Crust Basils, Sod Oils and Doeskin

on Friday, 21 May 2021. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire Places

Redevelopment of a former tannery site into a mix of housing and business use prompted research into the business that had previously existed there. In the centre of the village of Holt is a local business that provided employment from the 1770s until the latter part of the 20th century. The business was based on tanning and the use of leather as a material. The earliest use of leather can be dated to the Palaeolithic period and is depicted in cave paintings in Spain, showing its use as a material for clothing. The strength of the material also meant that it had other uses, including for buckets and bags, horse tack, fastenings and jewellery to name a few.

The business of J. & T. Beaven Ltd. was at one time a major employer in the village of Holt and generations of local families provided their workforce and passed down their skills. Their story begins with Christopher Beaven who bought the property in 1758, which later became the administration offices for the business. His nephew, Thomas Beaven, moved from Semington to Holt to work in the business, which was then described as a ‘Woolstapler, Fellmonger and Leather Dresser’ Business. Through his marriage he also had a stake in a Fellmongering yard at Westbury, a separate branch of the Holt business. Thomas’ sons, James and Thomas, took over the business after their father’s untimely death in 1810 by drowning in the Semington Brook near Whaddon. Sadly, James discovered his father’s body after he failed to return home. The ‘J’ and ‘T’ in the business name refers to these two sons and they continued the business by purchasing fleece wools from farms in Wiltshire, Dorset and Gloucestershire. They were later joined by the sons of Thomas junior; Albert, who was a sailor and worked in the business after twenty years at sea, Frederick Thomas who worked in the business from a young age and Edwin Charles who really wanted to become a lawyer but returned to Holt to work in the family business. It was very much a family concern and in 1935 could proudly boast that 14 male employees plus the chairman had all served the business for 50 years or more. The local Usher family had over 100 years of uninterrupted loyal service to the firm. This gives an indication of the importance of Beaven’s as a local employer during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The business of fell mongering or dealing in hides, sat alongside the wool stapling business, the matching and sorting of wool for onward sale; and leather tanning, the curing of hides for use in the leather industry. The business had a good reputation for quality, especially in Scotland, Lancashire and Yorkshire. Local oak bark had originally provided material for the tanning process and the business developed the dressing of oil leather. This crust oil leather (tanned yet unfinished leather) became an important product for the business. The crust oil dressing, basil manufacture for leather dressing and the production of scivers, thin leathers perfect for the manufacture of gloves, all contributed to the success of Beavens.

In 1868 the Great House (formerly the Spa House/Hotel) was purchased at a cost of £630 to expand the glove making business and by 1870 the business was concentrating on the production of soft chamois leathers for gloves as the wool business was fading. Previously this type of chamois leather was used for working gloves used by housemaids or agricultural workers but a chance encounter with a local glove manufacturer resulted in a more ‘up market’ design, adding buttons and points (lines of decorative stitching on the back of the glove) and making it a popular dress glove of the time. These gloves were very popular in London.

A lady is seated with her husband stood next to her surrounded by plants and foliage wearing turn of the century clothing. The chair is made with crossed pieces of wood and she has a basket of flowers by her feet,
Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Beaven in the grounds of Arboyne House, Holt. 4259/2C/1

The sons of the family were continuing the management and development of the business and by the early 20th century Thomas Percy was in charge of the leather manufacturing; James Frederick in charge of wool stapling and fellmongering and Albert Victor managed the tannery and the local farm owned by the family.

Two men are loading large sacks of wool onto a flat bed truck using an early wool crane. One man is operating the machine handle and the other standing on top of the pile of sacks guiding them into place.
Loading the wool (Image reproduced with the permission of Joy Bloomfield)

WWI meant that normal production stopped, and the production of basils or clothing leathers became the priority to support the war effort, the wool business was revived for this reason as well. Breeches were produced made of sheepskin and buckskin leather and used by postillion riders at a cost of 30/- per pair.

Advertising pamphlet title page listing the productions of J & T Beaven Limited

Post WWI, the business was growing in different directions and for the first-time investment came from outside the family. In 1927, A.M. Breach from Steyning in Suffolk brought his technical expertise and chemical knowledge of tanning along with financial investment to the business. Beavens began to use pelts from New Zealand as well as from the domestic market and white washable doeskins were favoured for the gloving trade. The business premises were extended, and the departments now consisted of fellmongering and woolstapling, crust basil and skiver manufacture, crust oil and white and natural doeskin dressing. This meant that the finishing of light leathers for the gloving trade resulted in a wide range of gloves being produced. Beavens also became the original producer of 'Moorland' a coloured full antique and buffed antique leather for gloves. By 1939 the Company was fully occupied and had embraced advanced ideas in leather production. Large quantities of their products were used by the forces during the war. Their glove was chosen by the Air Ministry as the ‘standard’ for airmen, which occupied the business during the war and they also produced gloves for motor transport.

A long table with women sat either side sewing gloves on Singer sewing machines.
Glove machine room (Image reproduced with the permission of Joy Bloomfield)
Business ledgers of J & T Beaven, Holt, 1949 (Collection 1272)

However, the development of manmade fibres had an impact on the leather glove trade. Nylon gloves were becoming more popular by mid-20th century, they were easy to wash and look after in comparison to leather and this meant that doeskin production eventually ceased by 1955. In 1965, even though the leathers being produced were popular within the fashion industry and especially so in Holland, Germany and the USA, production at Holt was phased out. The business concentrated on the production of chamois and scivers instead. By 1957 the Great House, owned by the family was demolished as it had become too costly to repair. A merger with James Garner & Sons was discussed and completed by 3rd June 1970 and Beavens became part of the Garner Group and Pittards. Gradually the tradition of leather dressing in Holt was declining and the site became inhabited by a variety of small businesses that served the local community, such as a motor repairer and a stone mason. The site is now being developed for housing and business use and is about to embrace its new status with a nod to the traditions of the past.

Joy Bloomfield, Community History Advisor

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