Getting your story right!

Protecting the history of the leather industry.

Written by Dr. Mike Redwood

Dr. Mike Redwood, of Leather Naturally fame, humbly describes himself simply as a tanner; he has been lecturing, blogging and writing for the leather industry for over three decades.

Today I was delighted to be observing the Clerk of the Worshipful Company of Leathersellers being awarded a Fellowship of the University of Northampton at their July Degree ceremonies, to the obvious delight of their Chancellor, The Rev. Richard Coles (who grew up locally in a leather footwear family). The Reverend Coles gives every impression of being an excellent appointment as Chancellor, with his sensitivity and understanding of university life and how it fits into the regional environment.

The Chancellor is good at telling stories; it is a key element of his day job as Vicar of St Mary the Virgin in nearby Finedon. He understands that industries and companies need such stories. Since we are no longer satisfied with simple language, such histories are now termed “backstories”.

As it happened, I attended an excellent meeting with representatives of the UK textile industry just a short time ago and was told that everyone was busy dusting down, or recreating, their backstories. Think of the backstory in terms of the book or film industry: “the things that have happened to someone before you first see or read about that person in a film or story.” I’ve always thought of it as the background research I have always done about a business before going for a job interview or an important meeting. Before the internet I used to pride myself on my accumulation of reference books and trade journals to enable this research.

Around the world companies are anxiously searching their archives, hoping that notes about their history still remain in adequate detail to create this backstory and allow them to talk about how the business began, how it evolved and more. This gives authenticity, and validity, to a business that consumers are thinking of engaging with. This is why Seth Godin said “marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories that you tell”.

© National Leather Collection 2018 | Photo credit @localresearch

Keunen Bros. Ltd. – Irthlingborough, Northants.

Published in The Leather Trades Yearbook – 1960-1961.

© National Leather Collection 2018 | Photo credit @localresearch

‘Tie up with Phipps Laces’ Phipps & Son Ltd, Northampton.

Full page, published in The Shoe & Leather News – 1954.

Tanneries now regret dumping their historic baggage

For much of my life the leather industry has been busy trashing its history. I own an early 20th Century watercolour picture of the Richardson Tannery of Newcastle that I had to retrieve from a skip. Five hundred years of history about that tannery were binned or bulldozed, more or less overnight. Around the country it is the same story, and I am not sure I see much more attention given to archives, artefacts and history elsewhere in the world. Even the tanneries that have survived have cleaned up, modernised, and mostly ditched their “historic baggage”.

So the search for histories with limited or no available in-house archive has to start elsewhere. Fortunately in the leather industry we have one great source for older tanneries – the National Leather Collection (formerly the Museum of Leathercraft).

In its new venue overlooking the Market Square in Northampton, the National Leather Collection has been able to open out, display and fully catalogue its entire collection of books and pamphlets. Unlike most collections of the sort this one is heavily weighted with company histories – a fashion of the early and mid 20th century – and company pamphlets. These are mostly for the UK, but not entirely as at various times agents, distributors and sister companies have donated items. For a few companies there are even swatch books, posters and other items.

With the move of the University of Northampton to its new Waterside Campus (within walking distance of the Museum), the university’s ‘leather library’ will be more digital and not able to accommodate all its books. Consequently, only current text books will be retained and all extra and older ones, along with all the old journals, are going to be held at the National Leather Collection. The journals go back to the mid 1800s and include American and UK (and a few from elsewhere) trade magazines with a lot of company detail and adverts. They also include the technical journals like the JSLTC, JALCA and Das Leder.  Unexpected items like the Corium yearbook – sadly long since discontinued – talk about the events and individuals who visited Leathersellers Hall when the collection was in London, before the 1970s move to Northampton.

The leather industry as a whole has a poor record of supporting those conserving its history, be this documentation or artefacts. Bigger tannery groups around the world used to keep excellent libraries (and more) in the past. Think of Barrow Hepburn/Hodgsons in England, Colomer in Spain and Friitala in Finland who all held outstanding libraries. I have not tracked these but I suspect they have now been lost.

Where we do still have archives and artefacts remaining, as with the National Leather Collection, we do need to pull together to give it maximum support. Elsewhere in Europe we have a Museum in Offenbach (Germany) and another in Igualada (Spain) although these do not hold print archives to the same extent as Northampton does.

The National Leather Collection needs our strongest support, individually and as companies, to keep our stories alive. You can sign up to give a small amount monthly (as I do), give via your company or foundation, or support one of their other small-giving initiatives. If you live locally you can also volunteer and bring your interest and knowledge to help secure the collection for the future.

It may also be that you, like me, have your own collection of books and items you have built up over the years and perhaps now is the time to decide where they should go for the long term. There is no better, or safer, destination than the National Leather Collection. A few times I have heard of such gifts being given to a local museum only to discover that, just a few years later, the items have been lost and there is no memory of the gift ever having been made. I have for some years been trying to give my E. & J. Richardson water colour to a Newcastle Museum or Gallery as it is an important part of the industrial history of the City and the River Tyne, but nowhere can I find real interest or feel confident that it is wanted, will be kept, looked after or displayed. My decision to give this and all my books to the National Leather Collection has now been made.

And the National Leather Collection’s print and other archives hold precisely the material that allows companies, and the different segments and regions of the industry, to build the backstories they now require. If you can ever get to Northampton, this is a must visit location.

© National Leather Collection 2018

A small selection of the Spanish leather owned by the National Leather Collection

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