The Skin Works: Bands of Brentford

by Gillian Clegg, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 11, 2002

What do the following have in common: the Book of Remembrance presented to Sir Winston Churchill on his 80th birthday, the printing and binding materials used by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, diplomas presented to graduating students and scrolls awarding the freedom of cities to distinguished men and women? They were all made from vellum or parchment which was produced in Brentford.

There have been tanneries in Brentford since the late 16th century. In the later 19th century there were two ‘skin works’, as they were called by the locals, both run by members of a family called Band who, intriguingly, do not appear to have been on speaking terms with each other. J Band & Son (later G & J Band & Son) produced parchment and leathers from a factory on the junction of Glenhurst Road and Boston Road, while H Band & Co, with works in Plough Yard (now part of Brent Way) produced finest quality parchment and vellum. This works was famous worldwide and was described as the last parchment works in Europe when it closed in 1983. The founders of the two firns were distant cousins who came from a long line of leather workers. The making of parchment and vellum was a craft, requiring skilled hands as well as machines. It took many years to learn the trade and the skills were often passed down from father to son, so the Band Factories employed several generations of Brentford people.

How vellum and parchment were produced
Parchment, which was made from sheepskin, was used for book covers, tennis racquet binds , labels and diplomas. Vellum, produced from calfskin, could be used for drumheads, banjo heads, lampshades, books, high-class diplomas, rolls of honour and regimental memorial books.

Taking skins from the lime pits

The skins were first washed in running water to remove dirt and blood. They were then steeped in vats of lime liquor to loosen the hair, which was then stripped from the skins on a special machine. The skins were ‘fleshed’ on another machine to remove any remaining fat or flesh and returned to the lime pits for some five or six weeks before being stretched on wooden frames to dry. Next it was the turn of the skilled workers who, using a half-moon shaped blade, scraped and shaved the skins to the required thickness.

‘Fleshing’, removing flesh and fat from the processed skins

The Glenhurst Road factory
James Band (1786-1860) left Coventry and set up a tannery first in Bermondsey in South London, before moving to Brentford in about 1859, according to a brief history of the firm. However, the factory at 2 Glenhurst Road does not appear in the directories for Brentford until 1872. It stood at the junction of Glenhurst Road with Boston Road, and its address is often given as Boston Road. The firm specialised in parchment and certain qualities of leather, chiefly those used by hatters for linings, for upholstery and for the linings of boots and shoes.

Skins, mainly sheepskins, were divided into two parts, the inner layer being used for parchment and the outer tanned for leather and sold to other firms for finishing and dyeing. Amongst other customers, the firm had large contracts for parchment from the Indian Government and from HM Stationery Office.

Stretching a skin onto a frame

James Band was succeeded by his son, another James (1825-1914), and his grandson George (1850-1919). George Band was a keen cricketer who played for the Boston Park Cricket Club, winning many of the club’s annual trophies. He was elected to the Brentford Urban District Council in 1896 and served for 14 years. His son, Harold, married Ivy Underwood whose family ran the hay and straw business in Dock Road, thus uniting two of Brentford’s prominent business dynasties.

Until 1910 it was Government policy to record all official documents on parchment and the Glenhurst Road factory was very dependant upon order from this source. When the policy changed from parchment to paper, the factory suffered a sudden loss of business and was forced to close down in 1911.

The Plough Yard works
The firm of H Band & Co Ltd was established by Henry Owen Band (1851-1939) sometime before 1890. Born in Bedfordshire, he moved with his family to Brentford in 1858. His father, James Henry, was going to work there with his brother, Martin, in a tannery listed as being in Brentford High Street in an 1874 Directory. When Henry and his brother, George, were old enough they too went to work for Uncle Martin who was a first cousin of James Band of the Glenhurst Road factory. After serving a spell in the army overseas, Henry Owen Band set up in business in Plough Yard with two partners, S A Brookman and T G Williams. History does not relate whether Henry Owen took over the business of his uncle, but he certainly took over an existing tannery as his son told a reporter from The Brentford & Chiswick Times in 1956, ‘These are the same buildings where the work was carried out over 150 years ago, the same vats, the same tolls and the men are from the same families’.

The firm specialised in producing the best quality vellum and parchment. One of its early customers was William Morris who asked Band to make vellum to his special require-ments for use in the books and bindings of his Kelmscott Press. This was known as Kelmscott vellum and Henry Owen named his house at 15 Somerset Road ‘Kelmscott’ in recognition of his important client. Band vellum products were also used in book bindings for the Royal family and for diplomas, scrolls, drum heads and so on. Not a scrap of material was wasted. Larger waste pieces were used to make gloves and items such as finger stalls; small scraps were sold to be bound together to make mops and cleaning pads and tiny pieces of vellum, parchment and even the dust from the machines were used to make fertiliser.

Henry Owen’s son Edward (1880-1948) took over from his father, also with partners Brookman and Williams, descendants of his father’s partners. However, Edward’s sons Henry C and Gordon, bought out the Brookman and Williams interests when they inherited the business on the death of their father. Despite suffering two severe fires in 1961 and 1964, which destroyed both stock and premises, the firm carried on until 1983, when it closed because the descendants of Henry C and Gordon had no interest in maintaining the business. When this happened, Phil Philo of Gunnersbury Park Museum, had the foresight to collect and preserve equipment and photos from the works for the museum collection.

Family Feud
Curiously, Edward Band (the grandson of George Band of the factory of James Band) knew nothing about the parchment factory of Henry Owen Band until he was an adult. This, despite the fact that he grew up in Brentford while that factory was still going strong, and that Henry Owen Band’s son’s home in Somerset Road was just around the corner from his own house in Boston Manor Road.In the history of the family, The George Bands of Brentford, Edward Band, who now lives in the USA, concludes that a major rift occurs between Henry Owen Band and George Band and the two families ceased to acknowledge each other. Henry Owen was a strict Baptists, donating money to build the Ealing Road Baptist Chapel and, according to his grandsons, strongly disapproved of George’s more liberal ways, blaming the closure of the Glenhurst Road factory on George’s ‘dissolute life’.

Local directories, newspaper articles and the family history, The George Bands of Brentford.

Gillian Clegg is the author of The Archaeology of Hounslow (1991); Chiswick Past (1995), and Clapham Past (1998). Her forthcoming book Brentford Past will be published in October 2002.

There is a remarkable short film made at Bands in 1939. It shows the process of vellum making. A clip is on the Pathe news website here

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