As the tanning of leather was a smelly process, tanneries were sited in the countryside or at the edges of towns. As a modest amount of capital had to be invested, tanning businesses tended to remain on the same sites, often in the ownership of the same families over the generations. Hides were soaked in a lime solution, then laid over a curved beam so that hair could be removed with a blunt scraper. After a further soaking and the subsequent removal of flesh and fat on the inner side of the hide by sharp knives, the hides were rinsed and cut into sections, then scoured in a pit containing water and dung and tanned in a series of pits filled with water and oak bark. The concentration of bark was increased in succeeding pits. After several months’ soaking the hides were hung to dry, then dressed, and finished. See also leather.
As towns expanded with the national growth of population, tanning became more of an urban trade, especially at ports such as Liverpool and Newcastle, where hides were imported. In Walsall and other west midlands towns tanners were among the wealthiest tradesmen. But even by the mid‐19th century, tanneries commonly employed only three to nine workmen and a business could be set up for as little as a few hundred pounds. Cranes were used to move the hides from pit to pit, power‐driven machinery was installed for paring, grinding, polishing, and embossing, and the splitting machine doubled the area of usable leather, but technical progress was slow in comparison to innovations in other industries. Despite the introduction of imported plants with strange names such as sumach, valonia, gambia, and catechu to quicken the tanning process for light leathers, 70 per cent of production in 1850 still used bark.