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.’
Coming from a comfortable family, she was educated to the age of fourteen. She married a merchant seaman and they prospered until he was press-ganged into the Royal Navy and she never saw him again. Later, she married a Thames boatman. They prospered until her husband had a stroke. Unable to work, they were advised to take up collecting pure. At first it disgusted her so much she could not eat. Her husband worked alone, until she saw he could not collect enough to provide for them.
They did well until the price of pure collapsed. Then her husband died, probably of consumption as he coughed up blood. She finished the interview complaining she had given birth to 8 children and not one was left alive.
When pure collectors were few, tanneries paid up to 3 or 4 shillings a bucket. However as with any easy work requiring no skill, it did not last. In the harsh Victorian economic climate, more people took to collecting; even children would be out at dawn. When supply outstripped demand the price dropped. Collectors took to hoarding pure in their homes against days when they could not collect sufficient to afford to eat or pay their rent.
Pure fell out of fashion with the introduction of chemicals and the availability of cheap tannin derived from tree bark, originally oak, but latterly hemlock, Russian birch and commercially grown pines. They gave an agreeable smell to fine leather, especially bound books. Hence the German word for pine ‘Tannenbaum’: now associated with the popular song ‘O Christmas Tree’ – a German custom popularised by Queen Victoria.
Now, I don’t often talk crap. Yes, I realise that it is a matter of opinion. But I must say, even when I’m talking pure shite, it’s still pure gold.
For those who thought I had the bad taste to use a poop emoji,
let me reveal it is in fact a Mr Softie chocolate ice-cream cone
(using various sources: Andruss)