During the 14th and 15th centuries, the job of a warrener was often dangerous. Large gangs of poachers roamed the countryside, leading the warrener to build what were effectively mini-fortresses to house him, his family and his rabbit skins. Punishment for poaching was severe. In 1813, Robert Plum and Rush Lingwood entered the warren of Thomas Robertson, of Hockwold, and took one rabbit. Lingwood was sent to prison for 2 years and Plum was transported overseas for 7 years! The warrener would dry out rabbit skins in the lower storey, while his family and his nets and traps would be housed above. Nature also provided many predators that the warrener would have to protect his rabbits from – foxes, weasels, stoats and polecats often ventured onto the warren.
Brandon was rich in rabbits, therefore it became the centre for the production of fur for the felt hat trade. A local family, the Rought-Roughts, started production in Brandon in the late 1790s. Trade prospered and such was the demand for fur that a second business, run by the Lingwood family, was able to open and prosper in George Street in the late 1850s. Such was the demand that there were not enough rabbits locally, so the factories imported skins from all over East Anglia and Scotland, eventually bringing them in from Australia and New Zealand. The skins were packed in dozens (12 skins) and five dozen equated to a ‘turn’. Mr Basil Rought-Rought once suggested a skin supplier from Wisbech would regularly supply 30,000 dozens to the Brandon factories!
Making felt from fur
- On arrival skins were first sorted in the SORTING ROOM into varying grades of quality – the finest being ‘BEST WILDS’, then ‘FIRST RACKS’, ‘SECOND RACKS’, ‘SUCKERS’ and finally ‘MITES’. After being sorted the skins were then threaded into strings, thirty or half a turn to a string. These were then hung up in drying bays to be dried by the wind.
- The skins were then taken to the OPENERS, who would dampen down the skins to make them pliable. Then with an OPENING KNIFE they would cut off the head, legs and tail. Any dried fat was scraped off the belly with the aid of a RAKE. After opening, the skins were again stretched out, originally by the use of a HAND HOE but in later years this was done by machine.
- After stretching, the skins were dried overnight then tied in their turns and taken to the CARDING ROOM. Here the skins were carded (combed) on a carding machine, then another machine would brush them. This was the most skilled job in the factory.
- The skins were then returned to the sorting table, where they were divided into those to be PULLED and those to be SHEARED.
- The next process was the CARROTTING SHOP, where by dowsing the fur skins in a mixture of water and mercuric acid, the fur was converted into felt. Special clothing had to be worn by the staff working the carrotting machines. Originally this was performed by hand and called POT CARROTTING using a carrotting brush.
- One of the last processes was to separate the fur from the skin. This was done in the cutting room where the skin was fed through serrated rollers, the pelt falling into a box and the fur coming out beneath the feed rollers. This was a very hazardous job, even in WW2 a woman named Ivy Dixon lost a hand in Lingwood’s London Road factory when it was taken into a cutting machine machine.
- The fur was then folded into a ball or LOCK and stuffed into 5lb bags for U.K. customers or 5 kg for continental clients.
No part of the animal was wasted. The pelts (skins) went for glue and the tails, feet and ears, discarded by the openers, were used for manure on the hop fields of Kent. Even the guard hair was used as manure on local gardens and allotments.