J & F J Baker is the last oak-bark tannery of its kind still operating in the UK: proof that, sometimes, they do still make them like they used to…
Originally featured in Issue 02
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Arriving at J & F J Baker & Co, in the small Devonshire town of Colyton, it’s not immediately apparent where to find reception, so I wander around the ramshackle collection of outbuildings, barns and storage sheds – all of which are tinged with hues of orangey brown from many years of tanning. Eventually I’m spotted and invited to the office to meet Andrew Parr, whose family has been running the business here in Colyton for the past three generations – although a tannery has existed on this spot since Roman times.
Walking between these buildings with Parr is a walk through the ages; rooms soaked in orange tannin, wooden beams and walkways that resemble the surface of a pickled walnut – and on occasion are just as slippery. It’s an assault on the senses: aside from the striking colours you’re faced with, some pungent new aromas are apparent – strange to think that the wonderful, comforting smell of leather isn’t exactly reflected in its production…
We enter Andrew’s office, which resembles a 19th-century railway station waiting room; a little cold and rundown perhaps, but not without its charm, with piles of leather samples covering every surface. In fact, it proves to be like a waiting room in more ways than one, as we finally use it to embark on our grand tour of the tannery.
Parr is clearly a busy man. It’s not a business in need of much promotion, after all – the quality of J & F J Baker’s leathers is highly regarded and is generally used at the highest end of the market. We’ve struggled to find time to meet: our deadline is getting a little close for comfort but it is the passion and dedication of this business that has brought us here after all – and if work stopped every time the phone rang or people pitched up wanting tours, it would become the tourist attraction that many of these traditional businesses have been forced to become.
‘The business has been in the family since 1862,’ he explains. ‘My great, great grandfather came from Exeter, having married a tanner’s daughter.’ Parr has been in the family business for 35 years, after a brief interlude to study law. The tannery now employs 22 staff, some of whom have been with the business in excess of 40 years and, while clearly there are employees who are experts in specifics aspects of the production process, it’s interesting to note that they all shift roles on a daily basis, moving to another step in the process. Some jobs require the energy of the younger workers, but the expertise and experience of the older stalwarts are invaluable during certain stages – particularly in the rolling shed and hand-setting.
Parr walks us through the entire process, which takes a full 12 months in total. ‘Oak bark was the traditional approach to tanning in England,’ he says. ‘Every village used to have a tannery.’ Now, it’s the only one of its kind still operating in the UK. ‘The process is virtually the same as then,’ he continues, ‘except for the introduction of some machinery and a warmer environment for the skins to dry, to help through the winter months.’
The incredibly slow process is neccessary to help the natural fibres of the hides stay in place to produce a hard-wearing, water-resistant leather with good tensile strength. After liming the hides to remove the hair, they are soaked in pits and moved by hand every week for three months into progressively stronger tanning liquors. They are then layered flat on top of each other in deep pits filled with oak bark liquor (made by soaking oak bark in Devon water to extract the tannins) for nine months. Next, they are shaved and re-tanned in sumac to soften the leather.
Currying (or dressing) is done by hand, using traditional tools in order to set, whiten and stain the hides. Fish oils and mutton tallow are used to produce a softer, more supple leather and improve waterproofing and strength.
Oak bark used to be found in abundance locally, but sadly this isn’t the case now: instead it is brought in from Wales and The Lake District, while the lime used in the hair removal pits comes from Lyme Regis. The business follows a sustainable path, with the water coming direct from the River Coly: the tanning pits sit above ground level, not only to protect from river flooding but also to drain away and recycle the tanning waters. It’s a system that has been in existence for as long as the pits have been here: a natural solution from an era when any other form of waste disposal wasn’t an option.
The tannery provides waterproofing, soling and insoling for the predominately Northampton-based shoe industry, as well as saddlery and harness leathers. The demands of the equestrian market have changed from the days of workhorses – who would have required strong black harness leathers – to softer leathers in browns and tan for today’s more recreational purposes.
With 72 pits and 22 staff, Parr maintains not only a traditional source of employment in this small Devon town: he’s also helping to keep alive a lost art: a truly organic, sustainable industry that provides the highest quality leather using local river water and oak from renewable sources. If it was good enough for the Romans, it’s good enough for us.
Photographs Joss McKinley, Words Sam Walton