Transporting the Bark

After seasoning, the bark strips were loaded onto wagons and secured in place with ropes. Up to six horses were used to pull the wagons which took the load to the tanneries.  An account of the delivery of bark to Beacall’s tannery in Bewdley provides a description:

“There was a large tannery in Bewdley, at which in the season the arrival of wagons laden with bark from the neighbouring forest made quite a busy scene. I would see from my window a loaded wagon drawn up, from which the horses would be removed. Some one would strew a few slabs of bark by the side of the wagon nearest the river. A big man…would then emerge from the tannery armed with a crowbar. This he would place under the wheel, while another man held the shafts. A jerk, and over went the wagon; surely a clever if primitive method of unloading.”

J A Bridges, A sportsman of limited income (1910).

The bark was not used immediately but stored in a loft for use in the following year. Then the bark was then crushed, placed in pits and mixed with water to create a solution of tannic acid. The process of tanning could then begin.

Beacall’s, the last Bewdley tanyard, closed in 1928, leaving only a limited demand for the harvesting of oak bark. Bark peeling, nevertheless, continued to supply specialist tanneries outside of the Wyre Forest up to the present.

There were several reasons for the industry’s decline:

  • • The bypassing of Bewdley as a commercial centre by canals and railways from the late 18th century onwards.
  • • The advent of chemical tanning in Birmingham during the 1890s and the resulting decline in the need for vegetable tannic acid from oak bark.
  • • The reduction in the use of leather in many applications, such as horse and carriage fittings, containers and bellows.

Seasoning the Bark

The bark strips were stacked on racks with the smooth side downwards to prevent rain soaking into the bark and washing away the tannic acid. The process of drying or seasoning took from six to eight weeks.

Bark Peeling

After slitting the bark on the tree trunk, the peeler uses the large iron to remove the bark in strips.

Bark Peeling

Image: Man slitting bark in the Wyre Forest (1980s) [Image from: Bewdley Museum]

4. Bark Peeling (1)

Men were engaged to strip the bark from the trunks of trees. In this photograph a peeler uses a large iron to slit the bark of a tree trunk.

Bark Peeling Tools

Image: Barking irons, Wyre Forest [Image from: Bewdley Museum]

3. Bark Peeling Tools

Bark peeling was a task requiring the use of special tools, known as peelers or barking irons, which were forged by a blacksmith. Men used a rod made from a solid piece of iron which terminated in a flattened blade. It was around two feet in length and was used for stripping bark from the trunks of trees. Women used a smaller and lighter tool with a wooden handle and iron blade around one foot in length. It was used to remove bark from saplings and branches.

Work and Labour

Image: Bark peeling in Ribbesford Wood, Wyre Forest (early 20th century) [Image from: Bewdley Museum]

2. Work and Labour

The supply of oak for the tanning industry was managed by coppicing. Evidence of this can be seen in the background of the photograph. The harvesting of bark was one aspect of a wider system of resource management for the production of wood for furniture, poles, fencing and charcoal burning. Peeling was a seasonal activity conducted in the spring when young leaves were emerging and the sap was rising. Both men and women were engaged by workmen who wanted to use the wood for other purposes such as furniture making. In the Wyre Forest the harvesting season ran from 24 April to 14 June, immediately after Bewdley’s main cattle and horse fair.

Bark Peeling and Leather Tanning

Image: Man peeling bark in the Wyre Forest (1980s)

Photograph, Bewdley Museum

1. Bark Peeling and Leather Tanning

After slitting the bark on the tree trunk, the peeler uses the large iron to remove the bark in strips.

Bark peeling served the needs of the leather tanning industry. Leather was in demand, not only for footwear, gloves and clothing, but for a range of domestic and industrial purposes. These included furniture, book covers, horse and carriage fittings, containers and bellows for the metal working trades. Bark, especially oak bark, was an essential part of the leather manufacturing process because it contained tannic acid:
• It prevented leather from putrefying.
• It helped leather retain its strength and pliability.
• It improved leather’s ability to resist water.

The presence of oak trees in the Wyre Forest provided a raw material for the Bewdley leather tanning industry from at least the 16th century. Bark peeling continued into the 20th century, but as tanning declined so did the need for bark.

Bark Peeling

Text: Malcolm Dick

Image: Two women stripping bark from a small tree, Wyre Forest (early 20th century)
[Image from Bewdley Museum]

Women use small irons to strip bark from a small tree on the ground. The women first cut the bark with the iron and then worked it between the wood and the bark with a back-and- forth action (see photograph). The aim was to produce strips of bark between one and three feet in length which could be easily stacked and transported.


Bark Peeling was a long-established woodland craft which used the same techniques for centuries. It contained an essential product which was used to process animal hides before they could be turned into products for sale. Several 19th and early 20th century century photographs held in Bewdley Museum record the work of bark peelers and the tools that they used.