Tanning (the process of converting animal skin into leather by soaking it in acid) has long been associated with Warrington. At one time (in 1927) the concentration of tanneries in the town was the highest in the country with an astonishing 7% of the UK’s 300 tanneries located here. Winwick Street, Mersey Street, Tannery Lane, Latchford, Penketh, and Orford were just some of the areas where tanning took place. In one year alone a reported 20,000 hides passed through the town’s tanneries. In this article Warrington History Society’s Peter Warburton recalls the history of Orford Tannery before ex-worker Mave Donelan recalls what life was like working there in the 1950s.
Orford Tannery was a major employer in Orford from the late 1800s until the 1950s and was a benefactor to both St Margarets and All Hallows Church and the school.
The piece of land upon which Orford Church Hall stands was given by William Mortimer & Company, the owners of Orford Tannery, situated on land at the top of Sandy Lane. The history of this now long gone business is interesting, as Orford Village owes it much for its early development.
Orford Tannery was built in the early 1800s and the yard was bought by Branscombe, Squire & Ovey in 1846 but it failed some five years later. James Reynolds then acquired the site and was later joined by William Mortimer, a relation from Cornwall, who, on James’s retirement, assumed ownership of the business.
In 1891 the Commercial Directory listed William Mortimer as operating two tanneries in Warrington, one in Orford and the other on Manchester Road.
The company produced tanners rough strap butts (basic leather straps that can be used for belts etc.,) and sole leather as its specialities, and the company prospered under William Mortimer until his death at the age of 59 in 1900.
Several years before this he had engaged Percy Densham, a Bristol tanner and a distant relative, to help him run the business when it was converted to a limited company and Percy was appointed as its managing director.
The Orford Tannery prospered before the 1914-18 War and was extended to include a new seven storey drying shed which was sadly destroyed by fire only a few months after its completion.
In the First World War, Sir Percy Densham, as he had then become, was appointed as a government advisor on leather purchases for boots and belting because of his position as chairman of the United Tanners. Hugh F.Gough, distantly related by marriage to one of the founders James Reynolds was made Managing Director and H.P Mortimer, William Mortimer’s eldest son, had been chairman of the company since 1900.
During the 1920s the business went into decline and by 1929 was running at a loss. In February 1931 H.P. Mortimer, the chairman, committed suicide and a year later the board decided to put the company into voluntary liquidation.
The close down of the yard was expected to take twelve months, but almost immediately the company was restarted as Orford Tanning Company Ltd., and by 1941 was part of the Sargar Group of Companies.
In 1941 John Brown, who had started work at the Orford Tannery in 1911, became its managing director and under his leadership it had become by 1956 the largest local industry with some 200 employees.
Following the Second World War the company had developed a flexible bend leather suitable for lightweight shoes that was directly competitive with the performance of composite and other synthetic soles. In May 1947 the company exhibited this material at the British Industries Fair in Earls Court, London where they were listed in the catalogue as “Manufacturers of Bends, Shoulders and Bellies for Sole Leather, from English, Wet-salted, Dry, and Dry-salted hides. Ox and Bull Strap Butts from best English Hides, also Bull Necks for Polishing”.
The company’s soft shoe leather brands of “Battleship Oak” and “Willoford” helped it survive the 1950s but by then other tanneries had developed their own comparable leather.
By 1961, the tannery’s workforce had been reduced and in 1965 it was instructed by its parent company to make 30 employees redundant. But this move was not sufficient to save the company and by May 1966 the remaining 69 workers were told the yard and business would be closed and moved to W.J. Sargar in Colne, Lancashire.
On Wednesday 6th March 1968 the tannery buildings were razed to the ground by a fierce fire that could be seen up to 5 miles away. The fire started at around 10pm and at one time over 100 firefighters and 15 appliances from across Lancashire and Cheshire were on the scene. The 1.5 acre site has since been developed for housing.
WORKING LIFE AT ORFORD TANNERY by Mave Donelan
“I had been working at the Box Works in Warrington for some time and decided I needed a change. So, in 1958, I got a job at the Orford Tannery Yard. This was situated at the top of School Road and I’d thought my other jobs were dirty but this topped the lot.
“The ground floor of the tannery had these huge pits that seemed to contain dirty water. They were in fact lime pits, I learnt, in which the hides soaked. The men used to pull the slippery hides out with long hooked poles, but I didn’t go that close; I didn’t fancy falling in.
“Further along the same floor was an old man with a gigantic mass of these slimy wet hides that were being put through a huge machine with funny rollers. There were bits of hide and water going everywhere and a big mountain of the stuff on the floor all around him. After he had carried out this task he piled the now quite dry hides on a bogie awaiting collection by my friend Sylvia and now me.
“We had to bend down and push this truck full of hides to a ramshackle old lift. We’d travel up in this rattling lift to the second floor which was a large dirty room, unlit with fifteen to twenty partitioned-off bays that covered the whole floor. I think there must have been windows, but they were so dirty with years of grime that they didn’t let in any light at all. The only available light we had in the whole place was from two small 40 watt inspection lights that we used to carry with us and plug into the bays in which we were working.
“We used to put one light at the front of the bay to illuminate the truck full of cows’ bellies, then we’d have a bucket full of oil mixed with water in which we’d dip a cloth and wipe each hide with the liquid. After this the hides had to be hung up to dry at the back of the bay where we had placed the second light. It used to look quite spooky; just like hundreds of people hanging by their necks from the beams! This job of wiping the hides left our hands a dirty brown colour as it did everyone else’s and the only way to get them clean was to dip them into a vat of raw bleach that was left there for that purpose. This left my hands very cracked and sore, but they soon got used to that treatment and were alright after the first couple of weeks.
“We never bothered to clean our hands for our ‘baggin’ (lunch break) but just got on with eating our food with our hands still filthy. Everyone else did it, so I followed suit and it didn’t seem to do me any harm. It makes me squirm now when I think of it.
“After some months working with Sylvia, a person on the top floor, a place that was quite light and pleasant to work in, left their job. Sylvia had been working at the tannery for a lot longer than me so got promoted and I was left to do the job alone. It was really spooky up on that second floor with the shadows, the smells and the cold as it was the middle of winter. Because it was pitch black in that drying room, apart from those two small lights, I felt isolated, a bit scared and I didn’t fancy talking to myself all day. You definitely needed two people up there to help you get over the shadows, the little noises and the isolation. I decided the job was not for me and so I moved on.”
Additional material by Andy Green.
Warrington History Society was formed in 1964 to encourage an interest in all aspects of Warrington’s history and archaeology. The Society’s next lecture “A Walk Around Warrington” by Margaret Fellows will take place at 7.30pm on Monday 16th January 2017 at Friars Green Independent Methodist Chapel in Cairo Street. For further details click here