Volume 40 - Autumn 2015


J Hewit & Sons: A Company History

Part 2 - 1864-1868 - by Roger Barlee

Old Edinburgh is now a major tourist attraction with the quaint closes adding to the atmosphere. In the 1860's however the High Street of Edinburgh was certainly not on a visitors "to do" list. Until the building of the Georgian New Town in Edinburgh, which was completed in 1820, all the residents lived in the old town, which consisted of The High Street and the surrounding roads.


Plan for Edinburgh New Town by James Craig 1768

As the move from a rural economy to urban increased at the end of 18th Century the population of Edinburgh exploded and between 1801 and 1841 it doubled to 165,000. There was however little room for growth of habitable properties as old Edinburgh was surrounded by a defensive wall, the Flodden Wall built after Scotland's defeat to England in 1513, small parts of which still exist today. The rich had moved to spacious residences in the New Town and what was left rapidly fell into ruin with whole families living in a room 14 x 11 feet with little or no sanitation - there were even examples of families taking in lodgers to earn a little more money. Water was delivered to the houses by a water carrier and when my father joined the company we still owned a property down North Gray's Close where water could be delivered through transfer troughs.

Slops and the contents of chamber pots were thrown out the windows of the tenements to the cry "Gardyloo". As you can imagine the stench must have been dreadful and in 1861 the Builder Journal wrote:

"We devoutly believe that no smell in Europe or Asia.....can equal in depth and intensity, in concentration and power, the diabolical combination of sulphurated hydrogen, we came upon one evening about ten o'clock in a place called Todrick's Wynd."

The Old and 'New' Town
Transfer Trough

Todrick's Wynd was 200 feet (60m) from the tannery, the other side of the High Street. The richer people left in the old town lived in the tops of the tenements to stay away from the smells as much as possible. The conditions were ripe for Cholera and Typhus and in addition many of the buildings were in a dreadful state of repair being 2-300 years old. On the 25th of November 1861 the tenement at the top of Paisley Close, just down the hill from North Gray's Close collapsed killing 35 people. There was one survivor, Joseph McIvor, and to celebrate his survival an ornate lintel with a carving of his head now adorns the top of the close with the famous phrase "Heave Awa Lads I'm no deid yet." This is what he was supposed to have shouted to his rescuers.


"Heave Awa Lads I'm no deid yet"

As a result the town councillors were finally shamed into doing something about the state of the Old Town and this led to the Edinburgh City Improvement Act of 1867. This legislation allowed the council to tear down anything that looked like it might fall down, and commission a series of major changes which would transform several parts of the Old Town. Narrow wynds were turned into streets and new tenements were built in order to improve access and improve sanitation.

As you can imagine a tannery in the heart of the Old Town was high on the list of properties to be torn down, and it might well have been the impending act that prompted Councillor Girle to retire and sell his business to J. Hewit & Sons Ltd. in 1864.

At 10pm on the 10th October 1867 the tannery was all but destroyed in a major fire. From a historical point of view however, this has proved very illuminating as there was a tremendous amount of information regarding the layout and the work carried out published in the papers over the next few days as well as the conditions in the local area.





Despite the huge fire the leather in the pits would probably have survived to a large extent unscathed. The skins would have been completely submerged in either lime or tan solutions, and bar, the odd skin on the top of each pit that might have been damaged by falling masonry, most were probably still in good condition so a large amount of the leather stock would have been undamaged. The Company still had their currying premises in Niddry Street, so as a result they would have been able to continue production to a degree relatively quickly. The advert in the Evening Courant stating that business could carry on as normal within a few days was therefore not fanciful.

As you can see from these newspaper articles conditions in North Gray's Close were not far behind those in Todricks Wynd with ramshackle multi-storey tenements cheek by jowl with the tannery. I love the phrase from the Scotsman - "dilapidated and pestilential buildings" as this shows how run-down this part of Edinburgh had become. Any tannery worth its salt would have ensured that good hygiene practices were carried out within if they were to produce saleable leather. Away from the main tannery however there would no doubt be rubbish piles of animal and other waste to combine with the household waste thrown from the tenements leading to good levels of rats and other vermin in the area. Surprisingly, considering the packed conditions, with the close only 4 feet wide, and the large quantities of highly flammable barrels of pitch and dried oak bark, the fire brigade managed to control the fire and stop it spreading too far. With the help of heavy rain and three hoses the fire was brought fully under control by 2am. The damage however was extensive. The warehouse appears to have survived however the west wall of the main building had collapsed across the tan pits and the bark house was completely destroyed. Although none of the neighbouring properties appear to have burnt down many were damaged through fire, smoke or water damage. The local residents however lost most of their possessions through fear. When the fire started "beds, chairs, clocks and all kind of things were torn out of rooms and flung down in the closes among the crowd , where they were accidentally trodden upon or used by people as platforms from which to get a better look..." Much was damaged beyond repair and other items were stolen. It is unclear from the newspaper articles whether Hewits compensated these poor residents for their losses.


The description of the building very much follows the typical tannery of the time with tan pits and closely matches some of the illustrations in Diderot's encyclopaedia published in the mid 1700s. The industrial revolution had largely bypassed the leather industry until the mid-1800s. The reason for this is that leather production had been very strictly regulated, partially to protect the integrity of the different guilds (skinners, curriers, cordiners etc) and partly to control hygiene. In Scotland the first act passed into law in 1592, and as I mentioned in my previous article the tanning and currying of leather in the same premises was banned until the 1820s. Leather was also heavily taxed and the duty for leather manufactured in Edinburgh in 1778 amounted to £1,100. This duty was finally removed in 1830 and, over the next 50 years, the modernisation and expansion of the leather industry was phenomenal as a result. From the detailed description in the newspaper articles the tannery had a large building on three floors consisting of tanning on the ground floor, currying (dyeing and oiling of leather) on the 1st floor with a drying room above with louvered windows. In addition there was a large area of tan pits outside along with a separate bark store and warehouse.


I am indebted to my friend Bill Robb for a lovely sketch of what the tannery possibly looked like. His picture is taken from the north end of the tanning pits looking back up the hill towards the High Street of Edinburgh with the ill-fated tannery building that collapsed into the pits on the left and the warehouse and counting house directly in front. The tanyard was separated from North Gray's Close by a wall.


Surprisingly the City Council, despite having the law behind them and with the tannery burnt to the ground, failed in their attempts to remove the tannery from North Gray's Close. Quite how this happened with the Council desperate to clear the slums and both the newspapers very much in favour of removing the tannery cannot really be explained. Somehow the three brothers dug their heels in and put such a high value on the property that the Council baulked at the price. In the end the Council purchased a mere 2 foot strip down North Gray's Close for £72 to widen the close to 6 feet. One thing that might have helped the brothers was a letter from George Girle that was published in The Scotsman on the 19th of October defending the presence of the tannery. Despite this, Councillor Girle decided to sever his links with North Gray's Close and the following year he sold the tannery lands to Hewits. I finish this article with Mr Girle's delightful letter.


3 Baxter Place, October 18, 1867

Sirs, - I am afraid your readers will be almost tired of the subject of tanyards; still, as having conducted the work at the City Tanyard so long, and having been the proprietor of the property, I cannot let the subject pass without a word; and, further, being now perfectly unconnected with the High Street, what I say may be more relied upon.

From the great noise about the noxiousness of a tan work, and the maudlin talk that has been indulged in by many, there must be a great ignorance existing as to the materials used, and the modus operandi in such undertakings.

The hide is in the tanner's hands long before the parts of the carcass are cooked for food. Legs of mutton and roasts of beef may be kept in the larder of the experienced cooks days, or even weeks, after the skin of the animal is in the disinfectant lime. The tanner works on sweet and fresh material. Any approach to the "high", he knows, damages the appearance of the hide, and reduces its weight and value. From the lime, the finer kind of leather is washed through pigeon dung and water, occupying a very short time, and a very small portion of the tan-yard. This trifling process, so very limited both in time and space, if really an objection, is the only one that can be made to work. Certainly, after towns such as Cambridge, Oxford, Bristol, Bath, and indeed every town in England, have borne so long with the reputed smell - absolutely mythical - of a little pigeon dung, it ill becomes Edinburgh to murmur, where excreta are still profusely poured out in every wynd, but where the pouring out has been justified and supported even by medical authority. The hide is then put into a decoction of oak bark; and it is the smell of this decoction, and this alone, that offends the nasal organs of the parties so terrified with the tanyard.

If they would only make themselves acquainted with what it is that so frightens them, like many other bugbears the thing would be at an end. When the Parliamentary inquiry took place in London a few years since, the Commission reported that, so far from tanyards being noxious, the disinfectant lime being so largely used, and the open spaces being of such immense advantage to dense and populous neighbourhoods, they were rather to be encouraged than otherwise. I have carried on business in the City Tanyard for between thirty and forty years, and have never known a case of fever - I may almost say illness - amongst my men. My humble neighbours, instead of complaining, seem always pleased and interested in seeing the robust and healthy looking men at their work. Comparisons, as Mrs Maleprop says, "are odorous", but I cannot but remark how much more agreeable is their lot than that of hundreds of men and women in various works situated in dismal wynds in the High Street - ay, and lawyers' offices in the New Town too - with nothing but gas light to labour by. We have often laughed at the sailor's opinions of landsmen -

"While yon and I are upon the deck are comfortably lying, Lord, how the tiles and chimney pots around their heads are dying"

Let some of those objectors to tanyards look at their own confined places of work and business, at the wan and sickly appearance of many of their workmen and workwomen, and then pay a visit to the City Tanyard, where they will see a fine broad expanse, the light of day, and healthy, strong, and stalwart tanners and curriers. Let them examine the spacious lime pits; let them take up a handful of tan liquor and smell it (even a taste might do them good), and they will be perfectly satisfied that they have been entertaining most unjust prejudices, and that their wish to perpetrate the removal of a tanyard is a very mistaken one, - I am, &c.

Geo. H. Girle


Skin Deep - Volume 40 - Autumn 2015

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