Leather production is the ultimate end of a process that starts with moving the cattle to market.
London was already a main population centre in Medieval times and the countryside around developed market gardens to ensure fresh supply to the city. Meat came from much further afield, and there are records from the fourteenth century to show that drovers were herding cattle and sheep from Wales right across the country to the capital.
The drovers avoided tolls and marshes. The wide paths shaped by the slow moving herds are still visible in places today; very often these “green lanes” would follow ridgeways where the ground was firm underfoot. Moving at ten to twenty miles a day, the full journey could take several weeks from the west country. In the case of the supply route from Scotland, there could be a stop in East Anglia for some time to fatten the animals for market, so it could mean months on the hoof.
The head drover was an important merchant in his day. Having responsibility for several hundred animals’ welfare, and collecting the sales money meant he held a position of considerable trust.
MARKETS IN LONDON.
The main destination in London was Smithfield, described as the greatest market in the land by Daniel Defoe in 1680. Another market was the Caledonian in Islington, and leading to it was the longest street in London; it’s on the A-Z, and we still know it now as Green Lanes! This shows the ancient route that was the cattle trail, running down from Enfield into the heart of the city.
All this would change with the advent of the railways in the 1840′s for transporting livestock. However the modern interest in the countryside and conservation means that many of these “green lanes” are again being used, but for recreation now.
With the arrival of so much livestock to be slaughtered, naturally a leather trade developed to exploit the hides available.
The first settlement of London has been traced to the north side of the Thames, along the banks of its tributary, the River Walbrook. This was really a large stream, rising from natural springs in what is now Finsbury, and flowing south through Islington, under the Bank of England, and entering the Thames by Cannon Street.
In Roman times, it would have been a source of drinking water in the upper part, but in the lower reaches it became a sewer.
Part of the rubbish taken away would have been waste from the tanning pits that lined the bank. The industry survived in the Walbrook area until the mid eighteenth century, when it was overtaken by the leather business that had developed on the South Bank, in Bermondsey.
Doubtless the stench from the process had a great deal to do with this transfer! It’s a fact that leather is one of the most popular materials known to man, although it’s production has always been something that people prefer to be done elsewhere.
The Great Stink of 1858 was so appalling that Parliament called for London’s first sewerage system to be built. In the process the Walbrook River, which had been built over already, was properly contained in a brick-lined tunnel that survives to this day.
Up until the 1970s there were dozens of small leathergoods manufacturers in East London, predominantly in the Hackney and Dalston area.However at this time cheaper imported items started coming in from Taiwan and Korea. Many of the factories either converted to wholesale these imports, or went out of business. Since 2000 many of these wholesalers have also closed, as the large buying groups have sourced directly from the Far East.
So although London has a flourishing retail leathergoods industry, the long history of tanning and manufacturing leather bags and luggage has now come to a natural conclusion.