The Gwent Local History Council was set up in 1954 to encourage public interest in local history, to bring together societies and persons interested in the study of local history, to arrange lectures and publish the results of historical research. Their twice yearly magazine "Gwent Local History" has made a valuable contribution to the store of historical knowledge. Here Caerleon Net, with the full agreement of the Gwent Local History Council, is making available many of the articles from this magazine relating to Caerleon.
Please note: copyright exists on all texts.
Enquiries relating copyright should be addressed to the Gwent Local History Council.
Gwent Local History No. 39, Spring 1975
by Primrose Hockey, M.B.E., J.P.
The fellmonger's task is to extract from the skins of dead sheep, goats, lambs and even dogs, such articles of use as wool, pelts, skins, parchments, vellums and chamois leathers. Such work requires very skilful and expert manipulation on the part of the fell-monger. Skins to be dyed are passed on to the tanner who uses oak bark in his processes of dyeing the skins. Caerleon once had both a Fellmongery and a Tannery. Records of both businesses are incomplete. The County Archivist has records of Deeds of Conveyance regarding the fellmonger's business which are dated 1821 and records of the Sale of the tannery to another currier in 1710. However, it is more than probable that both establishments were of ancient origin. During the Roman occupation of Caerleon, 5,000 men of he 2nd Augustan Legion were stationed there and leather sandals, required for these men, undoubtedly would have been made on the spot. Later, in Norman times, when the Abbey of St. Mary of Caerleon was built at Llantarnam, we know that the monks had large flocks of sheep and that thousands of bales of wool were exported annually from the port of Caerleon. The monks were efficient and lived economically so it is certain that, as nothing was wasted, the fellmonger and the tanner had a busy time during this period. Perhaps the present site marks the original one, for such crafts require an abundant supply of pure, fresh, clean water and the Caerleon site, standing as it does, on the banks of the Avon Lwyd, where it enters the River Usk, on the outskirts of Caerleon, had all that was necessary. For, as well as clean water, the daily tides would carry out to sea all sludge and effluents which were the residue of the trade.
As a schoolgirl during the first World War, I can well remember the stench of the skincart as, carrying its heavy, smelly load, and leaving a trail of blood behind, it journeyed past Llanfrechfa School on its way to Banner's Skinyard. The squeak of unoiled wheels heralded its approach and, even if the wind carried its strong aroma away, the sound was greeted with broad grins and nudges, as we held our noses whilst the grisly load went by.
Mr. W. Banner bought the fellmongering yard in 1905 and he and his sons carried on the business for sixty-two years. Originally, all skins were supplied to the yard by local farmers but, these becoming insufficient, Mr. Banner went to the auction marts in Pontypool. Usk, Monmouth, Abergavenny and Newport. At first they operated under Licence but upon the outbreak of war in 1939 the fellmonger's premises were earmarked by the Government, i.e. the Wool Control Department and later by the Ministry of Food, and were not released until 1952.
During this period, nearly half the fellmongers' yards in the country were closed down but some, like Caerleon, remained open. Those remaining were forced to pay into a "pool account" in order to compensate those firms forced to close down. The Ministry concerned was then responsible for the sale of all the wools and pelts as they were then Government property.
A visit to the fellmonger's was most interesting. Mr. Banner met us and took us on a tour of inspection. When the skins arrived, and that must be as soon as possible after slaughter, they had to be washed in warm, soapy water in order to be cleansed of all blood and soaked, to allow the skin tissues to swell to a living condition. Next, the skins were processed and cleansed with a paste made from lime and sodium sulphate. This fed the pelts and opened the pores so that the wool could be stripped from the skins. This was done in the Pulling Room where, in quick clever movements the fell-monger pushed the wool from the pelts. He graded it as he did so and, around the room were bins which held the different grades of wool. The wool was then taken to the drying room where later, when cooled and dried, it was stacked in bales ready for sale. Most of the wool from Caerleon went to Yorkshire to be made into cloth and blankets.
A paste made of Fuller's Earth or Whiting (calcium carbonate or chalk) was then rubbed into the pelts which were exposed to a moderate heat. The fat on the pelts softened and was easily removed. The pelts, now clean, were bleached by a weak solution of chloride of lime. Then they were placed in pits in the floor and were "pickled" in a solution of salt and acid (sulphuric hydrochloric). When the pickling process was complete they were then ready for tanning, which process was completed in the tannery. Before being dispatched they were classified into ten different grades and sent off to various leather firms for the making of fancy leather goods, parchments, vellums, leathers and glues. In no other material are such remarkable qualities found, for skins can be hard and tough as in saddles and boots, soft, pliable and flexible enough for use in fine needlework and smooth enough to be used as writing material.
In 1954 Mr. E. Banner competed in what was then a popular programme on television called "What's My Line?" He confounded the experts who had to confess that they had never heard of "fellmongering". On this occasion Mr. Banner said: "Fellmongering is a hard and skilled job, requiring much patience".
Alas! the patience of our forefathers is no longer with us. Machines now perform the work formerly done by man. The old fellmonger's yard is silent and deserted. Only the water goes on working as each tide, silently but relentlessly undermines a little more each day the bank, on which the skinyard and its buildings stand. One day they will disappear from view and all that now remains of this ancient craft of fellmongering, will be lost for ever.