The unlicensed processing of animal skins was not allowed in medieval Sutton. Heavy fines were imposed by the Court Leet in 1549 - William Harman had cured or tanned two stomach linings of sheep to make parchment; John Hargreve and Ralph Gybbons, drapers, had sold sheepskins at Sutton market before they had been examined and the seal applied; Richard Fredsham and Richard Brokes, shoemakers, had cured shoe leather. There is no further mention of leather trades in the court rolls for the next eighty years, so perhaps these fines were effective.
Leather is made durable by processing the rawhide - cleaning it and then soaking it in tanning vats. The tanning liquid is made by boiling up the bark of oak trees - in the eighteenth century when trees were felled for timber in Sutton Park the Warden and Society sold them to a timber merchant, but only after the bark had been stripped off and sold to a tanner for a handsome profit. Usually the purchaser was from Walsall, an important centre of the leather trades.
“At Little Sutton stood a fairly spacious house, adjacent to which Mr. Kempson carried on the business of a tanner” wrote Riland Bedford in his 1890 History of Sutton Coldfield. Samuel Kempson was a gentleman tanner, named in a deed of 1759, and he voted in the 1774 general election. In 1833 Mr. Kempson’s trade was given as Tanner in a list of the members of the Warden and Society, showing that the family business lasted a long time. A plan of 1811 shows fourteen tanning vats on the village green at Little Sutton in front of Mr. Kempson’s house, filling the air of Little Sutton with their unpleasant odour.
Tanning at Little Sutton ceased when Kempson emigrated to New Zealand, but there was still a leather mill in Sutton. This was in Lower Parade, water power being used to beat the skins as part of the cleaning process; there were pools for washing the skins, sheds and drying grounds, but no tanning vats. This skinning business closed in the 1850s, and Sutton has since been free of the foul smells of the leather processing trade.