For over a century Connolly Bros. was synonymous with the quality leather used in the very best of British marques, including Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Aston Martin and Jaguar.
The company 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!
The brothers branched into the selling and eventually into the making of harnesses; Samuel Frederick used to load a pony and trap full of samples to tour around the South Coast of England taking orders, and would then dash back to the workshop to complete them. This brought the Connolly's into contact with the leading coach-builders, who began to buy hides from them for carriage hoods, wings and dashes.
Soon the company was employing teams of experts who visited the coach-builders, 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 coach-builder's turned their attention to "horseless carriages", so too did the Connollys, but it was Frederick Ignatius, the eldest of Samuel Frederick's four sons, who joined the firm in 1912, who pushed them properly into the world of the motor car. 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.
In 1927 the pioneering Connolly's devised a revolutionary new finish which made hides available in the whole spectrum of colours, such as brown, tan, red, green and blue. Frederick Ignatius was elected to the Council of the SMM and T in 1930, he going on to become the Society's Treasurer in 1936 and President from 1948 to 1950. As Chairman and Managing Director until his retirement in the early 1970's his speciality was sales. In the late 1950's and early 1960's, almost 85% of the hides processed by Connolly Bros. were sold to the motor industry, but by the mid 1970's this figure had dropped to 60 to 65% of their 10,000 hide weekly throughput, a reflection on the increasing use of synthetics on car upholstery.
Man's oldest material, and the most natural material he can place near his skin, fell from favour in the lower echelons of the car market throughout the 80's, where the synthetic products of ICI were not only cheaper but were easier to churn out in sufficient quantity to supply the insatiable appetite for material required for mass-production.
There is little doubt the reduction in demand for automotive upholstery leather put additional financial stress on the company, however fortunately they did not have all their eggs in the one basket. Even though they supplied leather to the furniture trade and the like, the 100% family-owned company remained proud of its connection with the motor industry, with which it had grown up in parallel.
Of course there was really no substitute that would stack up against leather, it remaining the epitome of luxurious comfort, confirming that there was no substitute for the real thing: the hide from seven to nine cows ensured the interior opulence of marques such as Jaguar, Jensen and Aston Martin. The beauty of leather is that it warms-up instantly to your skin temperature, whereas plastic feels cold, takes longer to warm up and doesn't retain warmth so well.
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, 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.
Most of the hides used by Connolly's came from Scandinavia, where the quality was better because the cattle spent most of their lives inside to escape bad weather. Nor were the Scandinavian hides threatened to the same extent with damage from barbed wire and warble fly (small grubs which burrow their way through hides). The size largely depended on the age of the cow, the older they got the bigger they grew, the average being 45-50 square feet. The largest hides came from Southern Germany and the largest ever seen by Connolly was a vast 120 sq. ft.
From the abattoir (where the cattle were skinned) the hides passed to the hide market or a fellmonger, from where they were bought by the tanner. From the tanner they passed to the currier, which is where Connolly Bros. came in, to prepare and finally finish them before selling them to the leather-using trades. Curiously the hides were sold by the piece from the abattoir, sold by weight at the hide market, sold by the tanner to the currier by the 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 loosened the hairs at the roots and these were 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 (saddles as distinct from clothing, for instance), was 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 to the hides are split, the top part being the leather hide as we know it, and the bottom part being the suede, or "split", as it is known in the trade.
Connolly's had their own tannery in Canterbury, the stiff and dry tanned hides arriving at Wimbledon in seven-foot-long bales of about 25, each of which was given a total of 12 inspections and code-stamped to denote quality, source, date and so on. Very badly damaged hides were naturally rejected. The first process was 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 wells beneath the factory, a geological accident which strangely didn't exempt Connolly from paying water rates!
Machines with fast-revolving, blade-covered drums trimmed the hides to a consistent thickness. This varied, upholsterers demanding usually 1¾ mm thickness while some leather goods manufacturers required 3 to 4 mm and clothing manufacturers as little as 0.8mm. Waste shavings were sold to a fertiliser manufacturer.
The hides then received a secondary tanning in a battery of huge vats which revolved much like a ferris-wheel. Hides for the garment trade were dyed right through in the same process, because the edges of the leather would be exposed in the clothing. Afterwards most of the water was squeezed out in huge mangles before the critical stretching and drying process. Stretching was necessary to control the amount of natural stretch to be left in the leather: too much and the upholstery leather would bag and "puddle" after little use; too little and trimming would be made almost impossible.
Since the leather industry began, stretching had been done manually on a rack, however an Italian innovation was the development of a hydraulically operated rack. Drying used to be carried out in the open air, but by the mid 1960's the hides were being dried gently by big fans blowing through widely spaced stacks of racks or, in the case of the hydraulic rack system, by being passed through a huge "oven" in which the temperature was that of a hot summer's day, too much heat causing the leather to harden.
Then followed the second major inspection in which hides were selected to meet individual customer's needs. Consistency of the leather didn't vary - the difference in quality lay in the graining and in the amount of damage on the surface of the hide. Rolls-Royce insisted on nothing but the best, while some of the furniture trade too was very particular because of the large, continuous areas to be covered by one hide. Surface marks, so long as the scars were healed before slaughter, were of no detriment to strength and, in the case of furniture application, these were often seen as a good feature to have as it made the leather look natural, not like plastic rolled off a machine. Hides which were too badly marked had their outer surface skimmed off and artificial grain embossed by hydraulic presses.
The contents of the finish remained for many years a well-kept secret: a long row of rollers mangled up the solid pigments which were subsequently mixed with a cellulose liquid. Colours could be mixed to order, even for one-off restoration jobs, though the colours which were standardised by the car manufacturers were stored in rows of dustbin-like drums. The Connolly finish needed to be something quite special: it had to be able to breathe; it had to allow the natural grain to show through; it had to be flexible enough to withstand the rigours of use; and it needed to be in the most part waterproof. It is somewhat of a pity any finish at all has to be put on leather as in it's fully tanned but unfinished state it feels and looks superb.
Unfortunately though in that condition it is absorbent, can be affected by strong light and is prone to getting scruffy and dirty. Notably absent from the Connolly colours available was pure white, which Connolly could, but refused to do, as they deemed the finish to be susceptible to premature discoloration. Simply put, if a Rolls-Royce customer demanded white upholstery, Rolls would have to obtain it from a different source. The most popular Rolls colour over the decades was Magnolia.
To apply colour a base coat of the chosen colour was sprayed on the hide in an automatic spray booth, from which it was then fed through a dryer. A special roller machine then massaged the leather to put back the suppleness before the final finish was applied in a huge fully-automated spray plant and oven. Finally car upholstery hides were piled into another battery of 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 were known as Vaumol and upholstery hides as Wandle. For most hides this was the final process, except for final inspection and the measuring of area for pricing either by a light-beam machine or the old fashioned machines which gave a reading from mechanical "fingers" reacting to the leather as it is passed through them.
Some hides, including some of the Jaguar ones, were given a Luxan antiquing treatment, which involved swabbing a contrasting dye over the proper finish to highlight the grain. Once the hides left Charlton Street and found their way into the appropriate leather-covered product, care of the leather was vital if looks and qualities were to be retained.
That was the "traditional" tanning treatment synonymous with Connolly leather at their peak quality period. Demand for lighter colours & even more supple hides meant the industry gradually moved onto different processes & water-based finishes . Connolly moved the finishing process to Wimbledon during this transition, then to Ashford in Kent to be closer to their Canterbury plant, before they finally went into administration in June 2002 after 125 years!
Jonathan Connolly has returned to revive the family name & reproduce the traditional Vaumol & Luxan range for those discerning owners of classic vehicles requiring that authentic touch!