Stokes & Co.’s origins lay with Stephen Stokes and John Negus, a Walsall tannery business founded in 1851. Stokes acquired John Cox’s tannery in Rugeley in 1865, which thereafter became the focus of the company’s leather production. However, the tannery’s origins dated back to at least the 18th century. By 1791 tannery buildings had already been built by the canal wharf in Bryans Lane. Tanning is believed to have taken place in Rugeley since the 12th century: the town was ideally placed to take advantage of readily available oak bark from Cannock Chase and hides from cattle farming in the locality.
Stokes & Co. (Tanners) Ltd. grew rapidly in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Further expansion took place during the Second World War, when the company was busy supporting the war effort. By this time the tannery buildings stretched all along Bryans Lane from the canal wharf to Market Street. The wharf buildings were used for storage and drying of hides, with other areas used for offices, lime pits, bark storage, a lorry park (formerly the works’ football pitch and canteen), garage and carpenters’ shop.
Stokes & Co. made a wide variety of high quality leather at their Phoenix Tannery. This included leather for shoe soles, upholstery leather for the car industry, heavy dressing leather for industrial purposes, and leather for footballs, rugby balls and cycle saddles. By 1950 they were dealing with 3,000 hides of leather weekly and employed 140 people.
Competition from developing plastics industries, and the slump in hide prices following the Korean War brought an end to the tannery’s fortunes. The company went into voluntary liquidation in 1958. Another tanning company used part of the site, ‘finishing’ leather for a short time. In the early 1960s Lichfield Laundry used the site for a branch laundry. Except for a few at the wharf, the buildings were demolished by 1972 and the site is now occupied by the Fire Station and sheltered housing for old people owned by the Sneyd Trust.