Stembrook Tannery to Pencester Gardens

Maison Dieu circa 1830

Maison Dieu circa 1830

When King John (1199-1216) was on the throne Louis, the Dauphin of France (1187-1226 – later Louis VII 1223-1226), on 21 May 1216, landed at Stonar, near Sandwich virtually unopposed. He, and his large army, marched straight to London where the nobles, including many whom only days before were supporting the King welcomed him.  Louis quickly conquered half of England, including Canterbury and Rochester and then turned to Dover.

At the time, Hubert de Burgh (c.1160– 1243) was Constable of Dover Castle and he had remained loyal to King John. The Dauphin and his troops held the Castle to a siege that lasted four months that was ended by John de Pencester, after whom Pencester Gardens were named. It is also reported that they were named after another member of the family, Stephen de Pencester, who was appointed the Constable of Dover Castle and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1267 until 1299.

Hubert de Burgh established the Maison Dieu, more commonly referred to as the Town Hall even though it is no longer used as such, in 1203. At the time, the farmland of the Maison Dieu covered the east side of the Dour valley at the southern end of which was marshland approximately where Stembrook car park and Pencester Court are today. It is recorded that the family of William Hortin, Mayor in 1329, held this land and it was described as being between East and West Brook’s of the River Dour, from which the name Stembrook was derived.

In 1534, Henry VIII ended all religious functions at the Maison Dieu and ten years later the monks were evicted. The building was appropriated by the victualling department of the Royal Navy in 1552 and the lands belonging to the hospital were eventually sold by order of Parliament in 1650. They were eventually purchased by the Wivell family, passed to the Gunman family and then came into the hands of George Jarvis during the 19th century.

1907 map showing the location of the tannery,

1907 map showing the location of the tannery,

On the land held by the Hortin family the ‘odious trade’ of tanning, or the making of leather, took place. Traditionally, this was relegated to the outskirts of towns but close to a source of water for obvious reasons when the process is examined. In those days, dry, stiff animal skins would arrive at the tannery dirty with soil and bits of innards still attached. The first job was to remove the horns, which were sold to comb makers. Then a ‘fellmonger’ would scrape the dirt, loose flesh and fat from the hides. These would be soaked in water to clean and soften them.

The next process was carried out by ‘flayers’ who pounded and scraped the hides until all the dirt, flesh and fat were removed. Hairs were removed by soaking the skins in urine, collected by ‘scavengers’ from the town’s folks ‘piss-pots’. This stale urine loosened the hairs and ‘picklers’ would scrape them off. Once the hairs were removed the skins were soaked in vats of dog-pooh and other excrement, again collected by scavengers, and mixed with water.

The ‘tanners’ kneaded the soaked skins, usually barefooted, in the vats of tanning solution – diluted dog-pooh etc. This process was repeated many times and could take as long as seven years before the skins became supple. Finally, ‘stretchers’ pulled the hides into shape on frames, which were then immersed into ever increasingly stronger vats of tanning solution. The hides were then scraped by hand to get rid of the bloom, a white substance, before the skins were hung to dry.

By the 15th century, Dover boasted of a large and thriving leather industry making boots, shoes, gloves, collars, saddles etc. Much of this work was carried out in Last Lane on the opposite side of the Market Square from the Stembrook tannery. At the time, there were a number of other tanneries in Dover but by the end of the 18th century, there were only two. Stembrook was one and owned by Edward Jeffries. In 1792, at the start of the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), a mill was built on the Dour at Stembrook that adversely affected the already marshy ground where the tannery stood.

Not long after, a Military Road was laid from the Castle past the seaward side of the tannery to Western Heights that was eventually handed over to the Dover and Deal Turnpike Trust. Humphrey Humphreys, (c1770-1863) had come to Dover from Tenterden about the time the Wars started. He soon joined in the local politics becoming an active member of the Paving Commission. This had been set up by Act of Parliament in 1778, with the principal function of town management and included lighting and sanitation. In 1823, he married Caroline Baker by which time he was the owner of the Stembrook tanyard and the adjacent land.

During the 1820s a consortium of wealthy local businessmen most of whom were members of the Paving Commission, planned to convert the Military Road into the residential thoroughfare that became Castle Street. They paid Humphreys £2,000 for part of his land holdings. The remainder was bought by George Jarvis junior, the adjacent landowner to the north of the tannery that had once belonged to the Maison Dieu.

Humphrey Humphreys Gravestone. Courtesy Buckingham Town Council

Humphrey Humphreys Gravestone. Courtesy Buckingham Town Council

With this new found wealth, Mr. Humphreys’ moved to Buckingham, where he styled himself as a gentleman and was, in 1841, 1853 and 1854, elected the Mayor of that town. He died on 2 May 1863, aged 93 and was buried in a double depth grave with his faithful servant and friend for 50-years, Mary Ann Andrews, spinster, who had died on 8 March 1862 aged 72.

Humphreys’ son, also called Humphrey, continued to work the tannery. In 1851 a skin of a boar from Prescott’s farm at Guston, that had taken seven years to turn into good quality leather, was exhibited at the Great Exhibition in London. It was 2-inches (5cms) thick and afterwards given to George Coulthard a local boot maker, who made boot soles out of it.

George Jarvis senior had left Dover in May 1827 to become the master of Doddington Hall in Lincolnshire. His son, also called George, and his wife, Emily, lived in a stately house on what had been the Maison Dieu estate. Emily died on 6 March 1840 at the age of 24 and was buried within St Mary’s Church. A memorial to her can be seen by the north door. George senior died in 1853 and George junior sold all his landholdings in and around Dover and moved to Lincolnshire.

George R P Jarvis drawing of the site c1820-1840 - The Summer House is approximately where Pencester Road is now - Courtesy of Anthony Jarvis

George R P Jarvis drawing of the site c1820-1840 – The Summer House is approximately where Pencester Road is now – Courtesy of Anthony Jarvis

The Jarvis estate stretching from Maison Dieu House to the south side of what eventually became Pencester Road was bought by William Moxon (d 1865). On this land, he built Brook House and laid out Pencester Road.  In 1856 William Crundall senior (c1823-1888) bought what had been the Charlton paper mill on Woods Meadow on the west bank of the Dour. He converted the paper mill into a sawmill and used trees from the heavily wooded former Jarvis estate. The land became a meadow and over time tall poplar trees, copper beeches, and other fine trees flourished on the banks of the Dour and Crundall allowed the meadow to be used for school treats.

About the time of the Great Exhibition, William Mummery, from Deal, acquired the tannery. A keen businessman, he introduced many improvements in both methods and machinery. These included soaking the hides in limewater pits for about two weeks to soften and clean them of hair. The hair that was scraped off and used to make gelatine. In the tan pits, of which there were three blocks, one containing 65 pits the other two not so many, the skins were tanned. They were soaked in a solution of ground oak bark and water. The bark was a by-product of saplings used for hop poles. A financial statement of May 1887, the usual time when they were bought, shows that about 500 tons were delivered.

The oak bark was milled on the premises and as the hides went through each stage of the tanning process, the ratio of bark to water became stronger. Towards the end, ground valonea nuts from Sylenia were used to strengthen the tanning mixture. By this time, a specially designed machine of small brushes over which the hides slowly travelled removed the bloom. The hides were then dried in a large, warmed by airy hall, to complete the process were rolled with heavy brass rollers on a zinc surface until an even density, and solidity was obtained. As a side product, the tannery sold gelatine for sizing to be used in papermaking and for domestic purposes.

Maison Dieu House

Maison Dieu House

By 1861, William was employing 21 men and making a name for himself in local politics. He was elected Mayor 1865, 1866 and 1867 and lived in Maison Dieu House. He died in n 1868, and the business was taken over by his sons, William and Albert. William the elder brother, born in 1845, devoted his life to maintaining the success of the tannery. Albert Mummery, although helping to run the tannery, became famous as the Father of Mountaineering.

Crundall’s meadow was sold, about 1880, to Sir Edward Watkin, Chairman of the South Eastern Railway, who was planning to build a railway station on the site connecting a Channel Tunnel with St Margaret’s. Sir Edward had already started the exploration for a Channel Tunnel at the foot of Shakespeare Cliff, near to where Round Down Cliff  had once been – now Samphire Hoe. However, in July 1883 a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament held an enquiry into the proposed tunnel and declared that: ‘The majority of the Committee are of the opinion that it is not expedient that Parliamentary sanction should be given to a submarine communication between England and France.’   

Following the failure of the proposal, William Crundall senior re-purchased the site, making a nice profit. His son, Sir William Crundall, used the meadow as a timber yard but in 1881 offered it to the council for a new Town Hall. The decision went in favour of the building of Connaught Hall at the Maison Dieu instead. The council, however, did propose to create a bypass of Biggin Street/Cannon Street on the land, but then opted for widening both roads for trams – a scheme that Crundall was heavily involved in. Instead, he decided to create a cricket ground on the site but was abandoned when a rival consortium  laid out Crabble Athletic Ground.

Pencester Gardens today looking towards Stembrook Court were the Tannery once stood

Pencester Gardens today looking towards Stembrook Court were the Tannery once stood

William Mummery died on 8 January 1899 and the Tanyard was put on the market. Sir William Crundall, the Mayor, hinted that his land was still available and fellow councillors suggested that the council should buy both pieces of land and create park in the centre of town. However, George Bacon bought the tannery  so the proposal for a recreation ground fell through. Bacon ran the tannery until he retired on his 70th birthday in 1922 and the council bought part of the site. They also bought the adjacent Crundall landholdings and Pencester Gardens were created!

  • Published:
  • Dover Mercury: 17 & 24 October 2013

About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
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