Tanneries were a pioneer industry in Sydney, with the first tannery being established by James Wilson between Pitt and George Streets (near Liverpool Street) in 1814. They flourished there from 1840, but in 1860 a law was passed forcing these heavily polluting activities out of the city.1
The rural district of Willoughby on the north shore provided an attractive alternative for Sydney’s tanners. It had creeks with a regular supply of water, wattlebark was readily available and there was plenty of cheap land in bushland that did not impinge on residential areas.
James Forsyth, a leather dresser and dyer by trade and proprietor of a leather business in the city, purchased land at Willoughby in 1869 and established the pioneer Willoughby tannery on Sugarloaf Creek in 1869. His sons, Thomas Todd Forsyth and Robert managed the business, which they called the Rosewall Tannery. It was the first of 16 tanneries, but the subsequent establishments were clustered in the area known as ‘The Hollow’ or ‘The Vale’ through which Scotts Creek flows.
Working in the Tanneries
The Willoughby tanneries were labour intensive enterprises, requiring strong men to prepare the hides and move them through the tanning pits. The large quantities of acid used also posed a health risk.
Harry Fox joined his father working at Bugden’s Progressive tannery in 1950. He recalls:
It was hard work there. There were 20-25 employees there at this time and our hours were from 7.30am to 5pm. I recall everything in the factory was worked by steam. I was a general hand and therefore I was allocated tasks each morning. I was often allocated to work at the ‘Spender’ (tanning pits). They were filled with water and we would grind wattle bark and add it to the water to extract the tannins. The water was then pumped off to tan the hides and we would have to dig out the wattle bark residue, which was sold to nurseries, etc for use as plant fertilizer. I worked there for around two years.3
The Tannery Community
With the concentration of tanneries along Scotts Creek, Willoughby’s tanners became a close-knit community of like-minded people. They and their workers lived near their business enterprises and their lives were interwoven, sometimes by marriage.
Managed by Joseph Knight Smith, the Willoughby Hotel in Penshurst Street near ‘The Junction’ with Victoria Avenue provided a popular meeting place for the tanning fraternity. By 1898 the terminus of the Willoughby electric tramway was close to the hotel, providing much improved transport to North Sydney and the cross-harbour ferries. From The Junction a network of rough tracks led down to the tanneries. The tracks requiring skilful manipulation by man and horse, but for the employees and their families it was a trudge up to hill access the external world.
Several of the tanners sought to build loyalty among their workers though team sports. The four Broomham brothers were all keen sportsmen and, with a number of their employees, they formed a cricket team that had success in the district competition for a number of years.
A number of Willoughby tanners were members of the NSW Master Tanners’ Association and its conferences were hosted in Willoughby on several occasions. The owners were strong protectionists and sought government action to restrict imported leather goods. They also had a faith in the ‘cleanliness’ of their industry and mounted strong political campaigns against attempts by governments to impose pollution controls on their industry. They were successful in blocking attempts to bring tanneries under the Noxious Trades Act in 1907, but in 1940 tanning was declared a noxious trade. Suburbia had finally caught up with the Willoughby tanneries and community concerns about pollution along Scotts Creek brought pressure for their closure.
Most tanneries had closed by 1965, but two continued operations. When W Chaffer & Sons had their plans for major building alterations rejected by Willoughby Council in 1983, it decided to move to new premises in Kingsgrove and the Chatswood premises were vacated by August 1985. The smaller firm of L Wilson & Son continued operations until 1988.
1 Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tanning
2 Leslie, Esther, Willoughby: the suburb and its people. Chatswood, Willoughby Municipal Council, 1988, p. 116.
3 Harry Fox, interview at Castlecrag, 17 May 2011