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History of the Fur Trade

Extracts from

'Sixes & Sevens - A Short History of The Skinners' Company' by Dr. Anthony Holmes-Walker

The early years

The Chinese are said to have prized animal fur more than 3,500 years ago, and the Romans adopted it as a luxury from the Greeks. This change in perception from fur as a necessity, for warm clothing, to fur as a status symbol marked the beginning of the fur trade. At that time the principal sources of the best furs were northern and central Europe. The Hanseatic League, with its network of towns situated around the Baltic Sea, was a powerful player and in the 14th century largely controlled the export of furs from Russia. The origins of The Skinners' Company are linked to the fur trade.

Regulation of the use of furs

In medieval times furs were considered such a luxury that their use was strictly controlled by a series of 'sumptuary' laws enacted between 1300 and 1600.  The London Skinners' Charter of 1438 enacted legislation to control the size of furs to be used, where and how they could be worn, and what type of fur might be used for edging and lining garments. Other items such as flasks, pouches, shoes, and saddles were made from skins.

  • Only high ranking clergymen allowed to wear furs
  • Ermine, sable, marten and genet reserved for royalty and nobility
  • The middle classes restricted to furs of a lesser value
  • The common folk allowed lambskins, cony (rabbit), and cat

Workers skilled in dressing skins and making articles from them developed craft associations or guilds, such as the cordwainers (shoemakers), saddlers (equipment for horses), glovers, and tanners. In the reign of Henry II (1154-89) these craftsman were described as 'pelliparii', 'peleters', or skinners. The early skinners did not own the skins, but in time the wealthier merchants bought stocks of raw skins, dressed them, made them up and sold them to customers in their own shops often located in particular areas. For example, there was a Skinners' Row in Lincoln.

The emergence of the London Skinners

The success of London merchants, using the River Thames for importing raw skins and exporting dressed and manufactured furs, meant that London became one of the world's major centres of the fur trade. During the 13th and 14th century the population of London virtually doubled, owing partly to migration from the provinces, and partly to the increasing flow of traders and craftsmen from European cities. Population increases led to more demand for fur, so much so that dealers only bought and sold skins, and employed others to dress and manufacture the furs. Merchant skinners were operating in England as early as 1250. The majority of the more important London skinners lived and traded in two localities - the area around Spital at the Shoreditch end of Bishopsgate Without, and the area between Cheap and the River Walbrook.

From their association with the church, the skinners appear to have formed several fraternities, part religious, part secular. One was formed from two brotherhoods of Corpus Christi, at St Mary Axe at Spital and St Mary Bethlem, near Bridewell, and the other fraternity at St John the Baptist, Walbrook, was dedicated to Corpus Christi, the title by which the Company of Skinners had become known. Membership of a fraternity gave protection through the ecclesiastical courts.

From 1285 onwards the London Skinners frequently petitioned the Mayor and Aldermen to appoint men as 'brokers in peltry' to serve as intermediaries with foreign merchants. In 1309 Edward II granted the 'commons' the right to an assembly - later to become the Common Council - operating alongside the Mayor and Aldermen. Surveyors of peltry on Cornhill were appointed in 1319.

Charter granted by Edward III in 1327

The original charter appears to have been lost, but there is a handwritten 17th century copy in the Company's possession. By this charter "Our beloved men of Our City of London called Skinners" were given the authority to control the quality of the furs sold both in the City of London and at fairs throughout the realm. There was a particular emphasis on the distinction between the sale of 'new' and 'old' furs - anyone caught passing off old furs as new was liable to severe penalties and the confiscation of the old furs.

The decline of the English fur trade

The popularity of furs led to over-hunting and depletion of supplies, and forest clearances deprived animals of their natural habitat. The scarcity of furs drove prices up beyond the level that London merchants were prepared to pay, and the Hanseatic League was increasingly shipping the best quality furs to Italy to get the highest prices, rather than England. Political disputes between trading nations were also a factor in the decline of the English trade in furs. Tastes were changing, and imported fabrics such as velvet, damask, satin, and brocaded silks - which could be tailored to show off the figure - meant that fully fur-lined garments were no longer fashionable, and wealthy men and women preferred to spend their money on fabrics of almost unbelievable richness. Glass windows and improved methods of heating in buildings also took their toll on the need for furs.

Trade diversification

In the 16th century furs were still worn but were no longer seen as a great status symbol.  Merchant Skinners who traded in other materials retained and increased their wealth, and none of the most prominent Skinners in the middle of the 16th century was a skinner by trade. In 1563 only one in five who held office in the Company was a skinner by trade, and in 1606 only fourteen out of forty Court Members were either working skinners, sons or apprentices of skinners, or 'skilful' in skins or furs. At the same time the Livery was largely composed of general merchants.