With the large numbers of cattle and sheep raised in the Yorkshire Dales over the centuries, it is not surprising that industries associated with the by-products of the meat industry were established in villages throughout the area. Leather production indeed was once one of the most common industries throughout the whole of Britain. The West Riding of Yorkshire with its large urban populations and relatively high per capita consumption of meat was a centre of the British tanning industry from at least the 16th century, with Leeds second only to London as an industrial leather producer during the 19th century. Prior to that date, tanneries were small-scale domestic affairs, usually concentrating on producing one particular leather product.
The process of tanning aims to strengthen the animal skin and make it resistant to decay. The process may use either mineral or vegetable tannages. Oak bark was the main source of vegetable tannins from the earliest times, while impregnating the skin with a mixture of alum, flour, salt and oil was a long used mineral tanning method. The tanning process required the use of a range of pits: soak pits to wash and soften the hides, lime pits to remove hair, bate tubs where the lime was neutralised and the skin plumped up ready for the tan pits where the skins were soaked in a tanning liquor.
The earliest archaeological evidence for tanning in the Yorkshire Dales comes from Bolton Priory. The earthwork remains of two large tanks with associated leats and channels were once thought to be fishponds, but now have been interpreted as the remains of the tanning pits which are known from documentary sources to have existed at the priory. Accounts dating to 1309 for the Knights Templar Preceptory at Penhill record 47 hides from six different animal types which suggests that there may also have been a tannery there.
By 1900, centuries old village based tanneries specialising in single products had been completely replaced by industrial scale urban tanneries producing a variety of leather products. There is now very little evidence left of these earlier tanneries. Place names are a good starting point. Just south of Malham for instance there is a Tanpits Bridge over a Tanpits Beck. A good source of water was crucial to the tanning process, both for filling the pits and also for carrying away waste so this seems to be a likely location for an early tanning site and this is supported by documentary evidence. The sites of other tanneries are known through references on the First Edition Ordnance Survey maps of the mid-19th century, for example a tannery near Mearbeck Farm in the parish of Long Preston and tan pits on the eastern edge of Langcliffe village. In Settle a house carries the name The Tannery. Here documentary evidence indicates that a 17th century farmhouse was converted into a tannery around 1792. The garden still has the remains of slate-lined tan pits around 1.2 metres square and around 1.2 metres deep.
At Embsay, right on the southern edge of the National Park, a 19th century cotton and tobacco manufacturing mill was bought in 1917 by a leather manufacturer from Bradford called Brooksbank. The mill was situated beside the Embsay Beck, which had already been developed as a power source by earlier mills on the site. The company set about converting the mill buildings, adding a lime yard with concrete lined pits and effluent tanks to the south of the site to manage the waste. The business flourished, providing considerable employment in the village. They specialised in manufacturing leather for use in the machinery of the cotton weaving industry. During the later part of the 20th century, the invention of synthetic replacements meant that the company no longer needed to manufacture its own leather so the tannery became redundant. In 2004 there are plans to build houses on the site.
Fat rendered from slaughtered animals was another valuable resource that was extensively exploited. A common use was for the manufacture of tallow candles. A tallow factory is recorded in Langcliffe and at least one candle mill building survives in the National Park, at Burtersett. In the 19th century the business there was run by a gentleman called ‘Candle’ Willy. Candles were not only used in the home, but were also a crucial part of the 18th and 19th century lead mining industry since they provided the only form of light available to miners right up until the invention of the acetylene or carbide lamp in the later 19th century. Tallow candles were carried in simple tin lamps to prevent guttering from draughts and sometimes attached to a mine wall using a lump of clay. Iron candle holders with spikes for fixing into the ground can be seen at Gunnerside Smithy. In a small mine, the candles might have been home made from whatever fat could be saved, but the larger mines bought candles in to sell to the miners and the cost was often as high as materials such as blasting powder.
Alderson, James (1980) Under Wetherfell. The Story of Hawes Parish & People Gayle: Brian Alderson [Burtersett candle mill]
Gomersall, Helen M (2000) ‘Departed Glory: the archaeology of the Leeds tanning industry 1780 to 1914’ Industrial Archaeology Review Vol 22:2 pp133-144
Raistrick, Arthur (1947) Malham & Malham Moor Clapham: Dalesman [Malham tan pits]
Raistrick, Arthur & Roberts, Arthur (1990) Life and Work of the Northern Lead Miner Stroud: Alan Sutton
Speight, Harry (1897) Romantic Richmondshire London: Elliot Stock [Penhill Preceptory accounts pp421-422]