My Leather Workers – Home and Abroad (part 1 of 3)

Picture of man
Picture of woman

Since the Middle Ages, Bermondsey had been a centre of English leather making. So it is hardly surprising that two of John and Louisa Sackett's sons were attracted to the trade.

During the 19th century raw hides were tanned in pits all along the tidal streams, and the pungent smell of tanning was ever-present. Craftsmen turned tanned leather into boots, shoes, saddles, reins, gloves and bags, and a hatting industry grew up, using the wool removed from sheepskins to make felt.

John and Louisa's second son, Vincent Edward, became a fellmonger. That is, he graded and dealt in the fleeces from sheepskins being used in the leather trade. He got married on 20th January 1828 at St. Mary, Newington, to Elizabeth Issell, who was born in 1806 in Shoreditch. On 24th June 1830, Vincent exercised his right by paternity to become a freeman of the Shipwrights' Company, although he was not a shipwright. It would have given him the right to conduct his own trade of fellmongering in the City of London, and this may be why he took up the freedom.

Vincent Edward and Elizabeth (Betsy) had ten children, but most of them died in infancy. This was all too common in Victorian cities where diseases such as diphtheria, measles, and cholera were rife. Three of their sons died at the beginning of 1838, which must have been a great tragedy for them. Their one surviving son, Vincent John Sackett, was apprenticed as a waterman.

My gt-gt-grandfather Henry Samuel Sackett was apprenticed for seven years from 29th November 1829 to his older brother Vincent Edward, the fellmonger. I have his apprenticeship indenture which gives the addresses of Vincent Edward and of Henry Samuel's father, John Sackett, both as Salisbury Lane, Bermondsey. They were still close neighbours in Salisbury Lane in the 1841 census, but by 1851 John had died and his widow Louisa was living with her son Vincent Edward in Perseverence Court, Bermondsey.

Henry Samuel was allowed to break a term of his apprenticeship indenture by marrying Martha Paterson on 13th July 1834 at St. Giles, Camberwell before the end of his seven years servitude. Martha was born in Bermondsey on 20th May 1816. The family was back at St. Giles, Camberwell, on the 2nd November 1834 for the marriage of Henry's older sister, Louisa Sarah, to John Arnold.

St Mary Magdalen, Bermondsey
St Mary Magdalen, Bermondsey, in 1830

Henry and Martha had five children, all born in Bermondsey. Henry Samuel was baptised at St. Mary Magdalen, Bermondsey, but no other baptisms have been found. However, a surviving piece of wrapping paper has listed on it their dates and times of birth:

Henery Samuel Sackett Born August 18* 1835 Ten minutes past 4 Am
James William Sackett Born Nov. 24th 1837 15 minutes past 6 pm
Edward John Sackett Born March 6th 1840 15 minutes past 6 pm
Martha Sackett born Nov. 9th 1842 ½ past 3 pm Died Dec 16 1842
Samuel Henry Sackett born Jan. 12th 1844 ten minutes past 10 Pm

These were years of great changes in Bermondsey. The docks had been expanding since 1821 and, as industry grew, increasing numbers of poor people flooded in. Overcrowding and insanitary conditions led to outbreaks of cholera, as many people drew their water supplies from ditches which also served as open sewers.

In 1834 Irish navvies were amongst those building the 878 brick arches of the viaduct which was to carry London's first passenger railway.

Railway bridge

Spa Road Station in Bermondsey was the first London railway terminus and the line to Greenwich opened on 8th February 1836. Soon there were four trains an hour, pulled by engines similar to Stephenson's famous "Rocket". In 1839 the world's first signal box was installed when the line to Croydon was opened. Further lines were opened to Brighton (1841) and to Dover (1842) and a passenger station was built in 1844 at the Bricklayers' Arms in Old Kent Road.

Brunel's Thames Tunnel
Brunel's Thames Tunnel

In Rotherhithe, Brunel's Thames Tunnel, begun near the Church in 1825, was finally opened in 1843. But perhaps Henry and Martha were too busy caring for a young family to visit this wonder! Fires continued to be a danger, with many warehouses stacked with flammable materials. My Sacketts probably saw the great Tooley Street fire of 1861 which raged for two weeks and caused £2 million of damage to Hay's Wharf.

Brothers Edward John and my great-grandfather Samuel Henry Sackett both became leather workers, but their apprenticeship details have not been found. Edward gave his occupation as currier (one who dresses and colours leather after it is tanned) when he married Eliza Vincent on 31st January 1859 at St. Giles, Camberwell, but subsequently both brothers worked as leather shavers.

In 1864 Samuel Henry married Emma Roberts, daughter of Thomas William Roberts, a hatter. Their marriage on 1st August 1864 at St. James, Bermondsey, was witnessed by Samuel's brother Edward John, and Eli Sackett — probably Samuel's cousin who died in 1866, but possibly his uncle.

I have a number of letters written by the brothers Samuel (Sam) and Edward (Ted) when they were working away from Bermondsey. Much of the following detail of their lives has been pieced together from these letters, which although unpunctuated and spelt phonetically provide a vivid insight.

After their marriage Samuel and Emma went to live in Worcester, but in a letter of 5th June 1865 Sam was complaining of low wages of 12/- to 15/-, and was planning to return to London.

June 5 1865
Dear mother and farther
I hope you will exquise me not writing for so long a time but whe have been very unsettled and I did not wish to send you bad news but you may expect to see us in london very soon for I shall never be able to do down hear for we can ardley get a liveing let alone save     Dear parrents I have wrote to Mr Stockall and also to Mr Mathews to ask if they are in want of a man    every thing is very dear down hear and how some of them live I do not now for most of the men only get 12 shilings a week     15 they call that good     ted as not answered my letter that I wrote but I hope you will do so as we have not heard from eny one scince we have been down hear     Emma sends her kind love and hopes your well as we are bothe very well so I can say no more at presant     I conclude with kind love from your affectionate son       S. Sackett
Mr. Sackett
At J. Hodnett    Baker     [may be Rodnett]
St. Clements St.
ps     please to give our love to all enquiring friends

The following undated letter was probably sent later in 1865, and indicates how easy it was to find somewhere to live at that time. No wonder they moved so often!

Dear Mother       I write to let you know that we shall be coming home next Sunday as I have received a letter from Mathews telling me to come to work     so try and look out for a place for us as we shall not go to Emmas mother     it will not matter wot sort of a place it is as we can soon leave it if we do not like it     I was sorrey to hear farther had been so ill but hope he is better now     hopeing you ar quite well as it leaves me at present
      I remain your affectionate son
         S. Sackett

By May 1866 Sam and his brother Ted were working as leather shavers in Germany. Ted's wife Eliza was in London with their daughters Eliza Martha and Alice Sarah, while he worked in Dresden, Saxony. Letters home described his life there, the cost of living, and the events of the Austro-Prussian war which he witnessed, including the invasion of Dresden by the Prussians in June 1866.

Dresden Saxony 21st May 1866

Dear Father & Mother
I send those few lines hoping they will find you Both in the enjoyment of good health wich they leave me at present thank god     i had a letter from Eliza on Saturday and was glad to hear that you have had a letter from my Brother Samuel     i would take it as a great favour if you would enclose it when you write as i should like to read it     i will be sure and return it when i write to you again     i have enclose a note for Eliza     please let her have it Directly as she will have to go into the City to get some money     Dear Father you will excuse my not writing much this time as i am afraid the letter will be over weight     i have to work and have got 7 very comfortable shopmates all of them Dutch for they will not have it here that they are Germans     there seems to be plenty of work but the war rumour has caused a little Depression     the News are more favourable and there seems a little more confidence     there will be a meeting of Parliament on Thursday and then we shall know how it is to be     the population of this city is about 160 thousand     they muster 25 thousand soldiers all young men varying from 20 to 28 years of age in fact the flower of the country     they are all in war costume ready for action at a minutes notice     Dear father this is a very clean city and the people are very fond of the English     provisions are about 25 per cent less than England     the Houses are all built of sand stone in blocks about the size of our Rubstones     they have a very neat appearance being composed so that they have an even surface     they are very large and strong     good Dry Tobbacco is 1d per lb     genuine common cigars 3 a penny     Beer 3 half pence per pint     there is a Common Beer Drank at half that price quite good enough to quench the thirst at work     whiskey about 3 pence a Half Pint     Rum 6 pence a half Pint     good congniac around the same price     all Pure for they do not know what adulteration is here     this is a Protestant country although the King and Royal family are Catholics     people are very particular in going to Church in the morning of Sunday but the afternoon is Devoted to recreation     i mean rational such as musical and vocal concerts the Theatre is open in the Evening     i went with Wicks and his wife yesterday afternoon to a concert     it cost three pence admission     about thirty musicians     it commenced at four and lasted untill ¼ past 7     Rich and Poor Dressed in their Best but no sign of Drunkeness although liquor are so cheap     Dear Father Call upon Mr Ashley and give him my and Mr Wicks respects when you write i should like to know how the turn out at Mr Goodmans Ended     he will tell you     Mr & Mrs Wicks wishes to give their respects to Mr Lampton & his wife and mother and hopes they are all well     tell Alfred Ashley he need not trouble about that as i will see to it     perhaps you will be kind enough to go to the man and Explain to him     Dear Parents i must now conclude     hoping you will write soon and believe me to be your ever Loving Son
      Edward Sackett
PS give my love to Jem Mr & Mrs Mare and Best respects to all enquiring Friends (Don't forget Sams letter

Dresden    Saxony    June 27th [1866]

Dear Father and Mother, i Now at last am able to send you a few lines hopeing they will find you all in good Health as i am Glad to say it leaves me at present     i should have rote Before but No Letters Could be sent away from dresden Owing to the Railway Being Broke up But as it is all Right again [i] take this Opportunity Off Doing so     this City was in a terrible way Owing to the people hearing that the Prussians were within half a days March of Dresden and sure Enough they where but so far from being dissordly Or anything Of the kind as the inhabitants thought a More quirter lot Could not possibly be     that was Owing No dout to the Saxons having left the City and fell Back into Bohemia     Me and Mr Wicks went out to see them and i dare say there was at least 1 hundred thousand Marched into this City Besides Cannon     i have heard talk of war and Read of war But Never thought i should be so close to it as i am now as we are Right in the Midst of it     there has been a bit of a scirmish a little way off as we saw several wounded soldiers Brought into Dresden     We have just heard that there has been a terrible Battle between the austrians and italians     you would be surprised if you were to hear the rumors that goes about     we was told by an English Woman where Mr Wicks gets his tea and sugar who has been in dresden 30 years and knows a Great Many of the Upper Classes that there 1600 of wounded soldiers being Brought into Dresden and Peoble went round collecting old linen and such like but we have not seen any of them yet although we dont know how soon we may for the people Expect there will be some dreadfull slaughter shortly as they are making preparations for it in all the quarters of Saxony throwing Earthworks and all that kind of Business     the soldiers was at work all Night and we hear that 2 Bridges that crosses the River Elbe are Undermined ready to be blown up should the austrians be to strong for the Prussians and they have to Retreat     the soldiers Head quarters are close to our house     i say our house but i might say our Castle for Most of the Houses are all Built of Great stones exactly like our rubstones and there are upon average 40 People in one House     When the soldier came in they were billited upon the People and every house had 6 soldiers and upwards for i must tell you that the Houses are not let to one person but every floor is let to one Party who again lets it to others     there is a man who lives at the bottom of the house who is called the houseman and he has to look after the whole of the house     for i must tell you that all the Private Houses compell to be shut up at 10 oclock at night     the passages are all stone and stone staircase and at night if you have anybody stop after 10 you have to go Down to let them out and lock the door after them and with a candle in your hand it sounds just like walking through a vault     the reason houses are built of stone is because stone is so very cheap here     8 weeks ago Me Mr Wicks and a Man Mr Wicks got acquainted with in Dresden who can talk Both English and French and German went up the River Elbe in what they call a Dampschift that is a steam Boat although Not quite so wide as our own to what they call Saxon Swiss Because it imitates the swiss Mountains and of all the sights it was imposible to describe it     there were Millions of tons of Stone in fact Great Mountains as high as Saint Pauls with thousands of fir trees growing upon them     there were some pieces weighing upwards of 500 tons where it had been blown away by Gunpowder and thousands of stones allready squared ready for the small vessels at the side of the river to take away     Certainly it was a sight I shall long remember
Dear Father and Mother i must now say something concerning myself which i am sorry to say are Not so pleasing as i should wish     hour factory has been closed these two weeks owing to the governor Not being able to send any goods away and not knowing one houre from another but the streets will be filled with armed troops     it fact all the people had orders to close their shops and premises and in consequence we have had no work but we drawd 10 shillings each week and with the 10 shillings per week i have sent home has thrown me back again and i must tell you that the Place is Not so good as i thought it was for the People on the Continent do not pay so much for their work Unless they have got a man from England at the first starting but i shall rite to Mr Wilson at Munich in Bavaria to see if there is a chance of Getting a Job as i feel sure they shave them wet and Pay London prices     i have rote another letter this morning to Sam as it is 4 weeks since i rote to him But i had an answer from him last and he was all right again as he had been very queer     i have sent a note to Eliza which perhaps you will be kind enough to take to her     She tells me her voice is No better and that she can get No work     i should have thought this would have been the time to have been verry bussy     i have asked her to let you have the tickett of the table and any other ticketts she dont want     i dont know but she thinks i am doing better than i am which god knows has been bad enough owing to the war and having to Borrow money at the Commencement and one thing and another and i am sure and Mr Wicks knows the same     no Mortal could have been steadier than i have been     Dear Mother if i can help it i dont want to come Back to England for at least a twelvemonth and as it would cost 8 Pounds to bring Eliza and the Children i have told her she had better stop where she is     in fact i could not send for her for where is the money to come from     for now i am half afraid the governor will say some Morning that he cannot send any More Money to England as i never give him above 3 Pounds     But i shall be able to tell you after i have rote to Mr Wilson and had an answer what i intend doing     when you rite tell me all the news you can about trade as well as yourselves and tell Jim he must not be offended at my not riting to him as i thought he would hear through you     So now I must Conclude with my love to you Both Jim and Bidsy [?] and all Enquiring friends     Give my respects to Mr and Mrs Mare and Mr Ashley and Believe me i Remain your affectionate son
     Edward Sackett

ps. Please Get Mr Mare to rite me a note to tell Me what he thinks about the Club as i am afraid i shall be Obliged to give it up     in my Next i will let you know how Sam and all the people is getting on where he is as i have rote to ask him for all Particulars     More in my Next if I can find more to say

Meanwhile, Sam and Emma were in Freiburg, where Sam had a serious dispute with his employer over a stoppage in his wages. This he described in a letter to his brother—presumably Edward in Dresden.

Freiburg     July 22 / 66     write soon

Dear brother     I recived your unexpected letter but very welcome one for I thourt you would not write untill you recived an answer to your last but I thought I would not write untill I coul tell you better news     you must know that on yesterday (Saturday) fortnight when I went into the counting house for my money they stoped seventeen guldens wich is 28 shilings and 4 pence and of course I asked them what that was for and they said you was away two days and you have not been hear untill severn oclock in the morning for wich we stop a quarter each morning     I said very well I shall go to Mr laskers house about it     I went and he said he knowed nothing about it but he would see when he came to the factory on Monday     well on the Sunday I thought I would go and have advice about it     so I had my letters translated into german and went to a lawyer and when he read them he laughed and said he must pay me every farthing and if he offered me eneything less than what he stoped I must not take it and that I should go to him and lett him know what he said about it     well on Sunday evening I recived a letter from Tom Ashley and he said he would not come under three pounds per week and all expences paid for three months     I went to laskers house with it on Monday morning and he said he wanted to much monney and wilest I was at his house a mesenger came for him for the fudgers had gone to the burgermaster and the burgermaster told lasker he must send them home to england     well on the same Monday morning I recived a letter from you and the one enclosed from mr wicks for mr lasker and when he came back from the burgermasters I gave him mr wicks letter and when he read it he said it is the same thing over again meaning the letter was the same as tom ashleys     I then asked him for the money that was stoped and he said that the rules of the factory was that all that was not ther at six in the morning should be stoped a quarter but he said as you have been hear at severn I wont stop more than the hour each morning and for the two days that you was away     I must hear tell you the reason of my stoping away for the two days     of course I have not had enough shaving to do about th place     so I went and done some scouring and setting [?] and sprained my wrist and it was so bad that that was the cause of my stoping away     well when lasker offered me the money I told him he must give me the full amount that was stoped and told him that I did not come hear to work week work or yet do aney other work than kid calf     only as i had nothing to do I thought it would be better than standing about doing nothing and that wat other work I done was nothing to do with my money     for all the work I done other thankid calf I done for nothing and not for the money I recived     a he said very well     if you think it proper to go to law you must     that is all     so I left him and went with an english teacher that lives hear to the lawyers and told him what lasker said     the lawyer then said you must go to the factory every morning for a fortnight and ask him for kid calf to shave and then at the end of that time go and ask him for your fourtnights pay and the seventeen guldens     well I went and one morning in the week we got to pretty high words I can tell you and he said I know I must pay you your money for the twelve months but on the other hand you must get hear at six in the morning     well the fortnight finished last night so that I have not done eney thing for this last fortnight for when I go ther and ask for kid calf it is only a matter of form for I knowed at the same time that he had none to give me     well I went ther last night and asked for my money     the clerks said they had recived no exess to pay me and that mr lasker is in Paris     so thal the lawyers will sue him now for the six months and one weeks money and the severnteen guldens     the lawyer says that if I think proper to work eney where else I can do     so that in the morning I am going round to see if ther is aney thing to be got hear to do untill the job is finished     the teacher that went with me to the lawyers was the same one that read my letters to lasker the first time ther was a row with the fudger and he heard lasker say that he would act up to the agreement and he is a man that is very much respected hear having been hear fourteen years as an english teacher     he is an english man and he translated my letters for me     this lawyer that we went to is reasoned the best one hear and when I offered him some money he would not accept it     he said that he would make lasker pay him more than I could pay him     so that the next time I write I hope I shall be able to let you know more about it and a little better news     the young fudger and his wife and brother whent home on Tuesday week last     the old man and his dauter and the old woman are still hear on acount of the old woman being ill but she is much better now and when lasker comes back they will go home     allso the old man as been doing a little work in the factory at th german wages     Dear brother I am very glad to hear that you are doing better than you have been and I sincerly you will continue to do so and hope you will keep steady     I should have sent you last Sundays paper with this only the little puss got at it and tore it so but I dare say we shall have another next wendsay and I will send you that     you aked me about the letter     yes it had enough stamps on it as I have not had to pay eney extray for eney of your letters     emma sends hear love to you and hopes you are steady and in good health and you must not forget us when you write home     dear brother give best respects to mr wicks and tell him that I am very glad to hear that he was got another engagement and I hope him and his wife is in good health     I must now conclude with my and emmas loves from your affectionate Brother and sister
      Sam and emma Sackett
        Please excuse the writing and all mistakes

Did Sam end up suing his employer? Did he ever get the pay he felt was owing to him? Unfortunately, the outcome of this dispute is not known, but it evidently did not put him off the idea of working abroad.

Saga 5 part 2 >