, I think slaughterhouses were pretty smelly too.
When I was a kid there was a tannery on the side of the Leeds to Liverpool Canal. We often took a shortcut through a hole in the wire mesh fence between the processing warehouse and the soaking vats. Security wasn’t great, but then who in their right mind would pinch a stack of stinking, sopping cowhide.
The smell! I can honestly say I have never smelled anything like it. Rancid doesn’t do it justice. Funnily enough although kids are fascinated by, and love to play in, all sorts of inappropriate places, it never occurred to us to loiter one minute longer than we had to. And this was with modern chemical processing. Before that the smell was even worse.
At the slaughterhouse salt was rubbed into rawhide to stop it putrefying, allowing it to be stored. After being washed by the tanner, the first job was to scrape away any fat and flesh; next came the hair removal. Today it’s done with alkaloid chemicals. but in the old days hides were soaked in vats of old urine.
In Roman times urine was so precious for the leather and wool industries, it was taxed. Fullers, who prepared the fleece, had urns outside the premises where passers-by were encouraged to take a leak. Urine was left to break down into ureic acid and used to wash out the lanoline (yes that stuff in your hand cream): the sheep’s oily secretion keeping the fleece waterproof. With a longer soak it rotted away hair, allowing the skin to be scraped clean.
Next came bating, a process used to soften the skin. This was done either by working dung or the animal’s brains into the hide for two or three hours. The Ancient Irish believed each animal was born with sufficient brains to bate its hide.
Needless to say, it was this combination of urine, faeces and rotting flesh that made the rich pass laws confining tanneries to poor neighbourhoods.
In the late 18th century Britain became industrialised. Brains fell out of favour for bating: they were too useful to feed the poor. Not the destitute you understand, but the industrial poor who had money to spend. The destitute only grew in numbers with the Christian guilt of the Victorians. Prior to that, very few were destitute: due to the simple expedient that if you could not work, beg or steal sufficient to keep body and soul together you starved to death.
Even if you managed to eat that day sleeping outside was risky, you might die of exposure or simply be murdered for the clothes on your back, to sell your cadaver, or for sport. The danger was so real people paid a ha’penny a night to flop houses to sleep upright, draped over a piece of rope, huddled together for warmth and to ensure you did not slip off and get trampled underfoot.
Leather production on an industrial scale, needed a new reliable source of bating. It was found in the ample piles of dog pooh littering the London streets: called pure for its superior cleansing and purifying properties. Rubbed into the leather by hand, it drove out moisture, broke down the unpleasant natural smell and produced a soft, supple material, strong enough to be scrapped down into thin, fine ‘Moroccan’ leather and ‘Kid’, used for gloves: hence the expression.
The journalist and social reformer Henry Mayhew’s seminal work is London Labour and the London Poor: a series of essays collected into 4 volumes between 1850 and 1861 painting a vivid picture of the lives of London Costers (street sellers- including their cries) and amongst others: mudlarks, sewer hunters, itinerant labourers, street entertainers, prostitutes, thieves, beggars and of course the pure collectors supplying the ever hungry tanneries of Bermondsey. His articles contain extensive interviews and recollections from individuals written exactly as they spoke, providing insights into a world, which would otherwise be forever lost.
Pure collecting was lucrative. A bucket could be sold for between 8 pence to a shilling and tuppence. Collectors could earn between 10 to 15 shillings a week when a man’s average wage for six days of 12 hours back breaking labour was around 7 shillings and sixpence.
The trade initially attracted the elderly as it required no skills or tools, other than a basket covered with a cloth, to hide the offending material and perhaps a stick or a black glove to pick it up. Many collectors preferred to use their hand as it was easier to keep clean than a glove.
Mayhew interviewed a 60 year old pure collector in her filthy slum tenement room ‘containing nothing but a chair by the fire and with rags stuffed into the broken panes of the small window’. He initially mistook her for ‘a bundle of rags and filth stretched on some dirty straw in the corner’. He was astonished to find her well-spoken and educated: able to read and write: ‘a person of natural good sense, though broken up with age, want, and infirmity.’
Head over and find out more about this pure collector who was younger than I am today and in a far less privileged situation as so many were: http://www.paul-andruss.com/pure/
About Paul Andruss
Paul Andruss is a writer whose primary focus is to take a subject, research every element thoroughly and then bring the pieces back together in a unique and thought provoking way. His desire to understand the origins of man, history, religion, politics and the minds of legends who rocked the world is inspiring. He does not hesitate to question, refute or make you rethink your own belief system and his work is always interesting and entertaining. Whilst is reluctant to talk about his own achievements he offers a warm and generous support and friendship to those he comes into contact with.
Paul is a modest but very talented author and he has two books currently available. Thomas the Rhymer – a magical fantasy for ages 11 to adult about a boy attempting to save fairy Thomas the Rhymer, while trying to rescue his brother from a selfish fairy queen.
I have read and reviewed Thomas the Rhymer earlier in the year, and here is the link to download the epub version of the books for FREE.
Paul also has a pdf file available and you can read for FREE by obtaining a copy from Barnes & Noble for Nook readers and also from Kobo.
You can find out how to download from Paul’s site and also links to the other options at this link.
It would be amazing if you do download and enjoy the book as much as I did. If so then it would be great if you could put a review on Amazon by adding in a sentence at the beginning – Disclaimer: I was gifted with a copy of this book from the author.. Or you can leave a review on Facebook and tag Paul in the post by using his full name Paul George Boylan.
The most recent review for Thomas the Rhymer on Amazon
Jack Hughes witnesses the abduction of his brother Dan by the wicked fairy Sylvie. Nightmares and visions of a mysterious tramp take over his reality and he becomes torn about sharing the truth behind his brothers disappearance. Catherine, Ken and Ken’s mystical mother Rosie become his confidants and join Jack in searching for clues on breaking the wicked fairies hold over his brother .
The tramp’s true identity soon unfolds when the team offer him food and shelter; he is Thomas the Rhymer, Prince of Elphane, who speaks in Rhyme:
“Yesterday upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today. I wish that man would GO AWAY!”
The author takes the reader on a series of adventures through ancient ley lines, bathed in milky blue light that cross a fairy hill, churches and open countryside.
We meet the mysterious Horatio Grin and Agnes Day, whose sister Poppy was also abducted by the faeries. But can they be trusted? And can Jack and his friends find his brother and bring him safely back home?
I read this book slowly as there were so many mystical layers to Jack’s adventures. It is well written and will appeal to both young and old.
Paul’s second books is Finn Mac Cool – rude, crude and funny, explicitly sexual and disturbingly violent, Finn Mac Cool is strictly for adults only.
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You can find all of Paul’s posts in this directory: https://smorgasbordinvitation.wordpress.com/writer-in-residence-writer-paul-andruss/
Thank you for dropping by today and please feel free to share the post on your own blog and networks. Thanks Sally