by Roger Baker

Rusland Tannery, Feb 2004 (R.Baker)

The Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and 19th centuries led not only to a growth in population, but also to one that had more money to spend. A higher standard of living enjoyed by increasing numbers of people was accompanied by growth in demand for a whole range of household goods and clothing, including those made from leather. In turn more trade involved more transport, still largely dependent on horses to pull carts and carriages (and barges), and needing harnesses, straps and saddles. At the same time more cattle were being raised for meat production – as diets changed – so that more animal hides were now available to convert into leather. (Even so, increasing numbers of hides were imported to meet demand.)

Tanning is a chemical process by which the central layer of an animal skin – the dermis or corium – is converted into leather. The tanning liquor used was a mixture of water and tannin derived most commonly from oak bark (although present in a wide range of vegetable matter). The availability of oak bark ( see photos) as part of the production cycle in coppice woodland was the principal factor in the location of many ‘hand’ tanneries that flourished in Cumbria from the late 18th to the late 19th centuries.

Marshall and Davis-Shiel refer to over 33 tanneries in the northern area of Cumberland by 1850 (60,800 hides a year), and 57 in southern Lakeland, 21 of which were in High Furness and 27 within the township of Kendal itself. Click here to see a map.

  • in Ambleside there were tanneries on Stock Gill and Fisherbeck, served by the bark mill on Stock (or Rattle) Gill
  • in Ulverston they were sited at various times from the 1700s in The Gill (with workers housed in Leather Lane), back of Fountain Street, in what is now Booth’s supermarket carpark, behind Sir John Barrow’s cottage on Dragley Beck, and later at Low Mill
  • in Cockermouth there were 7 tanneries in 1829, including St.Helen’s Tannery on Bitter Beck which dates back to 1440 (photos above by F.Lawton, Feb 2021)
  • other locations included Temple Sowerby and Brampton to the north; Dalton (Yarl Well), Coniston (Bank Ground), Penny Bridge, Nibthwaite, and Lowick (Hyde Park) to the south

The use of synthetic chemicals in a larger-scale industrial process led to the demise of the small tanneries – by 1910 there were 10 big tanneries in Lakeland (producing 215,000 hides a year).

FEATURED SITE  (and a description of the tanning process)
Rusland Tannery


Low Tom Rudd Tannery, Cockermouth NY128303 Partly demolished. Main building now a dwelling although the louvered ventilation openings remain. There were more than fifty pits in the present garden area.
Fisherbeck Tannery, Ambleside NY378039 Building remains in use as a barn
Rusland Tannery SD342888 Remains have been stabilised with public access to the site
Low Mill, Ulverston SD297776 Originally a cotton mill, later a tannery.

The craft industries : Geraint Jenkins, Longman, 1972
Cottage industries : Valerie Porter, Swan Hill Press, 1992
The Industrial Revolution : Peter Lane, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1978
Industrial archaeology of the Lake Counties : Michael Davies-Shiel and J.D.Marshall, David & Charles, 1969
Cockermouth in pictures : J.Bernard Bradbury, The Author, 1983
The mills of Ambleside : Michelle Kelly (Ed), The Armitt Trust, 2003
Life and tradition in the Lake District : William Rollinson, Dalesman, 1981
The story of Coniston : Alistair Cameron, Cameron & Brown, 2002
The book of Furness : Bryn Trescatheric, Baron Birch, 1993
A story of the growth of Ulverston : Dorothy Ashburner, The Author, 1993
Francis Webster and the Kirkland tanyards at Kendal : Blake Tyson, CWAAS Transactions, 2008
The excavation of the remains of an 18th century tannery at Riverside Place, K-Village, Kendal : Martin Railton, CWAAS Transactions, 2010
Cartmel Tanyard on the Cartmel Peninsula LHS’s website here

(Page created 19/04/05. Last updated 09/11/21)