Parchment Making in Havant
Parchment was made in Havant for the best part of 1000 years. Local tradition says that Havant parchment was used for Magna Carta and the Treaty of Versailles but sadly there is no evidence to support either. However Havant parchment was possibly used for documents for Winchester cathedral, early registers of St Faith’s Church, and a large proportion was exported to the USA in the latter years of the business.
The local area provided plenty of fresh sheepskins. The spring at Homewell provided a supply of water of exceptional quality which has rarely been known to dry up or freeze over. And presumably there was a skilled workforce through the centuries.
The first written evidence of parchment making in Havant is from the 1830 Trade Directory which lists Richard Power, Parchment Maker and Woolstapler at Homewell Lane. By 1847, Edward Stallard, Parchment Maker and Fellmonger of Buriton had taken over the Homewell Yard. His sons, George and Albert , became joint owners after his death.
The 1851 Census shows that 9 men and 4 boys were employed at the Homewell; in 1909 there were 37 employees. By 1936, the business had closed.
How parchment was made
Parchment is a beautiful material but making it was backbreaking and smelly. The sheepskins were delivered by horse and cart complete with the wool on them. They had to be delivered within a short time of the animal being slaughtered as the slightest hint of decomposition would harm the finished product. Luckily there were several slaughterhouses in Havant.
The skins, still with the wool on them, were put to soak in lime pits in the floor, known as pokes. These were filled with water from the Homewell Spring and lime was added. The skins were left to soak for 4-10 days to loosen the roots of the wool. The wool was then removed from the skins using a slightly bow-shaped knife with handles on each end. This required great skill because of the risk of cutting and ruining the skin. The wool was sorted and sent to wool markets to be used for spinning and cloth making.
Once stripped of wool the skins were put to soak in solutions of lime and water in the pokes. The solutions were of varying strengths and changed daily. This process took 3-4 weeks. The skins were then stacked in a pile to drain.
The skins were then split by the only machine used. This was relatively easy because the inner layer of skin (dermis) and the outer layer (epidermis) are separated by a layer of fat. Only the very tough inner part of the skin could be used for parchment. The outer skin, called the ‘skiver’, which was less tough, was made into leather for use in the manufacture of fancy light leathers for book bindings, gloves and similar.
Fat was then scraped from the skins ‘fleshed’ by the 2-handled blade. This was a particularly unpleasant task. The fat was then sent off to other producers to make soap, candles or similar.
The inner skin was stretched onto a wooden frame. The frames were of varying sizes with dowel like pegs at intervals around sides. Skin scrapings were placed round the edges of the skin to form knobs, known as pippins, over which slip knots were passed. The strings were tightened by winding the pegs at the edges of the frame to which they were attached so that the smooth white skin was stretched like a drum skin.
The inner layer of skin had last vestiges of fat removed by applying a solution of whiting and soda ash. The skin was then allowed to dry before being washed in hot water. There must have been some sort of facility for heating the water but there is no record of this at Homewell. Here the skin is being treated with boiling water, which takes out the animal fat and ‘parches’ the skin – hence the name ‘parchment’.
The skins were then dried in the air and the back (non-writing side) was shaved and levelled with a wire edged knife.
They were then coated with a solution of soda ash (to free any remaining grease) and whiting (absorbs grease), and left to dry. This was then washed off with warm water, and rubbed with pumice stone. The parchment, still kept in the frame, was set in the open air to dry and harden. If the weather was bad, the drying shed was used. The drying under tension fixed the fibres and made the parchment.
The parchment was then cut from the frames and cut to size for the customer. The whole process lasted a full 10 weeks and could not be hurried. Each skin was slightly different and the quality of the final parchment depended on the skill and experience of the workmen.
Attempts were made to update the process in 1928 when a steam driven machine for splitting the sheepskins was introduced.
However, the demand for parchment declined in the 1920s and 1930s as more and cheaper materials became available; and the ready supply of fresh skins was reduced as farming practices changed with the increase of frozen food from abroad. Places and regulations for slaughtering animals changed. The pool of skilled labour declined as more types of employment became available.
In 1936 the Homewell Parchment Works closed. G & R Carrell took over some of the buildings for many years. In September 1997 the site was designated with a Grade II listing. It has now been converted into retirement apartments.