Trade and Manufacturing heyday
The Skin Market ‘amphitheatre’ dealing stalls of 1833
Bermondsey’s role in the leather manufacturing process extended beyond tanning. A survey of the area in 1957 was able to list no fewer than 55 businesses, many more than around the core of the area, Long Lane, Weston, Leathermarket and Bermondsey streets which not only produced leather goods in all its varieties but also the factors in import and export with the dealers who traded at the Exchange, specialist equipment manufacturers, producers of the chemical compounds which were required in the various processes and so on. The leading names were, JW Wood, Samuel Barrow, Scriven Bros, FM Meyer, Alleathers Ltd, ES Tew, M Emanuel, John Shepherd, Stanley R Dark, Strong Rawle & Strong (fellmongers), Barrow Hepburn & Gale (the latter being the makers of the Red Boxes and Maundy Purses), Bevington & Sons, Boutcher Mortimore. Of course other towns had extensive leather working industries, from primary materials to goods, notably Northampton’s shoe industry. Bermondsey’s national status and role was such however that in general it was first among equals and both the British Leather Federation and the Leather Institute had their HQ offices in St Thomas Street near each other.
A list of firms in the area involved in the trades in 1957 showed some 55 as still active and in the Leather Trades Gazette of the same period advertisers based in Bermondsey were as follows: SH&W Hart, F Braybrooks, Dunn Bros, TJ&T Powell, J Salomon, Fisher King, Steinfeld Colle, Tebbitt Bros, Garner & Sons, Whichelow and Bevington Bros. The last named moved to their Leicester factory in 1980. The Barrow, Hepburn & Gale (merged 1920) tannery in Grange Road was the last to close in 1959. Their manufacturing section relocated from Long Lane to Peckham in 1985, closing down after acquisition by a conglomerate in 1998.
With the decline of the leather trades in the area and the use of the Market and Exchange these buildings were acquired and refurbished by a developer between 1993-95 and are now a serviced offices business centre and pub-restaurant.
The leather trades have a centuries old connection with Bermondsey long before the thought of a guild was required; mainly tanneries, a noxious process which was best kept to a peripheral location rather than in the more urbanised areas. For an area to be seen as a centre of an activity of trade or manufacture it must have certain key features: a community of families whose tradition is of those enterprises; institutions of the character of the business concerned; and individuals whose mark is to tie both of these elements together to develop and promote not only the crafts involved but also the town and its identity known abroad and beyond that of its immediate vicinities. Bermondsey can be seen to have had all of these. The Company was one of these institutions but it was the catalyst for the creation of others. It grew out of and was dominated by the local leather family businesses of the Bevingtons, Gales, Ross, Garnars, Eldons, Barrows, Hepburns, Boutcher, Mortimore etc of which Alfred Lafone was a Director and local MP (Conservative, 1886 - 1900). For the period 1892-95 he lost the seat to the Liberal, Sir Reuben Barrow, he introduced the ‘London (Equalisation of Rates) Act 1894’ which transferred some £6M from the wealthier to the poorer Metropolitan parishes by 1905.
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'The Leather Exchange and Market, Weston Street, today
The Tanners Company of Bermondsey