Wednesday 22 May 2024
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90-bed student block planned above 15th century Nottingham leather tanning pits

A block of flats for 90 students could be built on top of a Nottingham site where dozens of medieval tanning pits dating back to the 15th Century were discovered.

Plans were first submitted in 2017 for several student flats on a temporary car park at the junctions of London Road, Canal Street and Pemberton Street.

Excavations took place in 2019 to determine what measures were required to mitigate the impacts of development on any archaeological finds.

During excavations 31 tanning pits, where animal hides were treated and turned into leather, were discovered.

The clay-lined pits date back to the 15th and 17th Century.

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More than 5,000 animal bones and fragments were also found, including cattle horns, relating to the production of leather.

“From the 13th Century up until the early 20th Century, the Narrow Marsh was a poor and overcrowded part of the city that was utilised for animal grazing, water transport and procurement via the Leen, waste disposal and numerous industrial activities,” a report from Trent & Peak Archaeology, now York Archaeology, says.

“Tanning was a major industry in the area, as indicated by documentary records and previous archaeological finds in the area.”

A total of 47 tanning yards were recorded in the area by AD 1664 and more than 100 master tanners were known to operate in the area by 1667.

The profession entered a period of decline afterwards, owing to the rise of the lace trade, and Narrow Marsh was converted into Victorian tenement housing before its clearance in the 1920s and 30s.

“A large complex of medieval to post-medieval (15th to 17th Century) clay-lined tanning pits, 31 in total, were identified on the site during excavation,” the archaeological report adds.

“Animal bone dominates the finds assemblage of this site, with more than 5,000 bone fragments recovered.

“The assemblage was dominated by sheep foot bones, attesting to large-scale processing of sheep skins on the site, a process known as tawing, or its immediate vicinity.

“Smaller amounts of cattle bones, of which more than half were horn cores were present, representing potential evidence of horn working and or leather processing.

“Horse, cat and dog bones may also represent animals used for their hides or fur.”

The accommodation block plans started life as a 67-bed scheme in 2017, before changing to 85 beds in 2021.

In 2022 a pre-application submission was made for a 100-bed block, and in May this year, a pre-application submission was made for 93 beds.

A full planning application has now been submitted by BNM Finley House Limited for 90 beds, with a determination expected in January next year.

Planning documents say: “The previous proposal, which seemed sensible when carrying out a contextual study, taking the neighbouring buildings as a guide, was initially deemed to be overbearing so the the massing has been reduced further.

“The pre-application process highlighted some issues and concerns with the initial design which were primarily centred around the height of the building, and window treatment.”

The designs of the block have since been reviewed.

The flats will be set out in four-bed clusters and feature kitchens, a café, study space, a cinema room, a gym and office space for management staff if approved by Nottingham City Council.

•  Demolition of office block for new flats in The Park recommended

The most crucial use of pits was during the tanning stage. Once the hair was removed and the hides were prepared, they were placed in tanning pits. These pits were filled with a tanning solution made from natural tannins, which were often derived from tree bark like oak, chestnut, or hemlock. The hides would be layered in the pits with the tanning agents and left to soak. This process could take several weeks to several months, depending on the desired quality and thickness of the leather.

Leather tanning in the 16th century was a craft that combined traditional methods with the evolving knowledge of chemistry and materials. Here’s an overview of how it was typically done:

Sourcing the Hides: The process began with the collection of animal hides. These were primarily from domesticated animals like cows, sheep, and goats. Sometimes, hides from wild animals were also used.

Preparation and Cleaning: The hides were first prepared by removing any remaining flesh and fat. This was often done using a sharp knife, and in some cases, the hides were soaked in water to soften them and make the cleaning process easier.

Soaking and Softening: After cleaning, the hides were soaked in water to rehydrate them. This soaking could last for several days and was essential for softening the hides and making them pliable.

Hair Removal: One of the most critical steps was the removal of hair from the hides. This was typically done by treating the hides with a solution that could loosen the hair. In the 16th century, this often involved the use of lime or other alkaline substances.

Tanning: The actual tanning process involved using tannins to convert the raw hide into leather. Tannins are a type of polyphenolic compound found in various plant materials, such as tree bark. In the 16th century, tanners often used bark from oak, hemlock, or spruce trees. The hides were soaked in a tanning solution made from these materials, which could take several weeks or even months. This process made the leather more durable and resistant to decay.

Finishing: After tanning, the leather was dried and then subjected to various finishing processes. These could include stretching, oiling, and dyeing. The finishing processes were crucial for making the leather soft, flexible, and suitable for various uses.

Craftsmanship and Trade: Leather was a valuable material in the 16th century, used for a wide range of products from clothing and footwear to bookbinding and harnesses. Tanners were skilled craftsmen, and their workshops were important parts of the local economy. Leather trade was also significant, with tanned hides being one of the goods traded across regions and countries.

Environmental and Health Considerations: It’s important to note that the tanning process in the 16th century was not environmentally friendly by modern standards. The use of lime and other chemicals, along with the waste generated, often led to pollution. Additionally, the work was physically demanding and could be hazardous to the tanners’ health.

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