If you’ve ever got the 78 bus through Bermondsey, you may have noticed this building.
Situated at 61 Grange Road, it's set back from the road, hidden behind modern warehouse-style apartments. The dated brick arch and information board are the only real clue to its history.
'1869' reads a plaque on the arch; that's the year the original building was built (not the white art deco tower that demands attention today.This was a 1930s replacement). The stone arch, carved with a seal, is all that remains of the former sealskin trade factory.
The company was established in the City of London in 1823, under the name Oppenheim, before changing hands and moving to Bermondsey. By 1873, it was owned by a CW Martin, who gave his name to the business from this point on. Where it now says 'Alaska' in those beautiful elongated scarlet letters, the previous building once read 'Martin's' — photos from those days are sadly lacking — and was the centre of the London seal fur trade.
The seal skins were initially imported from Antarctica, and later from Alaska and Canada. Unhairing, dressing and dying of the furs was undertaken at the factory which employed a tenth of all the fur workers in the United Kingdom in its peak.
According to an article from the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette of 27 May 1912, the factory was forced to close for a week due to a workers' strike at London's docks, meaning nothing could be imported into or out of the capital.
The factory came up with the Martin-Blau method of fur cleaning, and was enlisted to clean Queen Mary's coronation robe in 1937.
If the style of the building looks familiar, the 1930s tower and extension was designed by the same company responsible for the better-known Hoover Building (1933) in Perivale, Wallis, Gilbert & Partners. In the same way that the Hoover Building got involved in the war effort by manufacturing aircraft parts, Martin's lent its workers, skills and machinery to the cause. 345,000 sheepskins were reputedly prepared for RAF and US Air Force flying suits, and flying coats and specialist clothing were also manufactured here.
Although much of Bermondsey was damaged during the second world war, this particular factory was offered a reprise in the form of a bomb which failed to detonate.
Little is known about the factory after the second world war, except that the decline of the fur trade due to changing fashions led to its closure in the 1960s.
Today, the building is split into apartments, complete with 'communal water gardens'. Perhaps surprisingly, it's not a listed building.