Walking to St Olave’s was a longer version of the walk to my primary school, Snowsfields. So I must have walked the route every school day for ten years or more till we moved to a new maisonette (a flat on two levels with internal stairs, on the Old Kent Road). Along the way, certain sights, sounds and smells became very familiar to me.
Just a few hundred yards from the flat was The Leather Market.
“The New Leather Market, situated in New Weston Street, Bermondsey, is a large and lofty quadrangular building, with a fine open area and other conveniences, and is well adapted to the purpose for which it was erected. The skin and leather trade, heretofore carried on entirely in Leadenhall Market, has since been in a great measure removed here.” (Mogg’s New Picture of London and Visitor’s Guide to it Sights, 1844)
This picture of the main building was drawn in 1879.
This is how the main building looks today.
The complex of buildings, which extends along both Weston and Leathermarket streets, is now home to a variety of different firms but when I was a kid a lot of leather-related activity was still going on and very strong smells wafted out on to the street. At Stogs, Geography “O” Level included a special paper on Bermondsey and we visited sites of local industries, including the Leather Market.
I found this very interesting short guide to the leather industry of Bermondsey by Peter Marshall. The leaflet dates from 1992 but most of the information still applies. It can be printed out and I intend to use it to take the short tour myself next time I’m there.
Tanner St. and Morocco St. (as in Morocco leather) took their names from the trade as well but many buildings in other streets were also involved in different aspects of the industry. This Web page is full of interesting information about the leather industry, and Bermondsey in general. (For example, it turns out that what may have been the largest hat factory in the world was at one time located in Bermondsey St., with up to 1500 workers. And the expression “mad as a hatter” originates from unfortunate workers who suffered the effects of inhaling the fumes of sulphuric acid, used in large quantities in the manufacturing process).
In Roman times, the area was marshland. The name Bermondsey itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase for “Island of Beornmund.” Dicken’s description of the area through which Bill Sykes is pursued in Oliver Twist was based on Jacob’s Island (around St. Saviour’s Dock). So the neighbourhood and the River Thames literally intermingled, and it was the existence of many freshwater tidal streams running in to the river that facilitated the growth of the leather industry, which required large amounts of water and a means of disposing of waste. If the neighbourhood still assaulted the senses when I was child, I can’t imagine what it would have been like at the turn of the century, when thousands of people lived and worked in the most insanitary of conditions and horse-drawn vehicles were used to haul all sorts of raw materials and products into and out of the area.