History of the Sheepskin Industry in Somerset

Sheepland Sheepskin Blog 08

Sheep were domesticated nearly 12,000 years ago and were one of the first animals to be domesticated. The start of the wool trade is believed to have happened around 9,000BC in the Middle East, the archaeological evidence where the first settlement is believed to have existed. Over the next two thousand years sheep would have been traded and sold across the whole of Europe as civilisations expanded and developed. There is no evidence to show when the first sheep arrived in Britain or even Somerset but all we can see is that around the time when Glastonbury Abbey was beginning to gain significance across the country there was a tannery built. There is no physical evidence of this tannery though when you look in Glastonbury there are many mill streams so one of these could have been used as part of the tannery.

Over the next couple of centuries life continued much in this way, the wool trade increased so much that it became our biggest export and boosted the economy three fold. The tanneries were still in use all over Somerset there was a 12th Century abbey tannery in Old Cleve near Minehead and it remained open until the 1980’s. It would then be exported through Bridgwater docks and on further to either Bristol or Cardiff to do their trading.

The next major event in the sheepskin Industry in Somerset was when Arthur Clothier opened a tannery on the outskirts of Glastonbury, it was built right on one of the mill streams which would have once belonged to the Abbey. He employed an apprentice soon after a Cyrus Clark who in 15 years would go on to open a factory in Street which would become one of the biggest shoe factories in England. Cyrus Clark started out manufacturing rugs and soon after his brother James joins him and it is James who starts using the short wool skins which are too small to make rugs and turns them into slippers. The new idea that would make the brothers famous, after James went touring with the slipper it found fame and a couple years later in 1851 it produced £21,000 in comparison to just £7,000 from the Sheepskin rugs.

When James’ son in law John Morland became part of the family in 1870 he helped to ‘lead a separation of shoe making from sheepskin tannery and manufacture’. He brought a factory in Glastonbury, it could possibly be the same factory which Arthur Clothier owned but the history and written down information is hazy in this aspect. John believed that Glastonbury was in a perfect site for tanning sheepskin due to the valuable and essential high quality water source available. The factory was then called Clark, son and Morland, at this point everything was being completed by hand and the large workforce from the area had stable jobs. The area surrounding the factory is where the workers cottages still stand, by the end of the 19th century the factory was expanding there was now two separate sections the tannery and the production building. It was now making under saddles for the Horse Guards in London, and soon after Gloves became a new adventure. There would soon be a factory dedicated entirely to the production of the gloves and it still stands today with the 90ft chimney still attached.

As time progressed, there would be new endeavours like with the motor car and the furnishing of these new vehicles, back at the start of the 20th century they would all be open topped so the need for warm sheepskin was necessary. In the 1920’s it then went further and started doing boots but also in addition it went into making clothing. This continued until sadly at the end of the 1980’s it became cheaper for the work to be done overseas and in 1992 it closed its doors. Some of the factories are still standing, these are now listed buildings but the industry all over Somerset went the same way. In 1982 a Tannery in Bridgwater opened, Fenland Ltd was opened to provide a local tannery in an area where there is so much history of the sheepskin industry. Fenland’s CEO Andrew Tinnion also had a tannery in Redruth and was a pioneer in exploring new enzyme technology; he was also the Chairman of the Real Sheepskin Association up until his death. Andrew Tinnion was the catalyst needed to prelaunch a revival of the Sheepskin Industry, and during his time as Chairman helped to put sheepskin back in the centre of fashion with Vivienne Westwood. “ Fenland Sheepskin Company became the de facto ‘University of Sheepskin’ for not only generations of graduates but a growing community of sheep farmers, breeders and small holders seeking a contract tanning service for their special sheepskins” .

Sadly Fenland could not compete with the advancement that Chinese Tanners with making during over the last 5 years and sadly closed in 2011. It is a demise of a precious commodity and now there is one singular remaining tannery here in Britain and if this last tannery goes then we will have lost over 2,000 years worth of skills.

The Somerset Sheepskin Industry has come to a close, it has had its ups and downs but it shows how the county is developing and moving on, there are still many companies thriving here. Many came from Morland beginnings and few are passing on their knowledge, much has been lost.

All Morland information found: http://www.morlandssheepskin.co.uk/content/lib/doc/411/Morlands.pdf
Early history of sheepskin Industry found: http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Wool-Trade/

Fenland information found: http://www.leathermag.com/features/featureobituary-andrew-tinnion/