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C16th/17th: We'll tan your hide

Garat Tannery, Armendaritz, France gives us a good idea of what the local tannery may have been like

Perhaps a lesser known fact about Cuckfield is that it was one of the principal tannery centres in Sussex in the 16th and 17th centuries. The research carried out between 1935 and 1952 established that Henfield, Hurstpierpoint, Cuckfield, Barcombe, Mayfield, and Winchelsea were important locations for the leather industry in Sussex. The following text appears in a 15 page article 'The Leather Crafts in Tudor and Stuart England.' by a researcher specialising in the leather industry LA Clarkson published in 1966:

'In at least two others a similar situation obtained; the wood-pasture district of Suffolk supplied London with tanned leather, and the Weald of east Sussex and west Kent produced leather for export. The evidence, as far as it goes, supports Dr Thirsk’s recent thesis on the location of industries in the countryside. However, only detailed local research can adequately reveal the full importance of the leather crafts and explain their location.'

As for the proportion of local people employed Clarkson suggests:

'…Despite the superficial and incomplete nature of this survey, a number of conclusions may be stated. It is obvious that the leather industry was much more important in the economy of Tudor and Stuart England than has generally been supposed. Wherever any kind of statistical examination has been possible the leather crafts including tannng, leather-dressing, shoemaking, currying, glove-making, saddle and harness-making appear to have employed not less than about 8-10 per cent of the working population of urban centres; and in some places the proportion was considerably higher and the leather crafts were supplying a national market.'

Local leather may have been exported too:

'… Leather manufacture seems to have been widely scattered throughout the east Sussex district. A good deal of leather and the leather goods made in this area was exported from Rye and other east Sussex ports, and in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the Privy Council was frequently occupied with the problem of leather being smuggled from east Sussex ports by tanners. Leather was also taken overland to markets as far distant as Reading.'

Where was the tannery business

It is a notoriously smelly industry and iindeed it was located some distance from the town centre. The Ordnance Surveyor’s draft map of 1808 records a tanyard on Brook Street (now Tanyard Farm), 1.6km north of the town [National Grid Reference: TQ 30624 26588]. Located at Tanyard Farmhouse which dates from 1671. So there would have been an abattoir and many animals grazing in the surrounding fields and farms. And 17th-century Cuckfield was the home to *curriers and tanners.

There have historically been a number of boot and shoe makers in town, and also a glove-maker and this activity will have been fed with the ready supply of local leather. Perhaps leather clothing such as buff coats and hats were made too.

As the leather industry appears have been such a significant industry locally it is perhaps surprising that so little can be found about it in the town's recorded history. Any leather products that still survive today would not, with any certainty, be able to be attributed to its Cuckfield source.

* A currier applies techniques of dressing, finishing and colouring to a tanned hide to make it strong, flexible and waterproof.

** See Cuckfield Museum's posting on glove-making in 'Around Cuckfield' Facebook. It's possible that this business dates back to when the local tanning business was active.



The Leather Crafts in Tudor and Stuart England. LA Clarkson, from The Agricultural History Review Vol. 14, No. 1 (1966), pp. 25-39 (15 pages), pub: British Agricultural History

Information on Tanyard tannery location from the Historic Character Assessment Report October 2005, by Roland B Harris.

List of tannery locations:

Margaret Hodgen published by Wenner-Gren Foundation For Anthropological Research, New York 1952

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.


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