MEMORY LANE: High demand dog poop for leather production

Dog poop was once a valuable commodity in the production of quality leather, as Robin Longbottom explains

THE law now requires a dog owner to clean up the mess when defecating on a street or public thoroughfare, and failure to do so can result in local councils imposing a hefty fine.

However, until Victorian times, dog poop was in high demand and people sought it out, picked it up and were paid up to a shilling a bucket for their trouble.

When harvested it was known as puer and for centuries it had been used to process sheep and goat skins to produce quality leather, also known as buckskin, for the manufacture of panties, leotards and gloves. The men who produced this leather were known as tanners, as opposed to tanners who used the tanning extracted from oak bark to cure their hides.

In the 18th century, Kildwick and Sutton-in-Craven were centers for the shrew industry. Rowland Smith of Kildwick brought the trade to Sutton in the early 1730s. Although he originally settled at Stubbing Hill in West Lane, he established his business at Low Fold, on land later known as Skin Croft.

Rowland is said to have traveled extensively to collect the skins of slaughtered animals and on his return to Sutton they were heavily salted on the flesh side and piled on top of each other in what were called “pies”. The pie was then protected from the weather under a low, open-sided, flat-topped shed, giving rise to the name “salt pie roof”, once used to describe a flat roof.

The first task – known as the “pie” – was undertaken by the woodcutter, whose job was to soften the skins and remove the wool. To do this they were soaked in pits filled with water and after three or four days were transferred to adjacent pits of lime and water and soaked for about a month, after which the wool could easily be removed from the skin.

Once the wool and the remains of flesh have been removed, the tawer “then puts in a large tub, 3 or 4 buckets of dog turd… on top we throw a large bucket of water to dilute it, this done, the ‘worker enters the tank’. tub, and, with his wooden shoes, he tramples it… after which he throws the skins away, stirring them and turning them over for a few moments with large sticks”.

After this process, the skins were then washed and rubbed with a mixture of alum, salt, egg yolks and flour before being hung on poles to dry in open sheds.

The procedure was disreputable and gave off noxious odors, so in the 1780s – after Rowland’s death – his sons, John and Richard, moved the business from Low Fold to “fabricated and erected pits and workhouse in the Dixon Lands”. These fields were at the time far from the village and are now occupied by the Salt Pie Farm, which perhaps takes its name from the process of tamping the leather.

The move allowed their Low Fold barn to be converted into living quarters, with one brother living in the house and the other in the converted barn. However, in 1789 John and his wife, Mary, built themselves a new house at the top of the village. Several years later it became the King’s Arms Inn.

In April 1764 the account books of the township of Sutton-in-Craven record the purchase of a “skin for breeches” for a pauper named Joseph Dean at the price of one shilling and threepence. The skin was probably purchased from Rowland Smith and the breeches made by the village tailor, Denis Davy. Had the sheep also been local, the leather for Joseph Dean’s breeches would have been grown, processed, and tailored within a mile or two of his home.

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