Tanneries are smelly places. The hides are smelly and the raw materials used to process them into leather are smelly. The smell from Philbrick’s tannery would have wafted along Katesgrove Lane and clung to the clothing of people who worked there.
Philbrick’s tannery was situated between Katesgrove Lane and the Kennet. The site is now under the IDR flyover that looks down on the Hook & Tackle public house, previously the Tanners Arms.
The tannery was purchased by John Philbrick from George Higgs in 1832 [ref 1]. The Philbrick family were already in the tanning business in Dunmow, Essex. In 1842 John Philbrick, currier, lived at the corner of Horn Street and Katesgrove Lane and Thomas Philbrick lived in ‘Katesgrove’ [ref 2]. For a period up until 1847 the business appears to have operated as a partnership of John Philbrick with Charles and Thomas Philbrick. The partnership was dissolved on 24 June 1847 and John took over [ref 3]. Thomas stayed in Reading and lived with his wife Judith at Katesgrove House. In the 1851 census he was described as a retired tanner and currier. John, also described as a tanner and currier, still lived in Horn Street. The third brother Charles was living in Nottingham as a currier and employed four men.
Around the same time as the dissolution of the partnership, Thomas drew up his will setting out money owed to him by his two brothers. Thomas Philbrick died in 1854 and his death was reported in the Essex press as ‘after a long affliction’ [ref 4].
Two devastating fires
Tanneries are not only smelly but also very inflammable. The tannery was damaged by a fire in 1839 and destroyed by fire in 1851 so that it had to be rebuilt. Both fires were reported at length in the local press [ref 5].
The first fire was at the premises on the night of Wednesday 16 October 1839. The alarm was sounded around 11 pm and the resulting inferno proved a struggle to control. It was raging by 1 am and it was not until 2 am that the danger of spreading to adjacent properties was over.
The oldest inhabitant of the borough never witnessed so entensive (sic) a conflagration here, the reflection of which was seen at Newbury, and was distinctly visible at Woolhampton and other places at a distance.
Considerable damage was done:
The property destroyed curriers’ shops, store-rooms, granaries, and ware-rooms for bark, leather, hides, &c, and it is estimated, with other damage, at about 5,000l (£5,000); and it is with regret we add that the premises were only partially insured.
The cause of the fire was reported to be some boys with a turnip lantern playing with fireworks in an arch underneath where the fire was discovered.
Three fire engines attended the blaze;those of the Protector and the County insurance companies and the St Giles’ parish engine. The Berkshire Chronicle report criticised the parish equipment:
The St Giles’s engine was in a perfectly disgraceful condition, and we trust the parochial authorities will in future ascertain the actual working capability of the several parish engines; many of the buckets also leaked, and were nearly useless.
The other fire broke out on a Sunday morning, 3 August 1851, and the alarm was raised shortly after 7.15 am. The County fire engine arrived first, then the Phoenix and two borough engines. Water was taken from the Kennet and efforts made to prevent the fire spreading to the Barret, Exall, Andrewes ironworks and cottages nearby. The mayor assisted with the efforts to put out the flames forming lines to pass buckets of water and return buckets for filling. The Berkshire Chronicle reported:
Since the former fire at Messrs. Philbricks’, there has not been any conflagration in the town at all approaching it in extent (if we except the destruction of Mr Higgs’ property) [ref 6], until the occurrence of the one this week.
In an incredible short space of time, the whole of the warehouses and shops containing an immense quantity of leather, finished and in the various stages of manufacture, were completely gutted, the fire being confined chiefly to the bark barn which contained between 500 and 600 tons of bark, a great portion of which was ‘hatched’ or prepared for the mill and consequently very expensive.
The fire still raged at 9 am and there was a possibility that it would cross to the timber yard at Simonds brewery. By 12 noon it was under control. Fire engines continued to damp down the buildings and materials until the following Wednesday.
The tannery was rebuilt after this fire and there is an insurance plan from 1895, about the same time as the photograph at the top of the page, which shows the layout.
The process of tanning requires access to a good water supply, in this case the Kennet. Industrial effluent from the process was discharged into the Kennet and in the mid-nineteenth century, Reading’s sewage and water supply system was a cause for concern.
A court of inquiry was held in February and March 1847 in relation to the Reading Improvement Bill and people were called to give evidence about the condition of sanitation in Reading. James Burgess, who was a servant of Mr W Exall on London Street, gave the following evidence about the tannery [ref 7]:
He had seen the men employed at Messrs Philbrick’s tanyard let the water from the lime pits, (where the hair was got off the skins) which were about 200 yards above the Water Works, run into the Kennet; it would often make the whole stream quite white as far down as the Water Works; he had also seen them pump liquor from the tan pits into the same stream; this turned the water to the colour of good strong beer.
In 1865 effluent from the tannery and other industrial premises was considered by the Rivers Commission in relation to the impact on the Thames [ref 8].
Mr Charles Philbrick, tanner, Reading said that in his business he used lime in the preparation of hides. The lime-water went into the river, but that which went into the river was only liquor, as the lime was left in the subsiding tank, being useful for agricultural purposes. They used about 700 gallons per week. He was not aware that the refuse from his yard was a nuisance.
Other local industrialists also appeared before the commission including Mr H J Simonds from the brewery.
Our brewery is situated on the River Kennet. We use Thames Springs situated in the very centre of our yard. There is a great deal of sewage passed into the river below us, and above us lime is passed from a tannery, and it is common to see water white for more than an hour together. That lime killed the delicate fish.
The proprietor of St Giles’s Mill also complained about the tanyard.
Matter, which appears like soap suds, comes down and causes a great stench.
In 1866, the Thames Conservancy was made responsible for the whole length of the river.
John Philbrick’s sons, Charles and George, continued the business of the tannery, known as C & G Philbrick. On 2 April 1871, the date of the census, George Philbrick was living at Katesgrove House with his family, as well as two of his brothers Charles and Thomas and Thomas’s wife. The property was auctioned later that year. It was described:
KATESGROVE HOUSE: a very commodious and substantially built FREEHOLD RESIDENCE, situated in its own extensive and well timbered grounds, and possessing in addition to ample interior accommodation, a large lawn, vinery, greenhouses, pleasure and kitchen gardens and stabling, with Gardener’s cottage in Orchard Street, the whole forming a desirable property for personal occupation.
The property in total covered six acres and also included Lower Katesgrove House and land along the Kennet and Katesgrove Lane [ref 9].
The tanning process
Bark is an essential part of this traditional tanning process. An interesting series of letters from C & G Philbrick, Tanyard Reading survives [ref 10]. The correspondence is with the estate agent, G F North in relation to bark supplies from the Duke of Wellington’s Estates at Stratfield Saye and Wolverton. Philbrick’s are trying to agree a price for hatched bark of £9 per ton less 2½% for cash on delivery. In the course of the six letters, problems with quality of the timber and the hatching (breaking into smaller pieces) of the bark are described which leads to a final proposal of £9 per ton for bark from Wolverton and £8 per ton for bark from Stratfield Saye. The final letter encloses payment and states:
May we suggest that another season should you be felling any old dead lopped trees, it would be better not to have them stripped.
Bark used in the tanning process was sold for horticultural purposes. In 1865 it was advertised at 2s (10p) per cartload or 5s (25p) a wagon load picked up from the tanyard, and half as much again for deliveries within a mile [ref 11].
Other by-products from tanning were also sold. Lime, hair and also scrapings from the hides for size were mentioned in evidence to the Rivers Commission [ref 12].
The First World War
One out of six men employed at the firm, a total of 27, were in the forces in 1916 when the tannery claimed exemption for an employee, A C S Warrell, as a man engaged in a certified occupation [ref 13].
Arthur Charles Philbrick, son of Charles Philbrick, died at the end of the First World War. His name is on the Marlborough House School war memorial along with S R Collier (brickmakers), C F Simonds (banking) and G A Sutton (seeds).
During the war Charles A Philbrick, son of Alderman George Philbrick, was co-opted onto the council and in his speech looking back over his term the outgoing mayor, Leonard Goodhart Sutton, mentioned three new councillors including [ref 14]:
Mr C.A. Philbrick, who establishes I believe an altogether new precedent in the council of a father and son sitting at the same time. I congratulate our friend Mr Alderman Philbrick most heartily in seeing his son commence to take up the good work he has himself done for so many years.
The family also purchased a tannery in Wokingham in 1860 [ref 1] in what is now Tanhouse Lane [ref 17]. The Wokingham business is mentioned at events such as the celebration of George Philbrick’s silver wedding in 1894 when an employees’ dinner was held next door to the tannery at Pilgrim’s furniture stores (on the right in the view of County Lock above). John Philbrick, brother to Charles and George, appears to have run the business. The business was sold in the 1920s.
The end of the tannery in Katesgrove
The tannery disappears from local directories after 1939, although the buildings are still shown on later maps. The bark store site was in use as a garage by the Dock & General Transport Co. a little earlier.
I would like to thank Keith Jerrome and Paul Glendell for bringing to life the trade of tanning and tannery life, and David Cliffe for pointing me in the right direction for the closure of the tannery in Katesgrove.
- Britain’s Remaining Traditional Tannery
- The Wellington Estate Collection
- Berkshire Stories – online collection of images, newspapers and other records for the period of the First World War, from Reading Borough Libraries
- Friends of the Emm Brook
- Census and online newspapers from find my past (subscription required but it can be used free at the Berkshire Record Office)
- Happy Birthday, Hook & Tackle!
- Victoria County History of Berkshire, Volume 1
- 1842 Post Office Directory. Horn Street was the name of what is now the northerly (town) end of Southampton Street.
- Berkshire Chronicle 31 July 1847. The three were brothers (Thomas Philbrick’s will at the National Archives).
- Essex Standard 28 July 1854
- Berkshire Chronicle 19 October 1839 and 9 August 1851.
- This is probably a reference to the fire, thought to be arson, at G. Higgs, Elm Lodge Estate near Reading reported in the Reading Mercury and Berkshire Chronicle, 2 March 1850.
- Reading Mercury 20 February 1847. The proceedings are also covered in following editions and the Berkshire Chronicle.
- Reading Mercury 18 November 1865.
- Reading Mercury 7 October 1871
- Wellington Estate Collection at Museum of English Rural Life (MERL)
- Reading Mercury 26 August 1865
- Berkshire Chronicle 18 November 1865
- Reading Mercury 4 March 1914
- Reading Mercury 11 November 1916, Mayor Choosing at Reading
- Berkshire and The War: the Reading Standard Pictorial Edition Volume 4
- Reading Observer 24 October 1920
- Friends of the Emm Brook – Tanning