The leather industry was very important within medieval Henfield. It catered for general necessities, such as shoes and gloves and essentials including saddles and harnesses. In 1832 five boot and shoe makers were listed as living and working in Henfield. Hides of cattle were a by-product of butchery so skins were always readily available and the Tanner had the sole right of purchase. The hides would come to the tannery and the hooves and horns would be removed and the hides washed in running water to remove the dirt, etc. Next the hair had to be removed and this was done by submerging the skins into a solution of urine and lime, when sufficiently loosened the hair would be scraped off and the hide washed again. The hides would then be taken to a pit and immersed in warm dog dung, after several days they would be transferred to another tank containing barley, rye and stale beer and urine. Some poor soul had the unenviable job of treading the dog dung and urine into the hides.
As you can imagine the area around a tan yard would not be a pleasant place to live, which is why the little green near the Cat House is called Pinchnose Green! After washing one more time the skins were divided into its different qualities, the tanning process could begin. The hides would be immersed in a solution of crushed oak bark and water, where the Tanner would keep them moving to ensure even spread of colour. Following this the hide would go through a process of alternative layering with ground oak bark and left in a tanning solution for a year and a day! The tanner would then rinse the hides and dry them and send them to the Currier who would apply oils and greases and sell them on to leather workers. The last tanner listed was William Wisden, but in 1845 the industry had ended. The site is of course still visible and we have a hand drawn plan of the site showing the various pits and buildings.
Steve Robotham, Assistant Curator, Henfield Museum
Image © Henfield Museum
Taken from the August 2017 edition of The Parish Magazine.Read more stories like this by subscribing to the Parish Magazine for just £6 per year.