The Tannery at Tower Hill
You may well have taken a walk around Tower Hill and wondered about the origins of the now derelict building alongside the road – well, this was the site of Fishguard’s tannery. Like many tanneries, it was sited on the edge of the town due to the noxious smells for which tanneries were renowned resulting from the processes involved in producing tanned hides. Animal skins were dipped in lime to remove the hair and fat and then dipped in “bate” which neutralised the lime. The favoured ingredients for “bate” were dog and pigeon dung! This resulted in a cleaned hide which was then ready for tanning using natural bark. The whole process took up to eighteen months.
A currier is someone who prepares tanned hides so that they become workable leather for use by saddlers and shoemakers whereas a tanner is someone who “converts” an animal skin into tanned hide. Records going back to 1799 show that curriers were based in the town when John Reed was apprenticed to Timothy Thomas, Master Currier but the earliest record found of a tanner is in the 1861 census. Presumably curriers obtained their cured hides from other nearby tanneries before Fishguard’s tannery came into being.
Without the benefit of deeds or tenancy agreements it’s not possible to be certain when the building first came into use but certainly 1861 is the first reference of anyone working there. The tithe map of 1843 shows two cottages and gardens on the site and these were subsequently part of the tannery accommodation. Documents about the tannery are strangely absent and there are no known photographs but an OS map of 1880 shows the layout of the building on the site. The buildings wrapped around a central yard (the tanyard) and a description of 1881, records that the processing pits were undercover. The image of the tanyard at St Fagans Musuem shows how Fishguard’s tanyard may well have looked although the one at St Fagans did not have a covered area.
In 1861 Hugh Harries of Plasyfron and a young lad, David Thomas, of Kensington Street both describe themselves as tanners however there is no mention of anyone employed as a tanner in the 1871 census which is somewhat surprising.
In 1881, William M M Hancock is recorded as a tanner and currier – he lived with his family in Main Street, Fishguard. It’s not known when he took occupation of the tannery but sadly by January 1882 he had died, aged just 36 years, leaving a wife and two young children. In February 1882, his wife Anne, placed advertisements in the local press seeking a new tenant for the “going concern” but there appears to have been no interest in the business as it continued to be advertised through 1882 and 1883 up until it went to auction in November 1883.
Via these advertisements, details of the tannery are known. It had 16 tanpits, 2 scouring pits, 2 finishing pits ,all of which were undercover. 4 liquor pits, 1 lime pit and 1 water pit in the open air, horse powered bark mill with overhead loft, bark shed, drying shed, currier’s workshop with overhead loft and two workmen’s cottages.
The auction was held at the Commercial Hotel on Fishguard Square (now the Abergwaun) on the 8th November 1883 and it would seem that the successful purchaser was David Bateman of Llanarth in Cardiganshire who was already a currier employed in his father’s tannery at Llanarth. David and his new wife moved to Fishguard but sadly after just 3 years occupation, he too died, when only 26 years old. His cause of death was given as “brain fever”. His body was conveyed back to his home village and he was laid to rest at Llanarth.
By the census of 1891, William Bateman is found working as a tanner and currier. William was the elder brother of David Bateman – it is not known whether he inherited the business or purchased it from his brother’s estate or indeed was simply a tenant. Another possibility of course ,is that he may have purchased the tannery jointly with his brother back in 1883. It is assumed that he took over the running of the business following the death of his brother. He continued to operate the tannery for the next fifteen years and is recorded as a tanner on the 1901 census. At this time he was living at Gwylfa, Fishguard. Tragedy was to befall yet another family associated with the tannery as in August 1901, William Bateman’s wife died aged 40 – her health had apparently been fading for some time and he was left with five children under the age of 12.
By the time of his wife’s death however, William Bateman appears to have ceased being a tanner as he was then described as a Mineral Water Manufacturer so once again the tannery was up for sale. Although regularly advertised it did not find a new owner until its auction in 1903 when Mr Evan D Jones (later Sir Evan Jones of Pentower) apparently purchased the site by private treaty following its withdrawal from the auction when at £395.
The tannery does not appear to have operated again as in 1907, Mr Evan Jones offered space at “the old tannery” to the local council surveyor for storage purposes. Mr Evan Jones was a member of Fishguard Urban District Council at that time.
B.R.Lewis is his weekly “Turning back the clock” reminiscences in the County Echo during the 1950s gave a lovely description of the former tanyard.
Tower Hill, mainly a residential district with its once beautiful walk, but alas now much neglected, had the Tanyard at Gwferedd, where much fine quality leather was turned out, for many generations. The skins were treated with oak bark in those days, no chemicals were used. The leather was of high quality. The bark was brought in big, four wheeled wagons from places as far away as Llanarth in Cardiganshire. Much (bark) was obtained from local timber, the trees were later cut and and exported to the South Wales Coalfields as pit props, by ship from Lower Fishguard.
Much of this information has been gathered from the Welsh Newspapers online website – part of the LLyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/National Library of Wales