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Occupations - Parchment Maker

Thanks to Ted Sumner for sharing his research into parchment makers and parchment manufacture. His RYALL family included several parchment makers from Bermondsey, one of whom settled in Brentford.

James Band and Sons moved into Brentford in 1859 and established a parchment making business: follow links at the end for more details of the family and local parchment making.

Bermondsey Parchment Making

It is clear that large quantities were being made in Bermondsey. This area had a long history of tanning and with historian Charles Knight's detailed 1842 description of the parchment industry in the area, it is possible to say with confidence that this was a major centre for parchment production.

From modern collections of parchment it is clear the material was still widely used well into the early nineteenth century for a variety of purposes. However parchment was predominantly used for legal documents, for example, being the material used for the custody of charters, patents, acts of parliament, commissions, chirography, deeds and recognizance's, all of which were kept by the 'Master of the Rolls' (Chambers 1728, 208, 507) as well 'cockets', which were forms for recording goods that had been taxed (1728, 242). Parchment was also used in the manufacture of pocket-sized memorandums (Sibly1808, 67), while parchment off-cuts were often used for the manufacture of glue (Smellie 1771, 456; Sibly 1808,112). With parchment being the material used for such a huge variety of products it appears clear that the industry must have remained of fairly considerable size, particularly with the rapid population increase between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries (Wrigley and Schofield 1981). Furthermore, the nature of the documents, recording; property, acts of parliament, tax, apprenticeships, licenses and so on, likely means parchment was a material of high status, it being almost exclusively reserved for high status documents. These were also documents often required to be kept for a long period of time, testifying to the view of parchment as a high status material and one of greater state of cultural and physical permanence. Furthermore, the demand for the products listed above can only have increased over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a result of the huge population increase that occurred over these centuries and the commensurate rise in bureaucracy and litigation. As time went on however, many of these documents were instead made of paper, but as we know for many modern large collections of parchment, the process was perhaps slower than many have presumed.

It appears that skinners and butchers almost exclusively flayed the skins, and then sold the skins either directly to tanners, parchment-makers, or to skin salesmen and fell mongers, who would then sell on the skins. Unfortunately, there is little in the literature on the exact process. It appears that many people could be involved in the sale of parchment and skins, with the materials passing through many places (and presumably geographical locations) prior to reaching the stationer.

However the records that do exist show that the skins were flayed primarily by butchers and skinners, then sold either directly to the manufacturers of skin-goods or to fell-mongers to sell. In London in particular, skins were purchased from slaughter-houses and then sold throughout the city by skin salesmen. It also appears that in many instances fell-mongers would also be parchment-makers. Despite laws preventing tanners from selling skins the laws did not extend to parchment-makers. Of the 17 individual parchment-makers listed, around 47% of them were listed as also being fell-mongers. This would have been of a significant benefit to parchment-makers as they would then have access to the specific skins required for the manufacture of high quality parchment. Furthermore, it would have allowed for two sources of income, a position not available to many others in the various skin trades, and perhaps necessary given the low incomes of many parchment-makers.

In conclusion, the skins were flayed primarily by butchers and skinners, then sold either directly to the manufacturers of skin-goods or to fell-mongers to sell. There are also many instances where the parchment-makers were both source the skins and use them to manufacture parchment.

Parchment-making was clearly a fairly highly-skilled trade. Prior apprenticeship training and an in-depth knowledge of the production was required to partake in the profession. Of parchment-making; at least within the city of London the trade earned a relatively low income.

Surrey Records show that 20 parchment makers were active in 1801-1850 and 42 (1850-1900). In the same period, in areas relevant to the Ryall's locale, the number of parchment makers were Bermondsey - 48; Newington - 2; Rotherhithe - 2; Walworth - 1 and Lambeth - 20.


Parchment Manufacture

Good parchment must be thin, strong yet flexible, and have a smooth surface.
(Ryder 1991)

There are a number of historic texts on how parchment was manufactured, although there are discrepancies in some of the more precise details. A particularly detailed description of the process from the period under discussion can be found in Husbandry and trade improv'd: being a collection of many valuable materials relating to corn, cattle, coals, hops, wool, &c. (Houghton 1728, 325-328) which has been summarised below:

Steps in parchment making

As stated, this is perhaps the most detailed outlining of the manufacturing process during the eighteenth century.



Brentford's location by the rivers Brent and Thames made it an ideal location for parchment makers. See notes about the related occupations of currier, fellmonger and tanner.

Jane McNamara has researched the Band family, parchment makers, who moved to Brentford in 1859.

Page published June 2022