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Mill Lane, Fire at Rea and Fisher's Oak Bark Tannery, 7 March 1905

A large crowd gathered on Mill Lane to watch the destruction of part of Rea and Fisher's large leather tannery; it caused several thousand pounds worth of damage. There appear to be children, teenage boys alongside men and women of all ages packed into a small area on Mill Lane. It is astonishing how close to the buildings the people were standing, although it looks as if the fire had largely been extinguished by the time this picture was taken.

Thomas Rea, the owner, was born in Arbroath in 1831 and he was an important public figure in the town. When he was elected to represent Godalming (South Division) as a County Councillor in 1889 he had already served as the town's mayor twice, having been first elected to the Corporation in 1857[1]. An advertisement in "The Standard" on 14 July, 1896 stated that the tannery was founded in 1801 and Thomas Rae had taken it over in 1869[2].The Oak Bark Tannery employed a large number of people and he had already spend £15,000 in enlarging the buildings which was a considerable sum for the time[3]. This fire would have caused hardship, at least for a short time, for some families.

Three newspaper reports describing the fire are below:

London Daily News, 8 March 1905
Early yesterday morning disastrous fire occurred at Godalming, the large factory Messrs. Rea and Fisher, leather merchants, being almost entirely destroyed. By the side the factory are a number of old cottages, which have been the subject of many artists' brushes. Through the exertion of the brigade these were saved.

Pall Mall Gazette, 7 March 1905
Disastrous Fire at Godalming.
A disastrous fire broke out at Messrs. Rea and Fisher's tannery at Godalming, this morning, the large factory standing near the station being completely destroyed, with the machinery and stock. The damage amounts to several pounds. Both the Godalming and Guildford brigades were engaged for three hours at the fire. Several firemen had narrow escapes when one of the large walls collapsed.-Central News.

West Surrey Times 11 March 1905
The Photograph taken by Mr. W. G. Fudger, of Godalming ... is an interesting picture, having been taken whilst the fire was actually in progress early on Tuesday morning. The engine of the Guildford Fire Brigade can be distinctly observed at work. The huge gable end is also shown above, under which the firemen worked at the risk of their lives, and the picturesque white-fronted cottages are those which for some time were in danger of being attacked by the flames. In the one farthest from the scene of the fire resided Mr. Shanks, who, on being awakened by his little daughter, first gave the alarm.

The tannery was to suffer another serious fire in February 1911 when the bark mill and tannery, both three-storey buildings, were gutted. The fire began in the boiler-house, but the cause was unknown. However, the damage, estimated at between £30,000 and £40,000, was considerable[4].

Thomas Rea would have known about the first fire, but fortunately not the second. In 1916 his company went into voluntary liquidation, with the creditors paid in full[5].

See some of the Rea family memorials at the Nightingale Cemetery.

"Fire at Messrs. Rea, Sons & Fisher's Godalming, March 7th 1905". Published by Craddock, Printer & Publishing, Godalming. Posted 6 Apr 1905 at Godalming. A message on the back reads: "at last I am sending you the promised PC of the fire".
Postcard in the collection of, provided by and © Ann Andrews.
Researched, written by and © Ann Andrews.
Intended for personal use only.


[1] Thomas Rea lived at "Bridge House" on Bridge Street for some years in the late nineteenth century. He was elected Town Mayor on several occasions. At the time of the 1861 census he was a butcher on the High Street called "The Golden Ox" and was later run by his son, also Thomas. By 1891 Thomas Rae's first wife had died and he subsequently moved to Braemar on Holloway Hill and married again. He was still a tanner. He died in 9 Apr 1910 and was buried at the Nightingale Road Cemetery on 9 Apr 1910. Information extracted from various census returns and trade directories. Another son, William Chalcraft Rea, took over the tannery (see Charterhouse Road (3), 1907).

[2] Janaway, John "The Story of Godalming" (1983) Local Heritage Books, Newbury ISBN 1 86368005 4.

[3] "Surrey Gazette", 22 & 24 January 1889. The County Councils.

[4] "Portsmouth Evening News", 20 February 1911. Godalming Tannery Destroyed.

[5] "Surrey Advertiser", 22 January 1916.

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Other pages mentioning Alderman Rea and the tannery

View from Holloway Hill

From New Way (2), 1907

Tannery employees, about 1910

The Mint & Mill Lane