Professor Paul Salveson is a historian and writer and lives in Bolton. He is visiting professor in ‘Worktown Studies’ at the University of Bolton and author of several books on Lancashire history

The Bolton Evening News wrote in April 1977 that “every week the 470 workers turn 6,000 hairy, smelly hides into high-grade leathers for every purpose under the sun. Their products go to the ends of the earth for conversion into shoes, fashion wear, handbags, hats, brief cases, schoolbags.”

Within less than five years, Walkers’ Tannery had closed and those workers – my dad amongst them – were redundant.

Everyone brought up in Bolton prior to the 1980s will remember it for one thing – the smell. Curing leather was a very noxious business and if you worked in the limeyard – the biggest in the UK after it was modernised during the war - the smell would never leave you.

The business was founded in Bolton in 1823 by William Walker, from Co Durham. Initially it supplied the local shoe and clog-makers with good quality leather. However, there was a demand for leather belting to power the new textile machines being installed across Lancashire; the business grew rapidly.

The original tannery was in King Street. Tanning began at Rose Hill in 1850 and the ‘Walkers Empire’ took shape around the Rose Hill area, encompassing Nelson Street, Weston Street and Thynne Street.

Men at work at the Walker’s Tannery in Bark Street in 1962

Men at work at the Walker’s Tannery in Bark Street in 1962

The firm took over Bark Street Tannery, the first home of leather tanning in Bolton, in 1864. By 1945, Walkers comprised several complementary businesses, mostly based in Bolton – Dri-ped, Bolton Leathers, M.W. Leathers and Premier Hide and Leather.

The leather industry was a highly competitive business, with Walkers operating in a world market.

Hides were imported from across the world, particularly North and South America, South Africa, Ireland and Australia, with calf skins from Switzerland. Other imports essential for the tanning process came from France, Newfoundland, South Africa and Kenya. Leather exports went all over the world but particularly to the 50 or more countries making up the British Empire.

The company invested heavily in research. The new laboratory block, built in 1941 in Hartford Mill, was one of the most advanced in Europe.

During the war, production shifted to meet the demands of the armed forces. As well as providing the leather to shod tens of thousands of soldiers and sailors, Walkers produced specialist products for the forces which could withstand extremes of temperature.

The Walker family became very much part of the Bolton ‘establishment’, with successive generations playing an active part in the town’s affairs. The company exemplified a particular approach to business – a social partnership, through which the employees were encouraged to see themselves as part of a family.

During the war the company established a ‘joint production committee’ on which employee representatives worked with management to drive the business forward.

CARE: The Walkers football team from 1926-27 and (right) the Walkers Institute around 1945

CARE: The Walkers football team from 1926-27 and (right) the Walkers Institute around 1945

This approach was reflected in company pension schemes, encouragement of sporting activities and the ‘Walkers’ Institute’ on Green Lane which opened in 1918 and is today ‘Southfields’ pub restaurant. The football team kept going until 2000.

Retired employee Sylvia Kelly recalls the fun and camaraderie: “We all socialised together on a Friday night at the Walker Institute, along with trips into town to the Aspin and the Palais.”

The company set up a benevolent fund to assist employees and their families who were experiencing difficulties which – like the pension fund – had staff representatives on the board. For much of the company’s life in the 20th century it had a good relationship with the trades unions representing leather workers.

After the Second World War the company built its ‘Welfare Centre’ on Grant Street, one of the few buildings surviving from the old Tannery complex. I can remember the employees’ children’s Christmas parties in the 1950s.

Walker Institute football team, 1926-7

Walker Institute football team, 1926-7

Many workers from the Tannery fought in the two world wars. A total of 37 employees died in the First World War and 33 in the Second. Employees returning from active service in 1946 were treated to a grand dinner in Bolton Town Hall, hosted by the company chairman Alfred N Walker.

The group of Walker-owned companies after the war had a surplus of labour – 2,136 men and women were on the books for about 1,500. Many of the workers taken on during the conflict, mostly women, were out of a job but the company worked hard to find them alternative employment. Some men returning from the forces joined their wives at the firm.

Sylvia Kelly’s husband came home from the Far East in the 50s after a stint with the Royal Engineers and got a job in the planning department.

For all the family atmosphere fostered by the company, it was hard and dangerous work.

One Bolton News reader said “I knew a neighbour who worked at the Rose Hill Tannery for years. He was off work a good deal with a very bad hacking cough. He lived alone and looked very ill. He eventually got to be seen by a specialist who diagnosed that his lungs were infected by anthrax spores.

“I discovered that his work at the Tannery involved scraping, cleaning and preparing goat skins from Afghanistan. It seemed that port health and safety controls were not secure enough. He died before any compensation was settled.”

Sue Boffey’s dad, Ernest (‘Bud’) Lane worked at the Tannery from 1925, starting at the age of 12, until his early death in 1965, aged just 51. She said “He fought in WW2 for five years, and that was his only time away from the Tannery. He was father to four of us, my brothers were born in 1939 and 1941, then we two girls in 1950 and 1952. He was a wonderful dad and enjoyed his hard working life. Two of his brothers worked at the Tannery too, Thomas and Dennis Lane.

“I remember going to Christmas parties put on by Walkers which were great fun. When my dad died the cortège to his cremation stopped on Thynne Street as all the workforce lined both sides of the street to pay their respects to him. Walkers continued to support my mum for a number of years afterwards with hampers at Christmas. We enjoyed fun times at Walkers Institute too, my dad loved playing snooker and crown green bowls.”

The working environment might have made it an all-male preserve but that wasn’t entirely the case. Women were recruited even for the limeyard during the war and the last surviving woman in that department was Minnie Lythgoe, a much loved and highly respected part of the workforce, who retired in the early 70s.

Many readers had parents or grandparents who worked at the Tannery. Brenda Horsley said: “My Grandad worked there in the 1950s and he lived close by. I remember the smell of the tanning and behind the street there was an abattoir - you could hear the animals being shot. He was always called ‘Grandad Darlington’.

“My grandmother made him hand over his unopened pay packet then give him some spends. He smoked a pipe but had to do it on the doorstep. Women were indeed in charge!”

Carol Ann Richardson worked at Weston Street in the early 1970s and the work wasn’t for the squeamish: “The hides I handled had already been bleached - I cut them into measurements to make shin bones for dogs. These were passed to the other women in a tub and then rolled and knotted ready for the next women to put them into the oven and cook.

“I also used to cut cow bellies - they were made into small knots for ‘dog chews’ and then cooked in the oven. It was all women in that department. We worked at Weston Street and the hides came from Rose Hill. My boss was Ken Crook; I loved working there - special memories.”

Sylvia Kelly (nee Mooney) started at the Tannery as a young girl: “I left Derby Street school on a Friday in 1954 and – full of nerves - was taken by my mum the following Monday to start work at the Tannery.

“I worked there until 1966, firstly in the Trimming department then for a few years working for the manager, Mr Rex Evans.

“I missed working with the girls so much that I asked to be transferred back to trimming where I stayed until I left in 1966. My friend Barbara Haslam and I made the half an hour walk each morning in all weathers, ready to start work at 7.30am sharp working until 5.30pm with an early finish at 5pm on Fridays followed by our half an hour walk home all for the grand sum of £3 12/6!”

Richard Armstrong said “My father, Bill Armstrong worked at Walkers before and after the war, taking redundancy when the writing was on the wall for the place. He played for the football team during both periods then trained them.”

I occasionally visited my dad during the school holidays; I just wandered in off Nelson Street, nobody ever stopped me. The limeyard had a fascination for a young boy, with the lime pits separated by narrow aisles, themselves swimming with lime.

Woe betide anyone who fell in – and many must have done. A quick hosing down with cold water and despatching to the Welfare Office would have been required, and then back to work after a change of clothes.

The writing was indeed on the wall by the late 1970s. William Walker and Sons Ltd was taken over by the Barrow Hepburn Group in 1970 and the Tannery closed in January 1978, although there was an ill-fated attempt to revive the business a year later that didn’t succeed.

A member of the family dynasty, Mr Carton Walker, purchased Orrell Fold Farm, Bromley Cross, in 1963. It became The Last Drop Village, Hotel and Spa, a “unique and friendly four-star destination.”

The history of Walkers and Bolton’s leather industry has yet to be written, but it stands alongside other better-known industries for its importance to the town’s economy and its standing the world.

The men and women who worked there were a tough, friendly and resilient bunch. As Sylvia Kelly remembers “life at the Tannery was fabulous - everyone was lovely and friendly sharing old fashioned values and all worked together as a team.”

Those who managed to endure the dangers and smell were made out of strong and durable stuff – like the leather they produced. Here’s to their memory.

Details of Paul’s book Moorlands, Memories and Reflections, featuring aspects of Lancashire’s history, can be found at A new edition of his biography of Bolton writer Allen Clarke will be out shortly