Subject Name: Thomas Tucker (b1805 – d1882)
Researcher : Jean Libaert
Little is known about the background to Thomas Tucker’s life, but he was to spend most if not all his working life in one of the key industries for Godalming in the 19th Century – leather tanning.
According to census records, Thomas was born in Plymouth, Devon, sometime between 1805 and 1809, but no definitive baptism record has been found (1, 2, 3, 4).
To say exactly when he moved to Godalming is also unknown, but it may be that his family chose to leave Plymouth after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 to find employment. One history of Plymouth notes that “The end of the war with France in 1815 was catastrophic as many men were laid off from the dockyard “ (5).
The 1841 Census is the first record found for Thomas. Age 34, he was lodging in Hart’s Lane (now Mint Street), Godalming with four other “leather dressers” (1, 6). Leather production and processing, otherwise known as tanning, had been a significant part of the Godalming economy since the mid-1600s (7). Tanning was named after the use of tannin, obtained from a solution of oak bark, in which the leather was soaked to preserve and toughen it (8). As a leather dresser, Thomas would have worked on the final stage of the tanning process, where leather was prepared for making into various products.
Thomas’ home was a very short walk from the Rea and Fisher Tannery in Mill Lane (9). However, it is not known if he worked there, as he could have been at a number of other leather works in Godalming (10). Most, such as the other large tanneries in Godalming at Westbrook and Salgasson Mills owned by R&J Pullman, were situated at or near watermills on the Rivers Wey and Ock for washing of the skins, although this was unpopular with the inhabitants as it caused serious pollution of the river. It was also said that a blind man arriving by rail would know when he had reached Godalming – by the stink! (10). One of the causes of the dreadful smell was the use of dog faeces and urine to soften the leather in the initial stages of the tanning process. In larger cities, including London, “pure finders” would collect dog faeces off the streets for sale to tanneries (11).
Thomas cannot be traced on the 1851 Census, although this could well just be an enumerator error because in 1861 he was noted living in Godalming as a “leather skinner”, involved in the initial part of preparing the hide for the tanning process by de-hairing, de-greasing, de-salting and soaking the skins (2, 8). Age 55 and unmarried, he was now lodging in the White Hart Inn, High Street, with two other “skinners” from the mills.
The White Hart closed as a pub in 1932. The original building is thought to date back to 1640, and has been retained as a listed building, now housing retail shops (12).
Ten years later, in 1871, he was still lodging at the White Hart Inn, but as a “leather dresser” again (3). He was noted as a 62-year-old widower, born in Plymouth. No record has been found to confirm a marriage anywhere in the previous ten years.
With seemingly no family to fall back on in his declining years, it was perhaps almost inevitable that Thomas would end up in the Guildford Union Workhouse. There are no records to indicate when he entered the Guildford Union, but the 1881 Census showed Thomas to be a 76-year-old widowed inmate born in Plymouth, Devon (4). His occupation was noted to be a “tanner grounder”. Tanneries were often associated with a facility for sharpening knives and other tools known as a grindery, which is likely where Thomas had been working (8). Perhaps this was an easier occupation for him as he became older.
Thomas seems to have been a lodger for much of his working life. Although by no means well off, in 1867 the average weekly wage for a tanner, currier or skinner, was 25 shillings (£1.25), which compared well with that of an agricultural labour on a wage of around 14 shillings (£0.70) a week (13).
Thomas died in the Guildford Union Workhouse on 21st April 1882 at the age 78, of “decay of age” (14). He was buried five days later at the Nightingale Cemetery, Godalming, in plot number 1392 in consecrated ground (15).
The tanning industry continued in Godalming despite R&J Pullman’s Westbrook Mill tannery suffering considerable damage from fires in 1887 and 1904, and the Rea & Fisher Tannery factory twice being devastated by fire in 1905 and 1911 (16). Production eventually ceased in the town when the last factory closed in the early 1950s (7, 10).
Note : Godalming Museum has produced over 100 short videos and images about the history of Godalming, including an informative video on Godalming’s leather industry which can be accessed via the Museum site at www.godalmingmuseum.org.uk/index.php?page=videos-on-facebook, or directly on their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/GodalmingMuseum/videos/245243126842747
1. Thomas Tucker 1841 England census for Godalming, Guildford, Surrey. Class: HO107; Piece: 1073; Book: 3; Folio: 25; Page 45. co.uk.
2. Thomas Tucker 1861 England census for Godalming, Guildford, Surrey. Class: RG9; Piece: 429; Book: 5; Folio: 108; Page 25. co.uk
3. Thomas Tucker 1871 England census for Godalming, Guildford, Surrey. Class: RG10; Piece: 815; Book: 5; Folio: 18; Page 29. co.uk
4. Thomas Tucker 1881 England census for Guildford Union Workhouse, Guildford, Surrey. Class: RG11; Piece: 778; Folio:91; Page 4. co.uk
5. A History of Plymouth. Plymouth in the 19th Century Tim’s History of British Towns, Cities and So Much More. LocalHistories.org
6. Parishes: Godalming A History of the County of Surrey. Volume 3 British History Online British-History-ac.uk
7. Godalming Wikipedia.org
8. Tanning (leather) Wikipedia.org
9. Map of Surrey XXX1.15 Revised 1895 Published 1897 National Library of Scotland Maps.NLS.uk/view/103316290
10. Historic Godalming, Rea & Fisher Tannery
Historic Godalming, Leather Works
Historic Godalming, Salgasson Mill and Westbrook Mill, Borough Road
Godalming Local Studies Library and GodalmingMuseum.org.uk
11. Pure Finder. Victorian England Occupations in City and Town org.en.wiki
12. Historic Godalming, 97-103 High Street (The White Hart)
Godalming Local Studies Library and GodalmingMuseum.org.uk
13. Mid-Victorian Britain 1851-1875, Geoffrey Best, published 1973
14. Thomas Tucker Apr-May-Jun 1882 England & Wales Civil Registration Death Index, 1837-1915, Guildford, Surrey, volume 2a, page 50. co.uk
Copy of original from General register Office GRO.gov.uk
15. Thomas Tucker 26 April 1882 Godalming Joint Burial Committee, Burials at Nightingale Cemetery 1857-2021 Godalming-tc.gov.uk
16. Disastrous Fire at Godalming 22 February 1911, Surrey Advertiser, page 4. co.uk / British Newspaper Archive