A short radio programme was broadcast recently, part of a BBC School Radio series, which dramatised the working lives of three Victorian street urchins. Described in the accompanying Teachers’ Notes .pdf as “historically accurate fictions”, the three stories had much in common. Children around the age of 11 years, sleeping rough at Billingsgate Fish Market, scratching a living in central London, no family to speak of, no education – straight out of Dickens or a Comic Relief appeal film.
All three children were depicted trying to make money from waste, from things that no one else wanted. Recycling, in its multifarious forms, is big business today. We are familiar with the current staples of kerbside collection – glass, paper, textiles and tin cans – with the bottle bank, and even, not that long ago, the rag and bone man in our streets; but we add to the modern list plastics, batteries, even mobile phones for their valuable component materials. There are, however, many trades and activities, based on un-wanted things of one sort or another, long lost to the British economy.
In the radio programme, Maddy described hand-collecting puer to sell by the bucket to the tanners; Jacko was catching rats in dockside grain stores to fuel Soho dog-fights; Gyp graduated from mud-larking for coals on the Thames foreshore to digging out lost household items that had been flushed into Bazalgette’s sewers.
Tanneries are especially interesting because they made use of a range of natural waste and by-products. The animal hides to be made into leather are a by-product of butchery and knackery. Urine could be used to help slip the hide of its hair. Puering, to soften the hide and make it more flexible, used bird droppings or dog dung (as collected by Maddy in the radio story) before other bate became available, such as dried animal pancreas.
Tanning is the part of the leather-making process which then preserves the hide. Vegetable tan requires tannin-rich plant material, perhaps the best known being oak bark, to make a waterproof, strong yet flexible leather. Brain tan is used to make soft and pliable buckskin. Animal brain oils work not by chemically preserving the hide, but by preventing the fibres in the drying skin from sticking together; buckskin is usually, but not always, smoked to give it better drying properties when it has been washed.
Brain tan is a method associated with traditional native American leather-making. There is now only one commercial oak tannery in England. Most leather production these days uses mineral and synthetic processes such as alum and chrome tannages.
Antler is another by-product which, along with other animal bone and horn, did for thousands of years the jobs that plastic often does now. Combs, buttons and beads, toggles and fasteners, jewellery, pins, dice, gaming pieces, handles, bobbins, hinges and more – all manner of objects used to be made from skeletal materials. Antlers can be broken down into a myriad of pieces and even the smallest bits can be made into something.
Which brings me to the question in hand. Keith Pickering, who makes fabulous walking sticks, sells his antler leftovers so I have bought a batch. Collected in Scotland, the antlers make their way to Keith’s workshop to make thumbstick “V”s and other handles. I’m turning his offcuts into keyrings and zip-pulls to raise some money for two archaeological education charities. The slideshow below follows my manufacturing process. All I need to do now is make a load more!
I usually use Harvard referencing in my blog posts to show my information sources, but this time it didn’t seem to suit the generalised commentary; so instead, here are the books on my shelves that are relevant:
Blair, J. and Ramsay, N. (eds) (1991) English Medieval Industries London: The Hambledon Press
MacGregor, A. (1985) Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn London: Croom Helm
Riggs, J. (1979-2003) Blue Mountain Buckskin Cave Junction: Backcountry Publishing
Woodroffe, D. (1953) Leather Dressing, Dyeing and Finishing Teignmouth: Quality Books