9 March 2001

Love of leather more than skin deep for Ron

Leather is eternally

fashionable and today hides

are dressed by machines.

This was once the job of

craftsmen such as Ron

Hawkins, who told his trade

secrets to Lawrence Dopson

RON Hawkins, 75, has begun his 61st year as a currier in the leather trade still using the set of tools – sleakers (pronounced slickers) – which he had to make for himself when he entered his apprenticeship on Feb 1, 1940.

Today he shows visitors to the Walsall Leather Museum how he turns hides and skins into heavy leather for the hame on a harness, or soft leather for the Queens handbag, or leather as thin as silk for ladies evening cloaks.

&#42 Leather capital

It was inevitable that Ron should have started his seven-year apprenticeship with the Walsall firm of ET Holden. He is a native of the West Midlands town which had six tanneries in 1660, by 1700 was the biggest centre in Europe producing everything for the working horse and today is still "the leather capital of Britain".

He is the sixth generation of his family to work in the leather trade. "Weve served it for 225 years," he says proudly. And when he retired in 1990 he couldnt bear to leave it completely. Yet he does not romanticise his working past. "You stank," he recalls. "And it was very hard work."

At the museum he still spends the day among leather of all kinds and enjoys passing on his passion for it to school children who come in National Curriculum parties and other visitors. "My great grandfather was a currier. What did he do?" a 40-year-old mother wants to know.

"Curriers were mostly as mad as hatters," Ron declares, although denying he is such. He points out that there is a tomb of one who died in 1593 in St Matthews, Walsalls parish church on the hill, showing it is an old and honoured occupation. Eccentric rather than mad, perhaps.

"Im just going for a walk," fellow currier George Andrews told Ron once. No one heard of him for three days. "He walked to Plymouth in search of a job," Ron explains. "It was a fickle trade. Craftsmen were often laid off when the trade was flat, from November until March, when the spring fashions boosted demand. A gentleman currier would put on his frock coat and top hat and set off to find employment elsewhere, with his tools in a Gladstone bag."

In work the currier was no factory robot. "Ill get an edge on my knife," a fellow currier would announce when he came to the factory at 8am.

This done he would decide: "I dont feel like work today." Ten minutes later he would change his mind and get going "hell for leather", as the saying goes.

Each of the tools which Ron made as a teenager, carving his initials on the handles, does a different job in preparing the hide or skin.

"Hides from the cow upwards, skins from the sheep downwards," Ron explains to museum visitors. "You stand behind and push with them."

He likens the operation to smoothing crumpled washing from a washing machine and its final ironing.

&#42 Skin marks

To dress the leather the currier first uses his blade of lignum vitae, a very hard wood. Then he applies the one with a blade of slate to get to the bottom of the skin marks. The stainless steel pusher is the equivalent of the electric iron.

Ron has worn away two of the original three inches of steel by 60 years sharpening and rubbing. For the final polishing Ron went to the local graveyard to pick up a big, black pebble from a newly dug grave. "There were no mechanical excavators in those days," he says.

Ron had it spliced in two and mounted both halves to provide two tools with sharp surfaces. Ron and his colleagues treated 500 hides or skins a week. Nowadays machines dress 2000 a day from the 70,000 animals slaughtered a year.

Ron shows the long-lasting nature of leather with a pair of Horse Guardsmans boots. They originally cost £900 and on a tab inside one boot those who have successively worn it during its 200-year existence have written their names.

He also points out that leather is a product of farming which is constantly being developed. "There are leather bricks being introduced for flooring, because they are so warm.

"And now leather is even machine-washable – the Horse Guards wear it."

Ron Hawkins made all his own tools at the start of his career as a currier, including the hand board used to soften leather (far left). Leather comes in many guises from baby anaconda snakeskin to sheep skin made silk thin for evening wear (below).