There are very few early historical records regarding the tannery in Ivybridge, but it is believed that it was in operation for the majority of the 19th century. It was located beside the corn mill in Fore Street, on land which once belonged to the ‘Royal Oak’ inn, originally the Three Tunns, the first known inn at Ivybridge. Following its demise, the land became available for other uses.
Documents record the sale of bark used in the tanning of hides to John Sanders in 1810. This gentleman was known to be the lessee of a newly built dwelling house in Fore Street, with a tan yard and offices. It is not known exactly how much of the complete tanning process, which converted raw hides into leather, was carried out at the facility in Ivybridge. Parts of the process required substantial quantities of water, so both a plentiful and reliable supply of water would have been factors in the choice of the site. Later records confirm that Sanders was permitted to share the water from the leat, that for centuries had powered the neighbouring corn mill, but it would appear the arrangement was the source of friction between the two operations over the years.
In the early nineteenth century villages typically had their own tannery, using raw hides from local slaughterhouses and butchers. These hides were tanned using principally oak bark. There was an abundance of oak trees to be found locally on the Blachford estate and Ivybridge woods. Bark was stripped from trees during the spring and summer and then dried and cut into very small pieces before soaking to produce a tanning liquor.
The raw hides, which had been previously processed in lime pits to remove the natural oils and hairs, were immersed vertically in tanning pits of progressively stronger tanning liquor solutions. This process would take around 3 months. The hides were then layered flat in large pits with more bark placed between each layer. They were then left for a further 9 months for an even tan to be imparted to the hide. At the end of the 12-month period the hides were transformed into leather and were ready for conversion.
By 1821 John Sanders was declared bankrupt and a creditor, Mr Robert Sanders, was awarded the assets of the business against outstanding loans. One can only assume that this gentleman was a relative of John given the scant amount of information. A few years later, in 1825, permission was granted for the dwelling house at the tannery to be rebuilt and this survived until the early 1990s when this area of the town centre was redeveloped. It was located on Fore Street with its entrance at the rear, approached from the main street through an arch between buildings. This arch remains today beside the current walkway to the precinct and known to the older generations as ‘Tannery Arch’.