Once the haunt of ‘clerks, shavers, blubberers, fleshers, dyers, tubbers and top-hatted wing-collared aproned craftsmen’, only the entrance gates with a carving of a seal remains of the old factory, a company which once employed about a tenth of all fur workers in the United Kingdom.
The sealskin trade originated from the discovery of how to remove the ‘top hair’ or long guard hairs and flourished from the subsequent rise of sealskin products to become highly fashionable in Victorian days. The seals were originally from Antarctic waters, but later from Alaska and Canada. Unhairing, dressing and dyeing were the main processes undertaken in the factory.
[T]he factory of C. W. Martin traces its origins to 1823, when John Moritz Oppenheim set up as a fur-skin merchant in the City of London. The business that he founded passed into the hands of F.A. Schroeter, who built the Alaska Factory in 1869, and then to Charles W. Martin and Emil Teichmann in 1873. From 1880 until his death in 1889, it was Martin’s alone. Thereafter it was a family partnership until it was incorporated in 1911, but members of the Martin family continued to direct the business.
As the seal trade became insufficient to support the firm on its own, due to a decline from over-hunting, Martin’s came to deal in general furs, and in their dyeing and reconditioning. A new head office was built in Upper Thames Street, in the fur district of the City. This was near the north end of Southwark Bridge and close to Beaver House, the last London headquarters of the historic Hudson’s Bay Company, which conducted fur-trading in North America. Trade once again expanded. The Martin-Blau fur-cleaning process was introduced, and Queen Mary’s Coronation robe was cleaned by Martin’s in 1937.
Rebuilding of the main Alaska Factory began in 1932 to the design of Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, whose contemporary buildings included the Firestone (sadly destroyed in 1980) and Hoover factories on the Great West Road, and Victoria Coach Station. The Alaska building that you see today dates from that time, with some post-war restoration, and is labelled ALASKA on the tower, where it once said MARTIN’S.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, the firm had 1,100 employees. The Alaska Factory suffered a serious fire early in 1940, caused by an electrical fault, and had a narrow escape from an unexploded bomb during the subsequent Blitz.
War work was undertaken on a large scale. No fewer than 345,000 sheepskins were processed for manufacture into flying suits for the R.A.F., plus 100,000 linings for flying coats. In addition, 140,000 of the sheepskin flying suits were reconditioned for the R.A.F. and 38,000 for the U.S. air force. Among more specialised tasks were the making for the R.A.F. of 3,000 hoods with special yellow colouring for air-sea rescue identification, and bunk rugs and clothing for Mrs Churchill’s Aid to Russia Fund. Winston Churchill himself was photographed wearing a Martin’s sealskin hat.
Much of the information here, and more, is to be found on a plaque outside the Alaska Building.