t the age of 16 my mum and dad said I could stay on an extra year to take Matriculation examinations but at that point this was dropped and GCE replaced it. I had been offered a job through the school, with Whitmores, Tanners at Edenbridge. They recruited all their staff from Tunbridge Wells Tech, and I was successful with my interview. I was offered £2 per week and my fare paid or £2.10 shillings per week (equivalent to £2.50) and find my own way. This meant a seven mile journey each way and also meant that there was no way I could attend evening classes in Tonbridge in order to take my GCE, as I would not arrive there in time. I decided to take the higher figure and dad leant me the money to buy a new bicycle, I think it cost about £18 and I paid the hire purchase which was supposed to be six shillings a week at the rate of eighteen shillings a week to clear the debt as soon as possible. Eighteen shillings a week for bike, £1 week Housekeeping, eleven pence National Insurance and the balance was eleven shillings and one penny to eat during the week and pocket money to enjoy myself at the weekends!! I also earned extra at the farm at weekends by cleaning out the chicken houses and collecting the eggs for ten shillings a week. The bike had no gears and I rode to and fro to Edenbridge for two years until I had to go and serve two years of National Service. I started work at Edenbridge on 9th July 1951.
The tannery was a very interesting place, they received the hides still covered in hair from various places, a lot coming in on the train and our lorries going to the sidings and collecting them. The majority of these came from Argentina and they were pretty “high” by the time they arrived. They took them to the beam house – where they had the hair scraped off the outside and the flesh and bits from the inside. Before this was done the hide was hung in a pit containing lime to help remove the hair and flesh. The flesh parts were collected together and we conveyed them back to the train in a deep lorry to be sent to the British Gelatine Works to make margarine, jelly and various other edible goods - remainder of which I do not know and probably it is just as well!
After the hide was cleaned it was cut into various pieces, all had their own descriptive name; the belly – both sides of the hide to square off the edges, the shoulder – right across the hide not quite in half, bends – two pieces cut up the backbone of the rear end and these were the thickest and largest pieces, the face and cheeks were also separated as they were used for lighter leather goods.
When these were all cut they were then put in the tanning pits with their various ingredients, all bellies together, all shoulders together etc. and depending on the thickness of the hide they had different times in the pits in order that the tan could soak in properly. They were then hung up in the drying sheds which were closed up and heated to finish off the leather. After this they were put under a roller to give them a shiny finish and then bundled up for sale. They were then loaded onto lorries and delivered throughout the country – the majority going to Northampton area where shoes were made.
We also tanned elephant and walrus hide and this leather would be up to an inch thick and was cut into discs for buffing metal.
There was a particular elephant at the London Zoo called Tarka who went berserk and attacked its keeper. This had to be shot and the hide was then bought to our London Tannery for tanning.
At one stage at the London Tannery in Bermondsey they started a new procedure, which became very popular and this was to impregnate wax into the leather – mainly bends and these were used for the soles of shoes and would make them very waterproof. For this purpose a very large square tank, approximately 12 feet square and about 3 feet deep was filled with melted wax and attached to this was an arm with a paint sprayer on the end. The partly tanned leather was laid on to a conveyor belt and on its way through a tunnel the spray of hot wax was put on the leather by the arm moving to and fro across the leather. The conveyor took the leather through the tunnel very slowly and the tunnel was heated to help the wax melt into the bends. My recollections tell me they were in the tunnel for about a couple of hours and then they were hung in a drying room. The leather bends were also embossed with a round seal like a trademark – Tuffox if I remember correctly. The finished leather was so supple that a strip about the width of a sole and approx. two feet wide could be rolled into a tube without much difficulty. In fact I have a piece which would now be over 50 years old and it is still as supple today as when it was made.
In the tannery at Edenbridge we had several members of the local Fire brigade and of the St. John’s ambulance. If there was a fire the siren would sound at the fire station which was almost next door to the tannery and then we in the office would have bets on who would be first up to the road. Bear in mind that most of the men wore wooden clogs with metal strips on the bottoms and the drive from the buildings was sort of cobbled with a large iron weighbridge at the gate entrance. It must have been very difficult to keep a foothold on that surface.
Whilst at Edenbridge I typed invoices, weighed leather in the warehouse, assisted calculating wages, typed letters for the secretary and did general filing. I also learned to do proper business book keeping.
Due to problems with my back after arriving at work I often sat with my left leg under me to relieve the pain.
One of the staff was so old that he still used a Victorian bicycle and to mount this he had to run behind and put his foot on a step on the rear wheel to lever himself up on the saddle.
When the bosses wife or son or daughter came in the office he would put his bowler hat on in order to raise it and say “Good morning Mrs. Searle, Master Roger and Miss Sarah”, then hang his hat back up.
One of the staff who taught me how to weigh the leather and prepare invoice documents used to send me up the high street in the hot weather to buy ice creams – luckily he paid for them because my balance of eleven shillings had to pay for food through the week from the café and my weekend entertainment.
On my old tyme dance outings I met a girl who lived at Ashurst Wood, near East Grinstead and things got serious enough for me to cycle thirteen miles each way to visit her – leave home early Sunday mornings and be there for dinner – with her three sisters and mum and dad, and cycle home at night.