Old Ways

Oak Bark Was a Substantial Business From the 1600s

The use of oak bark for tanning goes back 8000 years, by the medieval period, tanning was a well-established craft

Initially, leather was tanned using unconventional substances like brains or oil, or by smoking the hides. However, around 5,000 years ago, there was a shift to using vegetable tannins derived from tree bark and other plant materials.

This method of vegetable tanning dominated the industry for several millennia as the standard technique for producing leather.


Vast Industry

From 1680 to 1830, the production of leather and leather goods ranked as England’s second most valuable industry, only surpassed by textiles. It was also one of the largest non-agricultural employers.

Notably, approximately 90 percent of all leather during this period was tanned using oak bark, making the trade in this material a significant yet often underappreciated aspect of historical research.

Oak bark stacked, ready to be transported by rail. By the 1820s, domestic production likely decreased to between 60,000 and 70,000 tons per year.

It utilises estate records and tanners’ account books from the late seventeenth century, which provide detailed information on the processes of bark stripping and marketing.

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Additionally, the study examines records of excise duties levied on leather tanned in England and Wales from 1711 to 1830, offering valuable insights into the economic and regulatory aspects of the leather industry during this period.

None of this could happen on this scale without the simple, but critical ingredient of oak bark.

Bark Consumption

The tanning industry, with its origins rooted in ancient practices, has evolved significantly over the centuries, particularly in its use of tree bark. Historically, the process of converting animal hides into leather heavily relied on tannins derived from tree bark, a method dating back to ancient civilisations like the Egyptians and Romans.

Oak bark was predominantly favoured, but depending on regional availability, tanneries also utilised bark from trees like hemlock and chestnut. These natural tannins were crucial in preserving hides and enhancing their durability and longevity.

A remnant of what was until the 20th century typical North Herefordshire woodland. The steep parts of Pedwardine Wood are still covered in oak. Image Credit: Richard Webb

The best bark came from the young trees of twenty years’ grown in oak coppices. At the other extreme, gnarled, dried-up bark, stripped from octogenarians destined for the shipyards or removed from collapsing centenarians, was less valuable but still had their part to play.

The Rippers

From 1853 – “The woods of “Fair Devonia” are now ringing with the sounds of the woodman’s axe and the songs of the “rippers” mingled with those of the thrush, linnet and blackbird. The three weeks or month of the ripping season is always a merry time for the agricultural worker as he receives better pay… The barking season this year has been most favourable to the operation of the ripper, as he has had almost sunshine with but a few showers. The time chosen for their work is when the sap is between the stock and the bark, before the tree has put forth its foliage, as then the quality of the bark would be deteriorated, and rendered almost useless for tanning purposes. In extensive woodlands such as around Bridford the woodsman goes around and marks the trees for destruction. The woodsman, or a dozen men, speedily follow and cut down the saplings or smaller trees with the axe. It is only on the larger ones the saw is at all used, as it prevents the “stumps” from growing again. The “rippers” follow with a short iron instrument, which is inserted between the tree and the bark, speedily stripping it, the hands being carefully protected with leather, as it is no easy work. Boys pick up the scattered bark and carry it to women to be piled in heaps for the suns rays to dry, and in a fortnight or three weeks it is ready for delivery to the tannery.”

Barking irons, you see these once in a while appear in auctions. Also go by the name as 'bark spuds'
Barking irons, you see these once in a while appear in auctions. Also go by the name as ‘bark spuds’. Image Credit: Bewdley Museum

Bark Consumption

The estimates of bark consumption, which are derived from excise accounts, likely under-represent the actual demand for bark in England and Wales. This discrepancy arises because tanners sometimes sought to evade the duties imposed on bark.

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Despite this, the excise system of the eighteenth century was relatively well-administered, and significant under-reporting of trade was probably limited, mainly to the initial years of the system’s implementation.

Additionally, the duty rates set in 1712 remained unchanged for a hundred years. In terms of real value, the impact of these duties decreased over time, as prices rose gradually from the 1750s and then more sharply after 1790. This reduction in the relative burden of the duties likely made the evasion of them less common in later years.

Combining the consumption figures for England, Wales, and Ireland, the total demand for bark in the 1720s and 1730s moved between 55,000 and 60,000 tons annually. This demand experienced a decline in the late 1730s and early 1740s, only to rise again over the following two decades, reaching around 70,000 tons by 1764.

80.000 Tons

Following a temporary decrease in the latter half of the 1760s, there was a general uptick in demand throughout the 1770s and 1780s. By the early 1790s, the annual demand had reached approximately 80,000 tons.

As demand grew, there was a concerted effort to find substitutes and a noticeable increase in bark imports. For most of the 18th century, imports were limited, usually intended for re-export to Ireland.

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However, the scenario changed in 1792 when 9,600 tons of bark were imported from Europe into England, although this trade was hindered by the war with France. In 1816, a year marked by economic downturn, imports stood at 4,500 tons, but surged to 43,000 tons within a decade, and by 1830, nearly reached 69,000 tons.

Taking into account these substitutes and imports, it’s estimated that English woodlands supplied a maximum of around 90,000 tons of bark annually around 1810-1815. By the 1820s, domestic production likely decreased to between 60,000 and 70,000 tons per year.

Napoleonic Wars

The reality about bark in the context of tanning was that it wasn’t cultivated specifically for tanning purposes but was instead a by-product of timber and wood fuel production. The process of bark removal from living trees inevitably resulted in their death, meaning tanners and bark dealers had to rely on bark availability based on external factors beyond their control.

Although peeling was easier on standing trees, it was more common to strip the trees after felling
Although peeling was easier on standing trees, it was more common to strip the trees after felling. Image Credit: Bewdley Museum

Consequently, bark supply was quite inelastic in the short term, leading to significant price fluctuations. For instance, during the Napoleonic Wars, when the demand for leather surged due to military needs, the price of bark skyrocketed, increasing more than threefold.

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However, with the war’s end in 1815 and the subsequent decline in leather demand, bark prices plummeted, sometimes falling below the cost of stripping it from trees in certain regions. Over the long term, bark supplies generally aligned with tanners’ needs, largely because both leather and timber were in demand for various domestic and industrial uses.

Wood Fuel Competition

The late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw an increase in timber demand, leading to more intensive cultivation of coppices and systematic utilisation of natural woodlands. As timber and wood fuel production increased, so did the supply of bark.

However, woodland areas often competed with other land uses, and the long-term commitment required for systematic timber production was not always a priority for landowners, especially when other crops offered quicker returns. Therefore, even in the long run, tanners couldn’t always rely on domestic sources to meet their bark needs.

Bovey Tracey Bridleway 30 running close to the fence that separates Oak coppices from the open moor onto which trees have spread. Image Credit: Derek Harper

These uncertainties in bark supply significantly influenced the strategies tanners employed to secure their necessary supplies. While some might have hoped for sufficient tree falls in their local area each year, such reliance on chance was not a viable business strategy.

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Most tanners required more bark than could be left to luck. Through some basic calculations, it’s possible to estimate the amount of bark an “average” tanner used in the early 1800s, demonstrating the scale of the industry’s reliance on this critical material.

6000 Tanners

In 1841, there were close to 6,000 tanners in England and Wales. A decade prior, tanners had used about 95,000 tons of bark, with a third of it being imported, averaging around 16 tons per tanner.

Estimating the number of oaks required to produce this volume of bark is challenging, given the variability in tree sizes and shapes. A forty-year-old oak typically has around 100 cubic feet of timber, yielding about 10 kilos of bark per cubic foot, which translates to around half a ton per tree.

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For example, in 1739, twenty oaks felled near Chartham in Kent produced 31 loads of bark, nearly 355 kilos per tree. By the early nineteenth century, eighty-year-old oaks used for shipbuilding yielded approximately 380 kilos of bark, in addition to bark from parts of the tree not suitable for shipbuilding.

Thus, an average tanner used the bark from at least three to four dozen mature trees annually, or even more from coppice oaks, which offered the finest bark.

The Tannery at High Shield, Hexham, Northumberland, England.
The Tannery at High Shield, Hexham, Northumberland, England. Image Credit: Oliver Dixon

The organisation of bark supplies by tanners can be illustrated through the account book of John Nicholson, a tanner in Cockermouth, Cumberland, in the 1770s.

Long Term Deals

In 1778, Nicholson purchased around 600 quarters of bark in twenty-one separate transactions from at least twelve different locations. Most of his suppliers were from Wasdale and Eskdale, 15-20 miles south of Cockermouth, but he also sourced bark from Bootle-in-Furness, over thirty miles away.

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His records from 1778-82 indicate regular suppliers, a common practice where connections between growers and tanners often lasted many years. For instance, Sir Daniel Fleming of Rydal Hall in Westmorland sold bark to James Dickson of Coniston in 1659, and nearly 25 years later, the Dicksons were still purchasing bark from Fleming’s estates.

Once the bark has been peeled, it was stacked in the woodland to start the drying process
Once the bark has been peeled, it was stacked in the woodland to start the drying process. Image Credit: Bewdley Museum

These longstanding relationships benefited both tanners and landowners. Since bark production didn’t directly respond to market prices, maintaining connections with suppliers was advantageous for tanners. Landowners, in turn, found a steady income from selling timber and wood fuel by-products.

Often, bark was purchased while still on the trees. In a 1721 agreement, Bryan Salvin of Croxdale, County Durham, promised to sell all bark from any felled oaks to Francis Hamson, a tanner from Durham City, at a fixed price.

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A similar arrangement existed on the Filmer estates near Chartham, Kent, where in 1719, it was recorded that Daniel Endesbury, a tanner from Southwark, agreed to pay ‘40 shillings per load for tan delivered to Mr. Hall’s Key in Maidstone’.


In 1723, a formal agreement was established between Sir Baldwin Conyers, owner of coppices in the Forest of Dean, and William Harrison, a tanner from Newnham in Gloucestershire.

Bark Peeling in the Wyre Forest, pre-war. The woodlands were never quiet. Image Credit: Mr Charles Purcell, Bewdley

Harrison received a 21-year lease for Conyers’ coppice bark at an annual rate of £60. Conyers committed to cutting an average of 2,000 cords of wood annually and permitted Harrison reasonable access to the woods. Harrison, in return, agreed to pay the rent biannually and to avoid damaging the coppices.

Another example of bark sales is seen in the agreement between John Bathurst, a coppice proprietor in Lychey, and John Probyn, a tanner from Wallastone in Gloucestershire. In April 1790, Probyn purchased the rights to an estimated 55-65 tons of bark on growing trees for £40.

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Probyn’s employees were allowed to enter the woods until the end of July to strip, dry, and remove the bark. Besides the initial £40, Probyn paid an additional £5 7s 6d per ton of bark harvested. In the Forest of Dean, the buyer commonly bore the peeling costs, a practice observed across southern England. However, in Westmorland, Cumberland, and County Durham, the sellers typically covered these costs.

Oak Bark Best Peeled From Standing Tree

The harvesting process involved marking the trees for peeling, and hiring carpenters and peelers to fell them and remove the bark.

Although peeling was easier on standing trees, it was more common to strip the trees after felling. Peelers used an iron ‘spud,’ a two-foot-long rod with a handle and a spade-like point, to remove bark pieces approximately two feet long.

Image Credit: Roger Baker
Good example of coppiced oak poles being peeled circa 1970. Image Credit: Roger Baker

The outer dead bark and lichen were scraped off, and the strips were left to dry in the sun and wind. In the 1723 lease between Conyers and Harrison, Conyers was to provide adequate light in the coppices for drying and a storehouse for storing the bark. The drying process took about two weeks, after which the bark was cut into smaller pieces for packing.

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By the late 18th century, the labour-intensive task of manually cutting bark was increasingly replaced by bark-grinding mills. The simplest mills consisted of a horse-powered grindstone moving around a circular trough. More sophisticated versions were water-driven, and almost any type of mill could be adapted for bark grinding.

Oak Bark Mills

From the 1760s, tanners in Cumberland began leasing corn, fulling, and hemp-beating mills to convert them into bark-grinding mills.

A lease from 1784 stipulated that other tanners in Cockermouth could have their bark ground at one such mill, with the condition that they pay a fair share of the labour costs, mill rent, repairs, and other expenses proportional to the amount of bark they processed. In fact, tanners who owned mills often acted as dealers, processing more bark than their tanning operations required.

Taking English, Welsh, and Irish consumption together, the total demand for bark during the I720s and 1730s fluctuated between 55,000 and 60,000 tons a year
Taking English, Welsh, and Irish consumption together, the total demand for bark during the I720s and 1730s fluctuated between 55,000 and 60,000 tons a year. Image Credit: Bewdley Museum

After the bark was harvested, it was transported to the tanneries, typically by cart and barge. The transportation costs were sometimes covered by the growers, sometimes by the purchasers, and occasionally shared between the two.

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For instance, bark harvested in the Weald of Kent in the early 1700s was transported at the landowners’ expense to Maidstone or Canterbury for purchase by London tanners. When John Nicholson of Cockermouth bought bark in the 1770s and 1780s near the Lake District, the price usually included delivery to Egremont, located about sixteen miles southwest of Cockermouth. In early 1800s London, bark prices generally included transport costs.

Huge Trade

The expenditure on bark by individual tanners was substantial. With an estimated annual expenditure of over £300,000 on bark in the early 1790s and assuming there were between 5,000 and 6,000 tanners in England and Wales, the average annual spending on bark was around £50 to £60.

For example, in 1778, John Nicholson spent approximately £300 on bark. In 1799, a Northampton tanning firm paid £354 for bark from Whittlewood forest in a single year, while another tanner spent £212 for bark from Salcey forest. In 1793, two partners in Gloucestershire purchased bark worth £533, and between 1792 and 1796, a tanner from Maldon in Essex paid £1,860 for bark.

The best bark came from the young trees of twenty years' grown in oak coppices. Image Credit: Roger Baker
The best bark came from the young trees of twenty years’ grown in oak coppices. Image Credit: Roger Baker

Extended payment terms were common; Nicholson, for instance, purchased most of his bark between May and August but recorded payments in his account book throughout autumn and winter. Similarly, during a bark auction in Lydney, Gloucestershire, in June 1785, the purchaser was required to pay cash for 10% of the purchase and provide sureties for the balance, payable by 25 December.

Raise of the Middleman

The procurement of bark was evidently not a simple affair, and the emergence of middlemen in this trade was an expected development, despite the existence of a statute from 1604 that explicitly prohibited such activities. This complexity and the necessity of dealers in the bark trade were thoroughly discussed in 1807 by a parliamentary committee, which was reviewing the enforcement and relevance of this long-standing legal restriction.

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The committee determined that the role of dealers was crucial for tanners, given the cumbersome nature of bark, its challenging transportation due to bulkiness and durability, and the perishable quality of the leather it was used to produce.

They also considered the generally insufficient supply of bark. Addressing this issue, a Board of Trade official, inclined towards a laissez-faire approach, pointed out the seeming unfairness of denying bark owners the benefit of middlemen, a practice permitted in virtually all other types of commerce.

This, he suggested, would likely lead the Legislature to reject any efforts to enforce the archaic prohibition.

By the early nineteenth century, eighty-year-old oaks used for shipbuilding yielded approximately 380 kilos of bark
By the early nineteenth century, eighty-year-old oaks used for shipbuilding yielded approximately 380 kilos of bark

Dealers in the Bark Trade

The involvement of middlemen in the bark trade, well before the time of the parliamentary committee, is evidenced by the preserved documents pertaining to Richard Jones, a bark dealer from Bermondsey in the early eighteenth century.

These documents provide valuable insights into the operations of dealers in the bark trade and highlight the broader role of small-scale traders in the eighteenth-century economy. While the papers mention Jones as both a tanner and a barkman, his probate inventory indicates that he primarily functioned as a bark dealer.

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Many bark dealers likely transitioned from being tanners, though others came from varied backgrounds. For instance, an anonymous dealer from Essex who supplied bark to London tanners in the 1780s and 1790s started as a carpenter before becoming a timber merchant. Similarly, William Clarkson, operating as a bark dealer in Lydney during the same period, was known as a gentleman.

All Walks of Life

Richard Jones, a notable figure in this trade, owned a modest two-room house in Bermondsey and also leased a room and stable in Guildford. He spent considerable time away from home, traveling across the heavily forested counties of Surrey, Hampshire, Berkshire, and Sussex to collect bark.

This region’s bark was especially sought after for its high tannin content, much of it being a by-product of charcoal production in the traditional iron-making districts of the Weald. The extensive area from which Jones sourced bark was essential to meet the voracious demand of London tanners, complicating direct transactions between tanners and woodland owners.

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Jones stored the collected bark in various barns before packing it into sacks, which were owned not by him or his customers, but by a Mr. Moore. Tanners were expected to return these sacks to Moore once empty.

In June 1770, Moore sternly wrote to a tanner in Southwark, demanding the return of his sacks and payment for their use, threatening to seek compensation for their full value since before Lady Day if not complied with. Jones and his employee dedicated significant effort to retrieving and repairing these empty sacks, a task critical for preserving scarce capital resources.

Oak Bark Barges to London

Once packed, the bark was transported to London. Carters, hired at a considerable cost, took the bark to Guildford, where it was loaded onto barges destined for London. Tracking these shipments from the Sussex woodlands proved challenging, and after Jones’s death, his executor believed the bargemen to be deceitful, as the quantities they claimed to transport didn’t match Jones’s records.

Bark was taken by road in carts, each containing at least two tons
Bark was taken by road in carts, each containing at least two tons, it was bulky to move to far. Image Credit: Bewdley Museum

Certain details of Jones’s business operations remain unclear. His exact relationship with woodland owners is not documented, and there’s an indication that Jones sometimes functioned as an agent for the growers rather than directly buying the bark.

The extent of his business is also somewhat ambiguous. After his death, 242 full sacks of bark were found at his house, with an additional 94 sacks in various barns across the country. One particular shipment is noted to contain just over five loads in one instance and 82 sacks in another.

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Given that each standard load was around two tons, it implies that each sack held approximately 152 kilos of bark. Consequently, at the time of his death, Jones likely had at least 35 tons of bark in his possession.

Forests of Surrey and Sussex

Despite these uncertainties, Jones’s role as a vital intermediary in the bark trade is evident. He procured bark from four counties, consolidating it into substantial shipments for the London market.

He efficiently moved the bark from areas where it was less valued, like the forests of Surrey and Sussex, to places of high demand, such as the busy tanneries of Bermondsey and Southwark.

By storing and transporting bark, Jones played a crucial role in managing the capital needs of tanners. Tanners located in rural areas without access to an organised trade network had to bear these burdens themselves.

Over a century later, a tanner from Somerset testified before a parliamentary committee about the necessity of maintaining a large stock of bark locally due to the unpredictable nature of its availability.

Market Collapse?

The market for oak bark in tanning didn’t come to a definitive end but experienced a significant decline starting in the 19th century. This decline was primarily driven by the advent of chemical tanning methods, notably with the introduction of chromium-based tanning in the mid-1800s.

These new methods offered a faster, more cost-effective, and consistent alternative to traditional oak bark tanning, aligning better with the industrial-scale production demands of the time.

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As the 20th century progressed, the shift towards chemical tanning became more pronounced, particularly during the World Wars, which necessitated rapid production of leather goods, a requirement that traditional methods could not fulfill. By the latter half of the 20th century, oak bark tanning had become a much-reduced niche in the leather industry.

It persisted mainly among artisanal tanners who focused on high-quality, specialty leather products. Today, while overwhelmingly surpassed by chemical tanning, oak bark tanning still exists, practiced by a small number of artisans.

It appeals to a specific market segment that values the unique characteristics and environmental sustainability of traditionally tanned leather. Therefore, while the market for oak bark in tanning has drastically reduced, it has not entirely ceased and continues to have a presence in specialised leather crafting circles.