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England Manufacturing Occupations H to Z (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Animal Products (cont.)[edit | edit source]

Horsehair working[edit | edit source]

Men and women horsehair workers have used the tails and manes of horses, ox tails and pig bristles to produce a large number of useful items. When used for stuffing purposes it first needed to be curled. Uses included:

  • Ÿ Brushes, including horse hair mixed with hog bristles for paint brushes.
  • Violin bows, as it is the only hair of the required length of about 30” available in quantity. Ÿ
  • Textile furnishing where it provides the weft. Ÿ
  • Hair cloth for a variety of purposes, for example window blinds for the railways of South Africa, India and Brazil. Ÿ
  • Better quality mattresses and upholstery. Ÿ
  • Tailors required it for the inner linings of suits, and for stuffing country gentlemen’s voluminous breaches.
  • Dressmakers needed it for padding the broad-hipped Elizabethan dresses and Victorian crinolines. Ÿ
  • Milliners made the colossal French-style head-dresses of Marie-Antoinette’s time from it. Ÿ
  • Wigmakers still use it for legal and theatrical wigs. Ÿ
  • Military plumes, fly whisks, and whips. Ÿ
  • Sieves, fishing lines and sporrans for Scotsmen. Ÿ
  • Linings for caps.

Information on the processing can be found in Manners (Country Crafts Today. Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan, 1974), and Wymer (English Town Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Timesto the Present Day.Batsford, London, 1949).

Leatherworking[edit | edit source]

The leather trades were highly important for the production of clothing, saddlery, containers and much else made of tanned hides (from large animals) or dressed skins (from smaller animals) before the advent of plastic. Large numbers of men were employed in the various processes particularly in towns, and hides from cattle, European buffalo, deer and horses, and skins from calves, goats, pigs, and seals have been utilized. At the end of the 18th century leather was the third most important manufacturing industry after wool and iron.

The great market for leather goods was Leadenhall and the Leathersellers’ Company is amongst the wealthiest of the City livery companies. Each leather craft had its own trade guild, such as the saddlers, shoemakers, glovemakers etc. Boot and shoe makers have been dealt with above; this section comprises three other groups of workers—those who process the hides into leather, saddlers, and other leather workers.

Tanning and Currying[edit | edit source]

Most towns had a section devoted to the processing of animal skins with its accompanying stench of putrefying flesh and tanning chemicals—it was usually the poorest end of the town. In London the trade was concentrated in Bermondsey, next to the docks at Rotherhithe.

The animal skins would be received by the tanners from the butchers and first scraped free of fat and blood by the beam-man, then tanned by the yardman. The tanners for centuries used oak bark and other vegetable agents, but the later use of chemicals such as alum salts was a faster process. The hides were dried and smoothed by the shedman and were then ready for the currier who dressed them by shaving to an even thickness and applied oils and colour.

There are many sources for descriptions of the tanners’ and curriers’ work, including Bailey (The Industrial Heritage of Britain. Ebury Press/Book Club Associates, 1982), Manners (Country Crafts Today. Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan, 1974), Hurley (curriers in The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol I. Wiltshire Family History Society.1991, tanners in The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol III. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1994), Wymer (English Country Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to Present Day. Batsford, London, 1946) and Dymond (Old Occupations: The Currier. Family Tree Magazine Vol 11 #11, page 5-6, 1995). Mayhew (Mayhew’s London, [a condensation of volumes I-III of London Labour and the London Poor]. Bracken Books, London.  FHL book 942.1/L1 E6m.) devoted a chapter to the tanners and curriers lives (Thompson and Yeo). Webb (London Apprentices Volume 30. Curriers’ Company 1628-1800. Society of Genealogists, 2000) has indexed the apprenticeships of the Curriers’ Company 1628-1800.

Saddlery and Harness Making[edit | edit source]

These trades were often combined by the village craftsman who would have also made many other leather items required locally, such as straps and belts. In towns, there was more specialization with a saddler turning out expensive riding saddles for the gentry, and the harness maker catering to the needs of the different breeds of working horses. Although both aspects of the work are now greatly reduced most books on old crafts contain descriptions of the trade. Examples to hand include Wymer (English Country Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to Present Day. Batsford, London, 1946), Manners (Country Crafts Today. Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan, 1974), Arnold (The Shell Book of Country Crafts. John Baker, 1968 and All Made by Hand. John Baker, London, 1970), Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol II. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991), Vickers (Old Occupations: The Horse Trades. Family Tree Magazine Vol 12 #5, page 18-19, 1996), Dixon (A Heritage of Anglian Crafts. Minimax Books, Peterborough, Northamptonshire, 1981). Articles in family history journals appear from time to time, such as those by Felgate (Ancient Crafts: Harness Making. Greentrees (Westminster and Central Middlesex FHS) Vol 15 #1, page 16), Paice (The Journeyman Saddlemaker - and His Daughter. Isle of Wight Family History Society journal #24, page 16-18), and Dymond (Old Occupations: The Saddler. Family Tree Magazine Vol 11 #12, page 15, 1995). Manners (Country Crafts Today. Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan, 1974) also has special sections on whip making and horse collars. Webb (London Apprentices Volume 12. Makers of Playing Cards Company 1675-1760; Musicians Company 1765-1800; Saddlers Company 1657-66, 1800; Tobaccopipemakers Company 1800. Society of Genealogists, 1998) has indexed the few (1657-1666, and 1800) apprenticeships of the Saddlers Company remaining after WWII

Other Leather Crafts[edit | edit source]

Leather was also used for: Ÿ

  • Garments including tunics and jerkins, breeches, armour, spats, belts, hats, aprons, gauntlets, gloves, wallets and handbags.
  • Shoes and boots.Ÿ
  • Wine and water bottles, water buckets, and black-jacks (drinking mugs), bombards (beer-jugs). Ÿ
  • Bags, pouches, luggage, laces and thongs, and cases for guns and binoculars. Ÿ
  • Sheaths and straps.Ÿ
  • Leather sheets for covering wagons, and later in coachmaking. The apprenticeships of the Coachmakers and Coach Harness Makers’ Company 1677-1800 have been indexed (Webb 1998-12). Ÿ
  • Furnishings, such as chair seats and backs, bellows. Ÿ
  • Bookbinding.Ÿ
  • A specialized form of leatherwork known since pre-Conquest times is falconry furniture making; the furniture comprises the gloves, leashes, birds’ hoods etc. and the craft is described by Manners.

Skinners and Furriers[edit | edit source]

Furriers used to be called skinners and they prepared the skins of fur-bearing mammals such as ermine, lambs and rabbit. Both tanner and skinner had to render the skin durable and supple, but whereas the tanner had to completely remove the hair, the skinner needed to preserve the fur on the skin. A similar but less harsh process of cleansing, tanning and currying has to take place before the skins pass to the cutters who sort and seam the furs into usable pieces (Wymer 1949).

Trunk making[edit | edit source]

This trade made trunks, chests, portmanteaus, buckets and cases for holding such items as plate and knives. Trunks were made of wood covered with leather, horse or seal skin, or shark skin (shagreen), then lined with paper. A description of the work is included by Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol II. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991).

Wool industry[edit | edit source]

Woollen cloth has been made since at least the iron age in England and the Romans thought highly of English wool and expanded the industry substantially. During the Middle Ages and early modern period wool was the principle industry in the British Isles in both town and country. Flemish weavers, fullers and dyers settled in England in the 1330s bringing with them the skills necessary to revitalize the making of cloth from wool, resulting in 20 times the amount of cloth being exported by 1550. Every town and village had a connection somehow with making woollen cloth, and spinning wheels and handlooms were found in almost every home.

The fulling mill, or pandy in Welsh, was as common as the corn mill, and everywhere there were fields full of tenting frames for stretching and drying the cloth. In the 16th century further Dutch and Walloon religious refugees brought weaving skills to towns such as Norwich and Colchester in East Anglia, making the new draperies from combed wool (worsteds), and other mixes of long wool, silk and linen yarn such as bays, tufted taffeties, wrought velvets and braunched satins.

Inn and pub signs exemplifying the wool trade remain all over the country; examples include the Golden Fleece, the Lamb and the Woolpack (Delderfield). A good history of the wool industry is given in the well-illustrated Shire book by Aspin (The Woollen Industry. Shire Publications, 1982), and briefer account is given by Bailey (The Industrial Heritage of Britain. Ebury Press/Book Club Associates, 1982).

Profits were so great that huge churches were built by merchants in quite small towns and villages especially in the Cotswolds, West Country and East Anglia. The woollen industry enjoyed many privileges since it was Britain’s principal source of wealth. Many statutes were enacted to protect and encourage the trade, two significant ones being:

  • 1614 Prohibition of export of raw wool lasting until 1824. This was to ensure a plentiful supply of wool at low prices for the British cloth industry in the face of growing and lucrative exports. However, the foreign demand was so great that the law gave rise to smuggling of wool out of the country on a vast scale by the owlers.
  • ŸBurial in Wool Acts of 1667 and 1678, lasting until 1814 but widely disregarded long before that. Burials had to be in woollen shrouds unless a fine was paid for other materials.

Before the Industrial Revolution and the consequent advent of cotton the woollen industry was the nation’s major industrial employer and many local treatises have been written about it (Hey). In the 18th-19th centuries the use of water power in the West Riding of Yorkshire allowed this area to rival the former dominance of the southern communities. Mechanization of preparation and spinning processes occurred well before weaving, and domestic production by outworkers organized by middle-man clothiers, remained more important than factory output until well into the 19th century, but even then small mills and workshops were more prevalent than large factories (Hey).

The raw wool merchants were called broggers and staplers, and those who organized the manufacture of the cloth were termed clothiers. Amongst the products were cloths of many varieties, furnishing fabrics, knitwear, blankets, carpets and felt. There are three basic types of cloth:

  • ŸWoollen cloth is woven from yarns containing fibres lying in various directions, the cloth having a fluffy surface. Fine woollens are made from the shorter fibres.
  • Worsted cloth is woven from yarns spun from combed wool, so the fibres lay parallel and the cloth is smooth. Worsteds use mainly the longer fibres.
  • Felt is a non-woven material made by compression, heat and moisture.

These are produced from the fleece by several different processes: Ÿ

  • Sorting of fleeces by hand into different qualities.
  • Scouring which removes dirt, natural grease and other impurities. Lanolin, used in cosmetics, soaps, ointments and polishes, is an important by-product from the grease component. Formerly scouring was carried out in fulling mills by one of a number of procedures:
  • Immersion in stale urine (lant) or hog’s dung and then beating.
  • ŸUse of fullers’ (diatomaceous) earth.
  • Nowadays, several washings with detergent.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at