September 2012: Gomshall Tannery – Colin Woolmington

Colin, who had been a manager at Gomshall Tannery, told us that tanning at Gomshall went back at least to Tudor times. It was owned by various families up to the 1890s when it was destroyed by fire. It was rebuilt and became part of the Vestey group of companies whose business was based on their cattle and sheep rearing interests in Brazil and New Zealand.

Hides and skins came to Gomshall in their millions; skins from New Zealand came in barrels, each containing 48 dozen skins – hammered in tight! All the skins were different and the challenge was to turn them into a product which had the consistent quality required by the customer. Each worker’s judgement and skill was crucial and the industry was very labour-intensive. Much of the output was for the fashion industry and Colin had on display a range of their products; the quality was superb.

Skins and hides had to go through a whole range of processes and Colin’s pictures gave us a vivid impression of the tannery at work. About 120 people worked there and one could easily imagine the noise, heat, dirt and smells – some of the work was unpleasant. Operations ceased in the early 1980s; the tannery was sadly destroyed by fire in 1988 and an era of industrial and social history came to an end. All that remained was the Tanyard Hall which is now a thriving community centre.