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Pearce Leather – gone, but not forgotten

This stunning Art Deco building was once home to W. Pearce & Co, one of the largest tanneries in England

W.Pearce & Co were renowned worldwide for the quality of their leather.  Their office and tannery, sitting just outside the city centre in Northampton, was built in 1939, at a time when there were 107,000 people employed in the shoe and leather industry in Northamptonshire*. The grandness of the building, with its opulent, of-the-moment design, portrays just how prosperous the British leather industry was in the first part of the last century. Sadly, the building now stands desolate, partially demolished, with the remainder waiting to be turned into offices and flats.

Pearce-Leather-Doorway

The Pearce Leather tannery is currently vacant, waiting to be turned into offices by developers

Founded in 1908 to produce leather linings for the shoemakers of Northampton, Pearce Leathers evolved to become a specialist in the manufacture of embossed leather, and had a host of prestigious British brands that it could count as customers, including Dunhill, Mulberry and Smythson. But sadly, W Pearce & Co closed in 2002, and the huge collection of plates used to emboss the croc, lizard and ostrich prints onto the skins, were sold off to India.

Pearce tannery

The Pearce tannery as it looked in the first part of the 20th Century

I recently met with Michael Pearson, the former managing director of Pearce Leathers, and grandson of the original founder, who showed me round the Northampton Museum of Leathercraft, where he is now a trustee. Many of the products in the museum are made using Pearce leather, and it is well worth a look if you are in the area and interested in the history of British leather.

Pearce Leather croc print

The Croc print that W. Pearce & Co. were famous for, coming out from under the embossing plate

Michael is clearly still very passionate about the industry, and that same passion has been passed down to his daughter Deborah, who has just launched a collection of leathergoods under the brand name Doe. Each one of Doe’s beautiful bridle hide bags uses a small piece of W. Pearce leather for their zip pulerl – gleaned from a substantial amount of sample books that Deborah’s father managed to save when his tannery closed. Hand crafted in one of the last remaining Black Country leathergoods workshops, the quality is beautiful, and because the swatches are available in such small quantities each piece is part of a very limited edition.

Pearce Leather

A photo in one of Pearce’s promotional catalogues from the 1980’s

It is very sad when you think of the industrial heritage that Britain has lost over the last decade or so, but at the same time, it is great when you hear about companies like Doe that are helping to revive it.

Doe-Leather-gold

A Doe Leather Clutch bag using W. Pearce leather for the zip puller

Doe will be one of the brands showcasing their work at The New Craftsmen Garage, which opens this Friday in Central London.

For more details about Doe visit http://www.doeleather.co.uk/

A Doe Leather make up case using Pearce Leather for the zip puller

A Doe Leather make up case using Pearce Leather for the zip puller

* Statistics from Studies in Industrial Organization published 1946

Comments

15 Comments

  1. Philippa Poulson on June 6, 2013 at 11:32 pm

    Northampton University builds on the history and expertise by offering courses in leather craft and the industry locally works closely with the fashion courses.

  2. Anna on July 2, 2013 at 10:45 am

    I studied fashion design at Northampton University in 2000-2003, where I came accross this gem. I did a course in hand carving leather, and also met the identity in print guys in the workshop around the back. I started working with them and produced hand illustrated, printed, leather handbags manufactured by Dunnes in the UK, I’d love to get back into it, but I cant seem to find a UK manufacturer that would be happy with the small quantities I need in the beginging, or the leather digital image guys. If anyone knows where I might track either down, I’d apprecite the knowledge!

    • on July 2, 2013 at 11:03 am

      Hi Anna
      There are still quite a few leather handbag manufacturers in the UK, but not so many tanneries. i also know of someone that can print on leather. Please get in touch via http://makeitbritish.co.uk/find-a-uk-clothing-manufacturer/

      • Ishtiaq on May 22, 2019 at 5:46 pm

        need some who can do embossing on to leather my die is 22 inch by 12 inch
        if you know some who can blind emboss on to leather
        Kind regards
        Hussain

  3. Kelvin Cheong on July 4, 2013 at 8:17 am

    Thanks for sharing, Kate. It’s heartening to know that good brands are being revived. I hope to learn more about these brands through this website. Since I specialise in the retail of English leather goods, I would love to contact Doe to see if there’s any business opportunities.

    Thanks!

  4. Paul Gardner on September 12, 2013 at 6:45 pm

    Hi Anna

    Pittards in Yeovil has a shop full of all sorts of leather that you would be welcome to browse if you were able to make it down to Somerset. (http://www.pittardsleather.co.uk).

    • Anna on September 13, 2013 at 3:06 pm

      Thanks Paul, that’s really helpful, I’m frequently down in Somerset!

  5. Barti Cox on April 25, 2014 at 10:43 am

    My Grandfather, who worked in the Northampton Boot & Shoe industry and spent time in the US to oversee the installation and running of British machinery a century and more ago, often used to complain about the Northampton Technical College assisting competition by giving away our industrial secrets to the third world. How right he was, and the same applies to all the other British industries that have allowed their souls to be sold so cheaply by our treacherous, corporate owned politicians.

  6. James hudson (Pearce) on June 11, 2016 at 2:20 pm

    My biological father is David K Pearce. I only discovered this when at the age of 36 I went to renew my passport and was told I needed to apply to the adopted children’s register. I had always been intrigued by the building and some of the specialist work they did there, particularly costume for movies . I have a family connected to this industry that I know nothing about.

    • Charles, S.B. Pearce on July 24, 2016 at 2:45 pm

      David K Pearce is my cousin. His father was my fathers ( Bernard M Pearce) brother. i have not seen him or sadly had any contact with him, since his wedding in the 70,s. Incidently i am also adopted

      • James hudson on May 15, 2020 at 12:04 pm

        Hi, I am just seeing this now.thanks for responding. I just wanted some family history really, there is a gap in my knowledge about the family which has been very secretive. How was it that you became adopted and what age were you told?

  7. Georgina Godley on April 5, 2017 at 3:34 pm

    I worked with Pearce Leathers in the early ’80’s. We made exquisite wallets from embossed leather, the metal plates were dating back to the 1920’s. One could choose from elephant, chagrin, pigskin, you name it, as well as beautiful Art Deco designs used on the Queen Mary and in Claridges on seating and handrails.
    The archive was dazzling and building one of the finest Art Deco buildings I have ever visited.
    I hope the directors boardroom cabinet, which Ali back to reveal shoe samples of leathers from about 1910 , still exists.

  8. Steve johnson on August 11, 2018 at 1:10 am

    My Grandfarther worked at Pearce in around 1918.
    I have some interesting very early staff photographs .

  9. Jenny McPolin on September 1, 2018 at 12:12 pm

    Where does Norman Pearce fit in? He was my father’s school friend. David Harrison.

  10. Kate Howard on January 20, 2020 at 9:17 pm

    Georgina Godley my Dad worked at Pearces from about 1979 to 1989 Mike Chapman?

    I think Norman Pearce was on the board of Directors with Dad. Micheal I think was the MD – I last spoke to Micheal 9 years ago when my Dad died.

    I have very found memories of Pearces and that amazing building.

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