Introduced in 1881 or earlier John Dale’s dubbin was made using porpoise oil, strange though this may seem in these modern times. The use of fish oils in many forms was quite commonplace then and it wasn’t until perhaps the turn of the century that petroleum derived products became more sophisticated and manufactured for many specific and specialised tasks.
Dale’s were awarded gold for their porpoise dubbin in the 1883 International Fisheries Exhibition held in London. The list of entries show exhibitors for all over the world.
Exhibitor entry: DALES, JOHN T., 287 Crystal Palace Road, London, S.E. Dales’ Porpoise Oil Dubbin for waterproofing, preserving and softening boots, harness and leather goods ; also useful as a kid reviver. Rats or mice will not touch leather on which this dubbin is used.
Contemporary customer recommendation in Basil Tozer’s 1887 book “Practical Hints on Shooting”: “Shooting Boots: There are various methods of waterproofing ordinary walking-boots, and many preparations are sold for that purpose; such as Prout’s compound, “Gishurstine,” “Moliscorium,” and Dales porpoise oil dubbin which are not to be surpassed, especially the latter. Dale’s dubbin is manufactured from refined porpoise oil and contains other ingredients which serve to render the leather not only waterproof, but soft and pliant as when new; and, moreover, it does not interfere with the polish or emit that unpleasant odour which frequently arises from common currier’s dubbin. Another good point about this dubbin is, that mice and rats will not touch any leather prepared with it.”
The oil extracted from the porpoise jaw was especially prized by watchmakers as the oil didn’t gum up over time and was used until at least 1915 by which time it had fallen out of favour as improved and cheaper petroleum based oils became available.
Here is a film made in 1936 in Nova Scotia and is a re-creation of the porpoise hunt enacted by Digby County Mi’kmaq (Bear River) and the subsequent rendering of the carcasses into oil. The oil was sold by the Mi’kmaq to various local businesses for a time, but the practice died out when there was no longer any market for the product.
Watch the 23 minute silent b&w film here
Advert from ‘Dunstable, its history and surroundings’, by Worthington G. Smith, 1904.
In 1922 Dales exhibited at the British Industries Fair. Their advert for Dales’ Gold Medal Dubbin declares “A superior composition for making harness, boots, saddlery, or anything in Leather, waterproof as a duck’s back, soft as velvet, and wear three times longer. Puts new life into Leather, whether lost by wear or climatic conditions. Allows polishing. Pleasant odour. Made in Black or Brown. Sold in tins bearing the signature of ‘John T. Dales’ 22 Exhibition Highest Awards for Superiority. Over 40 years reputation. Send for particulars to Dales, Dunstable, England.”. Dale’s were in business until 1943.
287 Crystal Place Road and 85 Melbourne Grove, London
John Thomas Dales was born in Upwell in 1849 and came from a family historically involved in the leather trade, making saddlery and other equine although his father was a grocer and draper. John Dales started in his father’s business but moved on to other things eventually to start his dubbin business in East Dulwich, South London. By 1884 he had moved the business to 287 Crystal Palace Road (still extant) and then in 1892 moves to 85 Melbourne Grove (still extant). In 1902, tempted by Dunstable Town Council’s initiative to temp industry to the town, John Dales bought at auction a large house and with the lot also came some works buildings just around the corner in Tavistock Street. The works (advertised as ‘expansive and commodious’) and comprised yards, stabling and outbuildings and had formerly housed a business that made baskets. With John Dales came his two daughters, his wife and son having died back in 1887. He began a reluctant civic life in 1908 when he became a local councillor, mayor in 1919/20 and county councillor until his retirement in 1934 when he retired due to ill health. His daughter Lucy followed in civic life being a councillor from 1919 and Mayor in 1925/26.
The small complex of factory buildings was only partly used for manufactory, one building being used as an institute, named Tavistock Hall, and used for guilds, social clubs and the like, the other building being used as a concert hall. The dubbin building though was remembered by past workers as a dark and primitive place with a dirt floor. The ground floor of the two story building was where the dubbin was mixed and contained a coal furnace with a big copper boiler and other vats. The raw materials were delivered in big drums and tins, offloaded from the rail sidings opposite. The reported ingredients were petroleum jelly and Australian mutton fat, the porpoise oil of previous year now a distant memory, possibly replaced by castor oil. The hot light brown grease would then be transferred into large metal buckets and hoisted upstairs using a dumb waiter. Here hundreds of empty tins would be laid out and the three worker girls would decant the liquid dubbin into smaller jugs and carefully fill the tins. After leaving 24hrs to set the golden dubbin was sealed with a lid. In the early days there were four tins sizes but this gradually reduced to one – there was a black dubbin made as well. These were then packed into cardboard boxes, labelled and then crated and shipped all over the world. There was a small office upstairs, partitioned off from the filling room. Mrs Dales provided soup for the staff when it was cold. When production wasn’t required the staff worked at Mr Dales’ large house, cleaning and polishing, indeed the dubbin mixer, Harry Price, doubled up as the gardener for over 30 years!
John Dales died in 1934 at the age of 84 and was given a large but simple civic funeral. The business was continued by the daughter Lucy but things were to begin to decline and once war started and buildings were commandeered as barracks and officers billeted in the house. One girl in the factory left and the remaining two went into munitions in 1943. One of the fillers who went into munitions was Sylvia Young of Dunstable. She will be 88 in 2012 and lives in Kempston, Bedford (Mrs Dales also rubbed Sylvia’s feet with dubbin as a treatment for chilblains). Pam Rose & Marjory Rose were the other two fillers and Hazel Alabaster worked in the office.
The business closed, the factory was sold in 1947 and John T. Dales Ltd was wound up.
The factory still standing and in use in Tavistock St, Dunstable. The old concert hall and institute remain on the site too.
The Carr business had always manufactured dubbin and the Carr & Day & Martin company produced utilitarian packaged dubbin for the war department in WWII (and probably well before that from 1923 onwards) but following the winding up of John T. Dales’ dubbin business in 1947 C&D&M took on the John T. Dales brand name, trade mark and packaging and carried on where Dales’ left off. Coincidentally, the founder of the Carrs business was John Dale Carr.
For a very comprehensive history of the life and times of John T. Dales there is no finer than that written by Colin Bourne and published by the Dunstable and District Local History Society “Old Trades of Dunstable – Dales’ Dubbin & Flemons’ Herbs” ISBN 0 9529156 0 X and can be obtained directly from the society. www.dunstablehistory.co.uk
Dales’ dubbin product information: Dales’ Dubbin