Hexham’s Leather Heritage
The story of Hexham’s long association with leather properly began in the Anglo Saxon period where Hexham’s name was given in 681, for the first time in Old English, as ‘Hagulstaldes Ea’ which had the meaning ‘the young warrior’s stream’. The ‘Hagustald’, which term had the further meaning of a second son who seized and enclosed land, almost certainly refers to St. Wilfrid who did exactly that and the stream must refer to the Cockshaw area of the town where three burns converge.
A manageable source of running water is essential to the tanning process by which leather is made. Therefore it would appear that Wilfrid and the church assumed control of the leather production process, which was probably run by the British (Celtic) workers at the time of his arrival, and thereby provided Hexham with a name derived from its association with leather.
Hexham’s link with leather continued until in the C18th the town became internationally famous for the manufacture of the ‘Hexham Tans’ gloves. This renown grew and in 1823, 282,048 pairs of gloves were made in the town.
Tanning was also highly successful in Hexham and in 1860 the town was home to six tanneries, all based around the burns in the Cockshaw area and towards the Tyne.
However, problems caused by cheap, foreign imports and a failure to mechanize beset the gloving industry and in 1882, only 5400 pairs of gloves were made in Hexham, 1.9% of the number made in 1823. Around a decade later gloving came to an end in the town and only ten years after that the last tannery closed its doors for the last time.
The Henry Bell Company continued to manufacture wool and sheepskins at Tanner’s Yard until 1974; some of these were used for flying jackets during the Second World War.
In the early 1980s Austin Winstanley began to make cases in ‘Russia’ leather from his Priestpopple workshop then in 2010 Andy Bates established a studio in Hexham (see left) where he now works with Robert Ford.
They are part of the exciting Dukeshouse Heritage Woodland project which seeks, amongst many other aims, to reintroduce tanning and leathergoods manufacture to the town.
More information on the History and Heritage of Hexham can be found here.
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