The Incorporated Company of Tanners
Deus Noster Refugium (God is our refuge and strength)
I'll be jolly while I can,
I will die like a man,
and be buried like a Christian,
and a brother.
Tanning is the ancient craft of converting animal skins into wearable garments.
The Ordinary of the Tanners Guild, anciently called Barkers, and dated 1532, ordered the society to come in their best apparel, at the feast of Corpus Christi, and go in procession to set forth their pageants, on pain of forfeiting a pound of wax.
Other company rules include a promise not to take any Scot by birth as an apprentice, under a penalty of twenty shillings, that each brother should have but one butcher to buy and slaughter on pain of 10 shillings, not to buy above eight fothers of bark, or forty trees, on pain of 6s. 8d, and also to supply each other with bark.
During the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541), The Tanners - one of the nine Mysteries - were granted the use of the Black Friar's Monastery together with other buildings in the town.
The Company gave up their rights to the Tanners Hall, along with the other Guilds occupying rooms, to the City which were then restored and used for educational purposes. The Tanners, along with other Guilds, now use the former Smiths Hall (referred to as the Freemen's Hall) in Blackfriars for our meetings. In more prosperous times the Company owned property in Fenkle Street, Stowell Street and Hood Street.
In 1721 the Company commissioned James Kirkup, the renowned Newcastle Silversmith, to make a Silver Tankard at a cost of £19 13s 6d, which was used at Company dinners and member's funerals, where it was filled with mulled or spiced wine and the toast "To Tanners, Tanner's Wives and Tanner's Bairns, and all that lies in Tanners Arms" was given. The Tankard was passed amongst the members as a loving cup. Any brother who had not paid fines owing to the Company was not allowed to drink, and if any deceased member were under 16 years of age or there were fewer than 4 brethren as coffin bearers the Tankard was not used.
Today the Company has 84 members, all of which are Freemen by patrimony. The company meets bi-annually, with the Head Meeting held on the First Monday of July, and a Christmas meeting which is held in December.
The Ancient Process of Tanning Leather
Skins typically arrived at the tannery dried stiff and dirty with soil and gore.
First, the ancient tanners would soak the skins in water to clean and soften them. Then they would pound and scour the skin to remove any remaining flesh and fat.
Next, the tanner would remove the hair fibres from the skin by either soaking the skin in urine, painting it with an alkaline lime mixture, or simply letting the skin putrefy for several months before dipping it in a salt solution.
After the hair fibres were loosened, the tanners scraped them off with a knife. Once the hair was removed, the tanners would bate the material by pounding dung into the skin or soaking the skin in a solution of animal brains. Among the kinds of dung commonly used was that of dogs or pigeons. Sometimes the dung was mixed with water in a large vat, and the prepared skins were kneaded in the dung water until they became supple, but not too soft.
The ancient tanner might use his bare feet to knead the skins in the dung water, and the kneading could last two or three hours. It was this combination of urine, animal faeces and decaying flesh that made ancient tanneries so odiferous.
Children employed as dung gatherers were a common sight in ancient cities. Also common were 'piss-pots' located on street corners, where human urine could be collected for use in tanneries. Also, barrels of urine were brought as ballast on ships sailing from London to collect coal.
In some variations of the process, cedar oil, alum or tannin was applied to the skin as a tanning agent. As the skin was stretched, it would lose moisture and absorb the agent.
Leftover leather would be turned into glue. Tanners would place scraps of hides in a vat of water and let them deteriorate for months. The mixture would then be placed over a fire to boil off the water to produce hide glue.
In ancient history, tanning was considered a noxious or odorous trade and relegated to the outskirts of town. Indeed, tanneries are still isolated in those towns today where the old methods are used.
For further information about the Tanners Company of Freemen of Newcastle upon Tyne please contact:
- 88 Dunstanburgh Road
- Newcastle upon Tyne
- NE6 2PX