Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Malcolm Lamb

Malcolm Lamb

Tanners are an endangered species in this country. When I grew up in Liverpool there were thirty-five tanneries on Merseyside. Now there are two and they are both struggling. As a child I remember cycling down to the ferry and being fascinated by the piles of hides in the docks. When I left school after the War, I joined a tannery as a trainee manager. It was an old-fashioned apprenticeship and I was paid enough money for my travelling expenses and no more.

   Tanning is a grubby business. Dog dung was regularly used until the 1920s to remove the non-leather-making proteins in the skin, and is now replaced by synthetic enzymes. When I started it was still possible to pass out in the lime yard where the raw skins are soaked in pits. Basically the aim of tanning is to convert putrescible protein into a non-putrescible substance. Although I am a commercial tanner, my apprenticeship included enough chemistry to link in with the practicalities of the industry.

   The tanning process was undoubtedly discovered by accident when one of our early ancestors probably dropped an animal skin into a forest pool, and noticed that it acquired a new property, namely, that it did not dry out, crack or in any way deteriorate. When softened with animal fat, it becomes suitable for making clothing and protection for his feet, which in turn helped to extend his hunting range. In short, the raw skin became leather. He did not of course appreciate that this desirable quality had been achieved by tannin or tannic acid leaching out of the leaves and bark of the forest trees. For example oak bark contains a lot of tannic acid.

   When I finished my training, I went to Nigeria in 1955. The tanning industry was already in decline in this country and I would certainly have been made redundant years ago if I had stayed here. In Nigeria I had to turn my hand to everything - not only trading in skins, but also ground nuts, cotton, beeswax and other commodities. Going to Northern Nigeria was my equivalent of a university education. I learnt the language, trading methods and ways of the Hausa people. Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger, winner of the 1992 Booker Prize, gives a wonderful insight into the fascination of Africa.

   From the start I became involved with the native tanners and over the years I helped to build several tanneries. By the time I left Nigeria in 1978, I was managing director of a large plant producing 10,000 goatskins a day. Although Nigeria is generally regarded as the most commercially hazardous region in the world, it has not been my experience. Of course there is corruption but, in my opinion, things are not so good here where we have a system that does nothing to help the small businessman and craftsman.

   Over the years I have built up a lot of trust with my Nigerian colleagues. My partner and I became associated with a Nigerian family whose head is the most honest person I have ever dealt with. I speak the language and love the country. I even met and married my Dutch   wife in Nigeria. She was a stewardess on the KLM route from Amsterdam to Johannesburg which stops at Kano, the centre of the Nigerian tanning industry. When she announced that she liked Kano my ears pricked up, as so many wives would not be able to cope with certain aspects of the lifestyle. My eldest son was born there and, all in all, I say ‘thank you’ to Nigeria for everything.

   In 1978 we came back to  England and I started Oakridge Leather to import the products of the Nigerian tanners. Working in association with the Nigerian family, we supply semi-processed leather for the shoe, clothing and gloving industry. We also export directly from Nigeria to countries such as Spain and Italy which have managed to preserve their tanning industry. Oakridge also exports synthetic processing materials to the thirty tanneries in Nigeria for use on shoe leather which is tanned with chromium sulphate, while bookbinding leather requires vegetable tan.

   Shortly after founding the firm, I also started Harmatan Leather with my partner. A spin-off from the base company, Harmatan is dedicated to supplying Nigerian goatskin for bookbinding. Nowadays this aspect of the business is handled by Marc, one of my two sons. I might add that the head of the Nigerian family with whom we work has over forty sons and several  are now in the business.

   Only about three percent of our raw material is suitable for bookbinding. The best skins for this purpose come from young, male goats, particularly from Sokoto in Northern Nigeria. The females are less desirable as their skins become stretched and loose from regular breeding. Tremendous care is required at every stage in the production of a faultless skin. To give some idea of the difficulty of achieving grade one quality, you must remember that the goat spends its life running round the bush, scratching itself on thorns and generally being marked or scarred by disease or insects.

   At the slaughter stage, the skin may suffer butcher cuts, before undergoing the critical tanning process, and all the perils of damage in transit during the long sea journey. On arrival the bales must be offloaded without being dropped or carelessly handled. When the skins are finally polished by hand with rubberised linen, any minute fault or scar will show up and make the skin unsuitable for bookbinding.

   One of our major projects was supplying the leather for the facsimile edition of the Gospels of Henry the Lion. The original manuscript was sold at Sotheby’s in 1983 for £7.4 million, the highest price ever paid for a book. The facsimile was published by Insel Verlag in an edition of 950 copies, bound in native red Nigerian goatskin by Ernst Ammering and Dr Willy Pingel. I examined 10,000 skins in order to narrow the choice down to 2,000 from which Ammering made the final decision.

   When antiquarian booksellers refer to Morocco, the term is correct in the sense that the leather probably came across the Sahara from Nigeria to Morocco where it was exported to Europe. English sheep are useless for bookbinding purposes, as the type of skin that produces thick wool lacks the supple strength of fine-haired goatskin. When a book is described as bound in sheep, the skin probably came from a hair sheep imported from the Middle East.

   Oasis is another common term for a type of leather that was originally produced by Richardson’s of Newcastle, which was incidentally Sir Ralph Richardson’s family. The firm was in business for about fifty years from the 1870s, and Harmatan has tried not to deviate from their excellent tanning formula for the production of Oasis leather.

   A few years ago the late Stanley Bray gave me a piece of leather which had belonged to Sangorski & Sutcliffe. Although it was over 100 years old, it had retained its strength and quality, despite exposure to the harmful atmosphere of the coal fires and gas light of Victorian London. A lot of leather from that period has not been so fortunate. During the nineteenth century India was a major source of poor bookbinding leather, much of which was tanned with unsuitable materials. It was a progressive time and anything new was by definition good to the Victorians. New tanning methods were used before they had been properly proven, and much of the binding damage that one sees today derives from that period of somewhat reckless experimentation.

   By contrast the old formulas have stood the test of time. There is the famous example of a vessel sailing from the Baltic to Florence two hundred years ago, with a cargo of russia leather. A storm blew up and the vessel pulled into Plymouth Sound and sank. When samples of the leather were recovered from the bottom of the sea, they were found to be in remarkably good condition. This astonishing fact is entirely due to the tanning process which would have involved birch bark and other naturally occurring materials.

   Old-fashioned machinery is required to produce bookbinding leather. We found our shaving machine on a scrap heap near Bristol. Anything hydraulically-operated tends to be too fierce on the skins which bruise easily. The key to bookbinding leather is minimum machine action. The native tanners of Nigeria employ techniques that involve no machinery or man-made chemicals. Many still work in primitive conditions relying entirely on their instinct. I believe that their methods originated with the ancient Egyptians and probably came to Nigeria as part of the trans-Saharan camel trade. This is an area of research that very much interests me and I’m keen to learn more about ancient Egyptian leather-working techniques.

   The processes employed by small-scale Nigerian farmers to raise goats, butcher them and tan the skins have changed very little since pre-dynastic Egypt. Skills are handed down orally from family to family and, once the tradition is lost, it will be very hard to re-establish. There is certainly a need for someone to produce a proper written record of their activities. Nothing of the kind has so far been attempted in Nigeria, where, in any case, paper deteriorates quickly due to the tropical climate and the voracious white ants. As late as the 1950s it was difficult to persuade villagers to accept payment in paper currency.

   While I was in Nigeria I was simply pumping out raw material, shipping it to the merchants who then sold it to the end-users. Over the last eighteen years the development of Harmatan has brought me into contact with our end-users who are mainly designer bookbinders. It gives me enormous satisfaction when our leather is used for a fine binding of enduring artistic value, rather than for a pair of shoes to be worn and thrown away.

   Harmatan’s aim is to satisfy binders’ requirements and to maintain a consistent standard. They in turn work hard to produce something of quality and, in my opinion, seldom receive a proper financial reward for their labour. In my dealings with binders I have acquired a great admiration for them and enjoy being part of their fraternity.

Interviewed for the Bookdealer in May 1996

Malcolm Lamb

A Poland & Steery Co-production