As the old saying goes, 'One man's trash is another man's treasure'. Now while this story is not exactly about trash, it does cover a rather large, heavy and very awkward item that lots of people wanted but also had everyone scratching their heads as to what they should do with it.
The item in question, the last remaining, fully intact, oak leather drum in Northampton Town. Northampton is world-renowned for its history and heritage of producing some of the best, if not the best footwear in the world; an industry that's still active to this day, albeit on a smaller scale to what it once was. So what normally goes hand in hand (or foot in shoe, maybe?) with footwear? Hopefully, if we're setting the scene correctly, the obvious answer to most of you should be leather. Northampton used to have a thriving leather industry with many active tanneries in operation. Sadly over the years, they all closed down with Dickens Brothers Limited the last one to close, fairly recently back in 2017.
As a brief history of the building and business, Dickens Brothers was originally founded by William John Dickens in 1897. A true local entrepreneur with his own ideas on how things should be done. When the leather company John Dickens was working for decided to go with the then-new process of Chrome Tanning raw hides, he decided to set up on his own, hand stuffing or currying English hides back in 1897. It was later on in 1899 that John Dickens brought the land just off the Kettering Road in Northampton and decided to build the four-story Dickens Brothers leather factory and tannery. All financed by an initial £4000 loan.
The Dickens Brothers traded from the premises for over 100 years, steering through several difficult periods, always looking to progress the company forward. Export trade links were opened with North America and Canada in 1908 then they helped supply the leather needed for boots in World War One. Further export links to Europe were then added in the 1920s before the business once again helped fulfill the huge demand for leather boots needed for the Second World War - this time through a contract with another Northampton company Haynes & Cann, who made specialist flying boots for the RAF. Dickens Brothers were a proud, family-run business located in the heart of the leather, boot and shoe town of Northampton. They showed true grit, spirit, and determination in trading through very challenging times whilst always looking to diversify their business.
Lasting well over 100 years, it's fair to say that the Dickens Brothers had a good innings. However, with the ever-changing landscape of business and industry, their beautiful, historic building had seen it's better days and was sold on to developers to live out a different future.
When our Managing Director Chris Woodford got wind that there was a huge, 100-year-old, leather drum that needed a home or it would be dismantled, with the internal panels to be sold off in pieces - his local sentimentality, love of all things leather and inner madman took over, agreeing to welcome it into the Crown Northampton family - in one piece! Saying you'll take something this big, heavy and awkward in one piece is one thing. The planning and logistics that come with it are a completely different headache of a situation to deal with.
Powered by the ever-optimistic local legend that is Steve Culverhouse, a man who seems to have his enthusiastic fingers in every historic pie to come out of Northampton, his love of the town counties heritage is infectious. On the day of the move, the drum had already been removed from its fixings and edged towards the exit of the factory, over the period of several weeks. First, we tried to tip the drum over with a forklift, directly onto a flatbed truck that usually carries scaffolding. Steve was convinced it was going to work and his natural charm and character pretty much convinced everyone in attendance that it would work. It soon became apparent that it wasn't going to work, as it was too heavy and in serious danger of crushing the truck flat to the ground. New plan needed.
At this point things were looking pretty bleak until another Chris, from neighbouring business Lenart Motors, said he had a specialist truck that loads cars and he reckoned he could get it done. With payment agreed and the challenge accepted, Chris was like a man possessed and went at it immediately. Before long he'd managed to roll the drum onto his truck and strap it in. He slightly damaged his truck in the process but none of it seemed to be a problem, just another obstacle to overcome with ongoing remedial work taking place in real-time. What did seem to be a pretty big unforeseen obstacle though, was when we measured the height of the loaded truck and it came in around 20cm higher than the archway at the exit from the yard. Once again though, Chris was on it and without a moment of hesitation or conference, he just let all of the air out of the tires so we had the relevant clearance to just about scrape under the archway. Problem solved.
With the drum now out on the open road and causing a bit of a stir with passers by, all that was left was a fitting, slow procession through the historic back streets of the Mounts; once home to the most densely populated area of active shoe factories in the town. Its final destination was the storage area of the Crown Northampton factory. For now.
We're not quite sure what we're going to do with it now as that's still up for debate. One of the best ideas we heard in the yard was to use it as a specialist, converted Airbnb rental. Maybe with some British cream teas and a marching band thrown in to add to the experience. A bit crazy, but so was re-homing this drum so who knows. Answers on a postcard if you can think of anything better.
One thing we do know is that the drum is a true representation of a different industrial time in the town's history. Each one of the internal oak panels, magnificently tumbled and polished until they're as smooth as glass, tell part of that 100 years plus history from the Dickens Brothers leather factory and tannery. With that, a little bit of Northampton heritage has been preserved and will live to see another day. Still in one piece.
Thanks to everyone on the day for helping out.
Special thanks to Steve Culverhouse & Chris from Lenart Motors
Photography: Alex Natt