The English Leather Industry during the long 19th century

Supervisory team: Matthew Collins (Archaeology) and Leigh Shaw-Taylor (History) both University of Cambridge); Dr Graham Lampard, Assistant Curator, National Leather Collection)

Despite the importance of the leather industry, its history has been largely overlooked and most of the evidence has been collected in a fragmentary manner. The studentship will be based both at the National Leather Collection (Northampton) and the University of Cambridge, Department of Archaeology, (Collins) and supported by Leigh Shaw-Taylor (HPSS).

The doctorate will explore three aspects of the leather Industry during the long 19th century using the National Leather Collection which was established in 1946 and funded by the Livery Companies to document a by-then declining industry. 

  1. The economy of leather, combining published research with data from the Livery Companies archives, and contemporary trade journals, supported by occupational data and data from trade directories.
  2. The experiences of tanners both as individuals and members of an industry that was often derided.  The PhD student will contextualise oral and written archives within the legal framework of the industry, benefiting from the Museum’s close association with the Livery Companies and their active volunteer program, which includes leathercraft and experimental reproduction.
  3. The material culture of the industry, using the Museum's collections which reflect all aspects of the industry (notably from the long 19th century).  As part of their studies PhD student will be encouraged to explore biomolecular and image analysis, for example, to establish using proteomics the extent to which leathers are actually made from the species claimed such as ‘chicken skin’. Indeed, historical evidence suggests that ‘kid’ glove leather was in the 1950’s made from sheepskin. 

Today, the museum is trying to grow a new generation of leather crafts and hosts workshop spaces and the Leather Conservation Centre. Working in this thriving interdisciplinary environment, the Museum will offer object handling/document handling training (for working with the museum collection and archive), document handling at, for instance, the Leathersellers Company. Potential opportunities for learning about leather production and technology, through attending short courses. Attending relevant international leather conferences, e.g. International Leather Conference in Ethiopia in 2021, regional leather conferences in India, China, America and Europe. Leather-crafting to help understand the material culture, leather conservation and restoration opportunities.

The candidate will be provided with desk space in a shared office, offered links to the seven Livery Companies and space and resources to mount an exhibition for the final year of the project. At Cambridge, they will have access to the resources of the University Library, researchers in History (and if required) laboratories in Archaeology. The lead supervisor in Cambridge will be Matthew Collins (Archaeology) and the student will join the Beasts to Craft Project ( which seeks to explore the materiality of another skin product, parchment. Matthew is supported by Leigh Shaw-Taylor (History) Director of the Occupational Structure of Britain c.1379-1911, senior lecturer in eighteenth and nineteenth century British economic and social history and director of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, who will act as a co-supervisor.