The Leather-Bound World of Connolly

The Leather-Bound World of Connolly

IN THE late 150s and early ’60s, almost 85% of the hides processed by Connolly Bros. (Curriers) Ltd., the household name in the leather industry, were sold to the motor industry, but today this has dropped to 60 to 65% of their 10,000 hide weekly throughput, a reflection on the increasing use of synthetics in car upholstery. Man’s oldest material, and the most natural material he can place near his skin, has fallen from favour in the lower echelons of the car market, where the products of ICI, Courtaulds et al. are cheaper and easier to churn out in the demands called upon by extensive mass production.

The situation does not worry Connolly’s, who felt that they were in a precarious position in those happy motor industry days of yesteryear; a sudden change in demand could have smashed all the eggs in that one basket. Today, the fortunately gradual reduction in demand has been well-cushioned by increasing business from furniture manufacturers and many other outlets to give them a far safer spread should any market shrink overnight in these precarious times. This 100% family-owned company, now in its 97th year, remains proud of its continued connections with the motor industry, with which it has grown up in parallel and must be pleased to see that the status of leather in the motor car has, if anything, improved, for its use today is concentrated upon the luxury car market. The continued use of Connolly leather by Rolls-Royce, still the epitome of luxurious comfort, confirms that there is no substitute for the real thing: the hide from seven to nine cows ensures the interior opulence of each of their cars. Jaguar, Jensen, Aston Martin, are all users of Connolly leather in whole or in part, as are some smaller specialists, though it is disappointing to hear that the Club-like interiors of the Solihull Rovers are gradually losing their traditional smell of leather-upholstered quality in favour of synthetics.

A chance meeting at the Motor Show with Tony Hussey, one of the third generation family men now running Connolly’s (he through his mother’s side of the family) led to an opportunity to follow the path of the hides from their entry in the tanned state to Connolly’s factory alongside the River Wandle (no, not Womble!) in Wimbledon to their despatch in fully-finished form from the company’s head office and warehouse in Chalton Street, London NW1, between Euston and Sr. Pancras stations. At Chalton Street too is based the restoration unit under Ken Cole, of particular interest to many of our readers, whether they own a 1905 Darracq, a 1974 Rolls Corniche or a leather-upholstered chair, for leather requires regular and careful husbandry to make the best of its fine qualities.

Tony Hussey was able to provide me with a potted history of this interesting family firm, which was founded by the brothers Samuel Frederick, formerly a medical student, and John Connolly in Euston Road in 1878. Each had been left £1,000, which they had put into what is believed to have been the first “while-you-wait” shoe repair company, a fact which annoyed their conventional competitors, who retaliated by breaking their windows! They branched into the selling and eventually into the making of harnesses; S.F. used to load a pony and trap full of samples, tour round the South Coast taking orders and then dash. back to the workshop to complete them. This brought the Connollys into contact with the leading coachbuilders, who began to buy hides from them for carriage hoods, wings and dashes. Soon they were employing teams of experts who visited the coachbuilders, Hansom cabs in particular receiving their attention, wetted hides being shrunk on to the bodywork by means of a crude form of “dope”. From exterior leatherwork, Connolly expanded into upholstery for horse-drawn vehicles and railway carriages. When coachbuilders turned their attention to “horseless carriages”, so too did the Connollys, but it was Frederick Ignatius, the eldest of S.F.’s four sons, who joined the firm in 1912, who pushed them properly into the world of the motor car. Now nearly 80, Fred Connolly was not only a friend and contemporary of such pioneers as Herbert Austin, William Morris, Starley, Wilks and Sir William Lyons, but in many ways an architect of the motor industry as a neutral confidante of them all. Elected to the Council of the SMM and T in 1930, he was the Society’s Treasurer in 1936 and President from 1948 to 1950. As Chairman and Managing Director until his retirement a few years ago his speciality was sales. The other three brothers are still in harness, backed up by the younger generation: Joseph Eugene (Gene), now 77, looks after production and buying; Edward Philip (74), a Past-Master of the Worshipful Company of Coachmakers and Coach Harness Makers, a Past-President of the Institute df British Carriage and Automobile Manufacturers and a Past-President, Union Europeenne de la Carrosserie, concentrates on costing; and Wilfred (71), described as “an extraordinarily gifted engineer” looks after the technical side of production.

Tim Connolly, son of Wilfred, is the current Chairman and Managing Director and takes care of production and sales to the motor industry. My guide, Tony Hussey, son of the four brothers’ sister, is responsible for sales to the furniture trade (as was his father before him), public relations, advertising, architects and interior decorators. David Connolly, son of Eddie, is on the export and financial side of the business, while young Joseph Connolly, son of Gene, is currently following the family tradition of being trained in every aspect of the business, working from machine to machine. It is a firm which has thrived and continues to thrive on nepotism and there is every sign that the “clogs to riches and riches to clogs in three generations” saying will not come true in this case!

Tony Hussey, a motor racing fanatic, transported me from Chalfont Street to the Wimbledon factories in his Triumph Dolomite Sprint, to which he is devoted and which is beautifully upholstered in Connolly leather rather than the standard Bri-nylon cord, of course, thus providing him with an opportunity to demonstrate and explain the advantages of leather. (Tim Connolly too is a satisfied Triumph owner, in his case a 2.5PI, though the company’s acquisition of a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow as payment for a bad debt is allowing him to sample the ultimate in Connally luxury, at least for the time being.) How do you distinguish leather quickly from some of the exceedingly natural looking modern plastic imitations? Leather warms up instantly to your skin temperature if you hold your hand against it, whereas plastic feels cold initially, takes longer to warm up and doesn’t retain warmth so well. Tony admits to having quite liked the Sprint’s original Bri-nylon upholstery around town, but disliked it on longer journeys. Leather’s major attribute is its ability to breathe, which it does even better than wool. This means not just its permeability to air but its permeability to water vapour, so allowing the absorption of perspiration and warmth. Thus it feels warm in winter and cool in summer, yet doesn’t become hot and sticky. On the other hand, whilst it absorbs water vapour it doesn’t readily absorb liquid water, so rain will not harm it and a damp cloth can be used to keep it clean. Other advantages are that leather doesn’t tear easily; it ages very slowly; if looked after it will last the lifetime of the car, but if it does deteriorate, within reason it can be renovated; it has an attractive appearance; it fits and shapes well for upholstery work; it has a pleasant odour which has become synonymous with comfort, quality and taste.

Many of Connolly’s hides come from Scandinavia where the quality is better because the cattle spend most of their lives inside to escape bad weather. Nor are the Scandinavian hides threatened to the same extent with damage from barbed wire or warble fly, those horrible little grubs which burrow their way through the hides. Size largely depends on the age of the cow—the older they get the bigger they grow but the more damaged they get—though the average is 45-50 square feet. The largest hides come from Southern Germany and the largest ever seen by Connolly was a vast 120 sq. ft.

From the abattoir, where the cattle are skinned, the hides pass to the hide market or a fellmonger, from where they are bought by the tanner. From the tanner they pass to the currier, which is where Connolly Bros. come in. Their purpose in life is to prepare and finally finish them before selling them to the leather-using trades. Curiously, the hides are sold by the piece from the abattoir, sold by weight in the hide market, sold by the tanner to the currier by length and finally passed on from the currier by the square foot. At the tannery any remaining flesh is scraped from the hide, soaking in chemicals loosens the hairs at the roots and these are then scraped away, leaving the characteristic leather grain. The tanning process itself, in which the hide is soaked in numerous other chemicals and oils, the mixture depending upon the softness required from the leather in its eventual application (saddlery as distinct from clothing, for instance), is to make the leather last without rotting and to give it some degree of colour fastness as well as to control the softness and feel. At the tannery too the hides are split, the top part being the leather hide as we know it and the bottom the suede, or “split”, as it is known in the trade. Connolly’s have their own tannery in Canterbury, but buy from other sources too.

The stiff and dry tanned hides arrive at Wimbledon in seven-foot-long bales of about 25, each of which is given a total of 12 inspections and code-stamped to denote quality, source, date and so on. Very badly damaged ones are rejected—the Connolly “black museum” includes hides peppered with buckshot and others torn to ribbons by other cows’ horns. The first process is to soak them in water to make them workable, using a machine designed by Wilf Connolly, which, like the rest of the processes, draws water from the artesian well beneath the factory, a geological accident which doesn’t, however, absolve Connolly from paying water rates! Machines with fast-revolving, blade-covered drums trim the hides to a consistent thickness. This varies, upholsterers demanding usually 1¾ mm, thickness while some leather goods manufacturers require 3 to 4 mm. and clothing manufacturers as little as 0.8mm. Waste shavings are sold to a fertiliser manufacturer.

The hides receive a secondary tanning in a battery of huge vats revolving like fairground wheels. Hides for the garment trade are dyed right through in the same process, because the edges of the leather will be exposed in the clothing. Afterwards most of the water is squeezed out in huge mangles before the critical stretching and drying process. Stretching is necessary to control the amount of natural stretch to be left in the leather: too much and the upholstery leather will bag and “puddle” after little use; too little and trimming will be made almost impossible. Since the leather industry began, stretching has been done manually on a rack and still is to some extent, but at last an Italian has invented a hydraulically operated rack. Drying used to be carried out in the open air. Today the hides are dried gently by big fans blowing through widely spaced stacks of racks or, in the case of the new hydraulic rack system, by being passed through a huge “oven” in which the temperature is that of a hot summer’s day, too much heat causing the leather to harden.

Then follows the second major inspection in which hides are selected to meet individual customer’s needs. Constituency of the leather doesn’t vary: the difference in quality lies in the graining and in the amount of damage on the surface of the hide. Rolls-Royce insist on nothing but the best, while Some of the furniture trade too is very particular because of the large, continuous areas to be covered by one hide. Surface marks, so long as the scars are healed before slaughter, are of no detriment to strength and increasingly in the furniture trade, growth marks, rib marks, wire marks and grain and colour variations are welcomed because they ensure that the leather looks natural, not like plastic roiled off a machine. Hides which are too badly marked have their outer surface skimmed off and artificial grain embossed by hydraulic presses.

The Connolly despatch department is full of multi-coloured hues, a far cry from the days before 1927 when colours were limited to brown, tan, red, green and blue. In that year the pioneering Connollys devised a revolutionary new finish which made hides available in the whole spectrum of colours.

The contents of the finish remain a well-kept secret: a long row of rollers mangles up the solid pigments which are subsequently mixed with some sort of cellulose liquid. Colours can be mixed to order, even for one-off restoration jobs, though the colours which are standardised by the car manufacturers are stored in rows of dustbin-like drums. This Connolly finish needs to be something quite special: it has to be able to breathe; it must allow the natural grain to show through; it Must be flexible enough to withstand the rigours of use; and it must be fairly waterproof. Tony Hussey feels that it is a great pity that any finish at all has to be put on leather as in its fully tanned but unfinished state it feels and looks superb. Unfortunately in that condition it is absorbent, can be affected by strong light and will soon get scruffy and dirty. Notably absent from the colours is pure white, vvhich Connolly can, but refuse to, do, for this finish is susceptible to premature discoloration. If a Rolls-Royce customer demanded white upholstery, Rolls would have to obtain it from a different source, but he shouldn’t be surprised at early deterioration. The most popular Rolls colour seems to be Magnolia.

Firstly a base coat of the chosen colour is sprayed on the hide in an automatic spray booth, front which it is fed through a dryer. A special roller machine then massages the leather to put back the suppleness before the final finish is applied in a huge, new, fully automated spray plant and oven, which looks more like the spraying oven in a car factory. Finally car and upholstery hides are piled into another battery of “fairground wheel” rotating drums, this time in the dry state, to be pummelled and rolled amongst brass and wooden knobs to return the natural suppleness to the hide and “crush up” the grain. Car hides thus treated are known as Vaumol and upholstery hides as Wandle. For most hides this is the final process, except for final inspection and the measuring of area for pricing either by a new light-beam machine or the fascinating old machines which give a reading from mechanical “fingers” reacting to the leather as it is passed through them. Some hides, including some of the Jaguar ones, are given a Luxon antiquing treatment, which involves swabbing a contrasting dye over the proper finish, to highlight the grain. Once the hides have left Chalton Street and found their way into the appropriate leather covered product, care of the leather becomes vital if looks and qualities are to be retained. Which is where Ken Cole’s Renovation Unit comes in. He has a team of only nine men caring for upholstery in some of the world’s most famous buildings and ships: both Houses of Parliament; the Guildhall; the Livery Hall; London Airport; Queen Elizabeth Hall; the QE2; the Canberra; the Oriana; the Royal Cars; and the National Motor Museum cars, to name but a few. With such pressure of work he is only too pleased to provide the advice and sell the materials for people to renovate their own cars and furniture, though he does offer a complete renovation service for customers who wish it at a very moderate price. A complete Rolls-Bentley renovation is £27, Astons, Jensens, Mercedes, etc. £25, Jaguars, Rover 3.5 and similar and all 2000 and 1300 cars just £23, whilst three-piece suite renovation starts at £25. Such prices would not, of course, include replacing torn sections of leather, which should be done before the renovation process starts. Connolly’s will match new hide exactly to the original if the customer sends a small sample or can quote the reference number of the original seats. Cole’s men can carry out car renovations on the owner’s premises or the seats and trim can be sent to Chalton Street. Serious enquirers can obtain further details of this service from Ken Cole on 01-387 1661.

For those who wish to carry out their own renovation, the following hints should be followed. Firstly the interior should be cleaned with glycerine soap (or use mild toilet soap, not caustic nor detergent soaps for routine wiping over) or Connolly Concentrated Cleaner on a soft cloth. Use a small nail-brush to remove ingrained dirt. Avoid flooding and wipe off the residue. Whilst still damp, apply a coat of CeeBee hide food, which will restore the original suppleness and nourish the fibres. Allow this to be absorbed for 24 hours, after which any surplus should be wiped off and the result should be a nicely-polished surface. If the original colouring has worn away, new lacquer can be applied, obtained direct from Connolly’s by sending a sample or reference number as above. This should be swabbed on evenly and sparingly using one or two coats. Unfortunately cracked or torn leather, caused by the cracking of the foam-rubber base, would have to be replaced, a fact which annoys Ken Cole, who says that this could be avoided if manufacturers would only cover the foam with linen before stitching on the leather upholstery, as they have been advised. Officially new hides are not sold to private individuals, but Connolly admit to being very sympathetic to vintage enthusiasts engaged in restoration, of whom they have a constant stream. Average hides cost £20 to £25 each. This is the sort of service one would expect from such a charming family firm which has supported our motor industry since it began.