TANNED OUT: A SHORT HISTORY OF LEATHER TANNING IN THE WILLOUGHBY DISTRICT
The tanning of leather within the greater Sydney region was a significant economic activity from the start of the 19th Century. At the peak of the industry there were scores of tanneries (and furriers) operating across Sydney. In the 20th century, the development and use of lower cost artificial, synthetic and imitation leather largely spelled the end of specialist leather manufatures in Australia. By 2016, there was only a single tannery left in Sydney (Birdsall’s at Botany).
TANNED OUT explores the history of tanning within Willoughby District on the Norther Shore of Sydney Harbour from its inception at Burns Bay around 1858 until the last tannery closed in 1988 some 130 years later.
Tanning is the process of turning animal skins into leather. Tanneries established as significant and early industry in the Willoughby District from around 1858/60.
THE ABORIGINAL PRESERVATION OF ANIMAL PELTS
People have turned animal skins into wearable garments and other objects since time immemorial. Australian Aboriginals made cloaks from the skins of possums, kangaroos, wallabies and other fur-bearing animals.
Australian Aboriginals with treated skins – Photo: Sovereign Hill Education
AUSTRALIA’S FIRST TANNERY
In 1803 James Wilshire established a tannery on Brickfield Hill which became the largest in the colony. The Brickfield Hill tannery on George Street was near Central Station. By 1830 Whilshire was treating some 15,000 hides and skins a year at his tannery and producing enough leather for the colony’s needs, with a surplus of green hides for export to England.[i] Its operations continued until 1861.
WILLOUGHBY DISTRICT TANNERIES
In 1858/60 when tanneries were established at Burns Bay, the area was within the Parish of Willoughby that was later to become the Borough of (North) Willoughby. However, this area was later (1895) proclaimed as the Municipality of Lane Cove. (History of local government areas in the Willoughby District).
Twenty-two tannery sites have been identified within the Willoughby area between 1858 and 1988 (130 years). At least 38 tannery enterprises operated on these sites. The first tannery was operated by Ludowici & Radke at Burns Bay in 1858/60. The longest running tannery enterprise was that of the Chaffers. It operated for 98 years. The last tannery to close was that of the Wilson Brothers. It closed in 1988 after operating for 84 years.
The details and location of Willoughby’s tanneries are shown on the diagrams below:
Burns Bay Tanneries 1858 – 1990s
Early & later tanneries and curriers 1869 – 1930s
Tannery Town 1869 – 1985
WILLOUGHBY DISTRICT TANNERIES
Around 1859 John Charles Ludowici and Albert Radke moved their existing tannery business from Balmain to Burns Bay on the Lane Cove River. The Burns Bay site had ready access to fresh water (Burns Bay Creek) and was ideal for transporting tannery supplies and finished hides usuing ‘lighters’ on the Lane Cove River. At the time Burns Bay was situated in the Parish of Willoughby and after 1865 in the Municipality of North Willoughby. In 1895 the area became part of Lane Cove Municipality. There were 7 tannery enterprises in this area located on 5 sites Ludowici and Radke tannery enterprises perisited in this area until 196 (a total of 109 years).
In 1869 James Forsythe established his ‘Rosewall’ tannery in the vicinity of Sugarloaf Creek near current day Stan Street. The creek must have provided the water necessary for tanning. It is reported that in the vicinity there were large stands of wattle bark (acacia) used for tanning (these resources soon became scarce). Whilst transportation was likely problematic, it was obviously not a hindrance. Then in 1873 Henry Charles Owen established his ‘Union’ tannery on the corner of Victoria Avenue and Warrane Road (now Eatsern Valley Way).
Subsequent tanneries in Willoughby were located in the area around Scotts Creek between Douglas Avenue and Eastern Valley Way in what became known as Tannery Town. Scotts Creek (which was spring fed) provided the copious amounts of water needed in the tanning process. Hwoever, all other supplies for the tanneries and the shipment of completed hides initially had to be undertaken using horses and wagons up the hill and then toward Sydney Harbour.
There were 31 tannery and currier enterprises known in the Willoughby area operating on 17 sites. The last tannery to cease operations was the Wilson tannery in 1988.
DETAILS OF TANNERIES
1. Northern side of Burns Bay (later Tannery) Creek, Lane Cove (at the time Burns Bay was within the Parish of Willoughby)
1A 1858/60-1860 (1 to 3 yrs) John Charles Ludowici & Albert Radke moved their previous tannery business from Balmain to a secluded 16-acre site on Burns Bay where they operated for a short while. In 1861, they dissolved their partnership.
1B1. 1860-1940 (80 yrs) Albert Radke retained 9 acres and the plant equipment and tannery buildings of the existing tannery and continued operations.
1B2. 1860-1897 (37 yrs) J.C. Ludowici & Son established a new tannery on the remaining 7 acres of the original tannery site on the northwestern side of the creek.
2. In the vicinity of Sugarloaf Creek on a site near the current Stan Street between Ann St & First Ave (current Bus Depot site) 1869 – 1957 (88 yrs)
2A. 1869-1900 (31 yrs) James Forsyth established his ‘Rosewall’ Tannery.
Forsyth’s ‘Rosewall’ Tannery c.1869 Picture Willoughby
The business prospered in the colony’s buoyant economy of the 1870s and 1880s. The tannery drew its water from Sugarloaf Creek. Black wattle which could be processed to produce mimosa extract for tanning was abundant on James’ ‘Wattle Paddock’ inland and to the north in the area that is now Willoughby Park. The business floundered during the 1890s Depression and the tannery closed in 1900. It was sublet to various tanners until sold to the Broomham Brothers in 1907.
2B. Sublet to: J. Wittman;
2C. Edward Dale;
2D. Thomas William Gates
2E. 1906-1957 (51 yrs) the firm of Broomham Brothers established their ‘Enterprise’ Tannery on the site. By 1915 there were three large buildings with up-to-date machinery and 64 tanning pits. The 27 employees were processing 350 hides a week. The firm was renowned for the quality of its leathers, especially their tweed (regarded as the best in Australia), but it also produced good bag leathers, kip and strapping.
Employees at the Broomham Brothers Enterprise c.1931 – Willoughby Museum Collection
The site was resumed by the NSW Government in 1957 to establish the Willoughby Bus Depot.
3. Cnr. Victoria Ave & Warrane Rd (now Eastern Valley Way) 1873 – 1964 (91 yrs)
3A. 1873 – c.1893 (20 yrs) Henry Charles Owen established his ‘Union’ Tannery’. At this time no machinery was utilised. All work was done by hand
Owen’s ‘Union’Tannery – Picture Willoughby
3B. Following Henry’s death the tannery was leased to various operators (names unknown) including W. Chaffer, J.B. Forsyth & Peter Vines who rented the yards. Walter Chaffer’s diary of June 15, 1877 records:
“(we) went to the ferry boat to the North Shore to go to North Willoughby … When we got off the ferry we got into a cart and drove for miles up the country with woods on both sides of us. At last we saw some small wooden houses…This was North Willoughby.”
3C. 1893 – 1932 (39 yrs) Henry’s son, Edward Owen took over the tannery. The business was gradually expanded to treat 400-500 hides per week. Following Edward’s death in 1932, the business deteriorated until ceasing operations in 1933. The site was sold to Sidney Bugden in 1935.
Edward Owen’s Tannery workers in the early 1900s – Willoughby Museum collection
3D. 1935-1964 (29 yrs) Sidney Budgen established his ‘Progressive’ Tannery on the site. He cleaned up the yard and refurbished the works and produced a range of quality sole and upper leathers, belt harnesses and saddlery. In 1943 the business was formed into a private company, Sidney Bugden Pty Limited, with John H and Thomas J McCabe joining Sidney as directors. This gave the tannery a sales outlet through John McCabe’s C. Niccol sole harness and saddlery business in Kent Street, Sydney. The tannery operated until 1964, when a mysterious fire gutted the premises.
4. Northwestern side of Tannery (Burns Bay) Creek 1879 – 1967 (88 yrs)
4A. 1879 – 1967 (88 years) J.C. Ludowici Ltd opened a new tannery to the west of his earleir one.
5. Southern side of Burns Bay Creek (by this time the area was part of the Lane Cove Ward of the Muncipality of Willoughby} c.1880 – 1967 (87 yrs)
5A. c.1880 – 1940 (60 years). Albert Radke opened a second tannery site on the southern bank of the creek.
Second Radke Tannery on southern side of Tannery Creek – Longueville Estate, land for sale, 1898, J.M Canlte – Lane Cove Library
5B. 1941 – 1967. (26 yrs) J.C. Lodowici purchased the premises from Radke and continued tannery operations.
6. Southeastern corner of Smith & Gibbes Sts 1881 – post 1941 (60+ yrs)
6A. 1881-1941 (60 yrs) Michael Stephenson established his ‘The Grange’ Tannery. This was a large enterprise. The two-storey complex was located on a large site with room for expansion and it was regarded as one of the best tanning establishments in the colony at that time. It produced excellent sole and harness leather, and specialised in rolled leather.
Stephenson’s ‘The Grange’ Tannery – Picture Willoughby
6B. 1941 E. John Forsyth, a grandson of James Brown Forsyth, took over the tannery.
7. Near High St 1882 – c.1960 (78 yrs)
7A. 1882 – c.1924 (42 yrs) A tannery was established by William Cunningham on land he owned ‘near High Street’. From 1896-97 it was recorded as owned by the Cunningham Brothers and it occupied one acre of land.
7B. The tannery was sold to Michael Stephenson’s son Athol Stephenson, who operated it in his own name.
7C. 1924 – c.1960 (36 yrs). Obern’s Tannery established on the site. George Oben used chrome tanning. His sons Alfred and Stanley later joined him in the business and in 1948 it became a family business – G Obern & Sons Pty Limited. The tannery continued to operate until around c.1960.
7D. 1960. The tannery was taken over by Chaffers.
8. Fronting Scotts Creek, off Gibbes Street. 1882 – 1900 (18 yrs)
8A 1882-???? Johnston (Johnson) Brothers Tannery. Little is known about this tannery.
J.B. Johnston Tannery -Picture Willoughby
It is reported that the original Johnson’s tannery was on Scott’s land and had been previously owned by Cunningham.It is also reported that George and Herbert Bailey bought the tannery (date unknown).
9. Scotts Creek fronting Short Street 1887 – 1985 (98 yrs)
9A 1887-1985 (98 yrs) Walter Chaffers’ ‘Glenrock’ Tannery was a relatively large well-equipped tannery by 1904 with 27 employees turning out saddler leathers. Chaffer had a reputation as an advanced tanner. The roller-type fleshing machine at the factory was the first in Australia. Around 1924 there was a switch to chrome leathers with a generational change enabling a switch to garment leathers and other specialty lines. With the third generation of the Chaffer family entering the firm in the 1960s, the adjoining Johnston tannery was taken over in 1961, enabling an expansion into kangaroo leathers. In 1985 Chaffer’s closed their Chatswood tannery and relocated to Kinsgrove.
Chaffers Tannery 1915 & 1982- Picture Willoughby
10. Northern side of Scotts Creek at the end of Gibbs St 1887 – 1940s (53+ yrs)
10A. 1887 -1940s (53 yrs) Bailey’s Tannery. This business was established by George Francis Bailey Jnr and Herbert Arthur Bailey on a four acre block extending north to Boundary Street. It was a small business with four pits, but was well-known in the trade. When he started in tannery he (George) was apprenticed to John Forsythe for a short time & then to James Forsythe before moving to Jamberoo (from where he later returned).
The tannery was totally destroyed by fire in 1902, but with assistance from the local community, Bailey was able to rebuild the business. Bailey was a President of the Master Builder’s (Tanner’s) Association around 1904 as well as being Mayor of Willoughby. Bailey’s two sons continued the business after he retired.
Bailey’s Tannery – Lepastrier
The ground floor of the new tannery built in 1902 had brick and other pits and drew water from Scotts Creek. It was 100 ftlong, two storied,2 2 gables and had a 50 ft span truss roof.
The tannery was sold to the Chaffers & they in turn were to sell it to someone interested in wines. This was due to the pit storage but the sale fell through.
A brother, Clarence (Clarrie), built a stone house near the Eastern Valley way (this may have been the house built of blue stone carted from Jamberoo) & it had a dam that was able to supply water to the tannery. The house or land at 297 High St. (Cnr. Mann St.) was sold to Herbert by Edric’s (Chaffer) grandfather’s sister-in-law.
George’s brother Herbert apparently also worked in the tannery. It is reported that the tannery was making leather from bull’s hide. Herbert had his arm shredded & this was probably done on a sole leather roller which according to Edric were very dangerous. From my recollection he had the first form of micro surgery on his arm & it was highly successful.
The land was subdivided from 1947.
11. Cnr Warrane Rd and Smith St 1892 – 1950s (58 yrs)
11A. 1892-1950s (58 yrs) J B Forsyth Pty Limited Tannery. James Brown Forsyth was a nephew of James Forsyth. He established his own venture in 1892. Despite the economic conditions, this was a large tannery with several two-storey buildings, sheds, stables and 68 tanning pits. By 1904 it was treating over 200 hides per week and had a capacity for 300.
JB Forsyth Tannery 1923 – Picture Willoughby
Layout of Forsyth’s Tannery -Willoughby Museum Collection
12. Northern side of Scotts Creek accessed by a bridge at the end of High Street 1896 – post 1938 (24+ yrs)
12A. 1896-1920s (24 yrs) Scott Brothers Tannery. As the 1890s depression eased, Thomas Scott opened a tannery on Scotts Creek with a frontage to High Street and traded as Scott Brothers. It was a small enterprise with a staff of four that treated around 35 hides per week. His sons Thomas William and Henry Robert later joined the business, which operated into the 1920s.
12B. 1938 Scott Brothers’ tannery was sold to Pearl, Sydney and Arthur Chaffer in 1938.
Scott, Horsley & White’s Tanneries – Willoughby Museum Archives
13. Scotts Creek, Cnr Short & High St 1897 – 1924 (27 yrs)
13A. 1897-1916 (19 yrs) White’s Tannery. George White built a tannery and cottage adjacent to that operated by Thomas Scott. The tannery had an extensive main building and 14 tanning pits. White’s tannery ceased business in 1916.
13B. 1916-1924 (8 yrs) Obern’s Tannery. it is believed that the White’s tannery was leased by George Obern until he purchased his own tannery in 1924.
14. Scotts Creek fronting Short Street (between Whites and J B Johnson Tanneries) 1898 – 1950s (52+ yrs)
14A. 1898-1950s (52 yrs) Horsley’s Tannery. This enterprise was established by John Horsley adjacent to the Scott and White’s tanneries. Horsley specialised in dressed leather for local and overseas markets. It was a small tannery with nine pits and a staff of six.
Horsley’s Tannery c.1900 – Picture Willoughby
15. Scotts Creek – Western side of Quandong Street (Douglas Avenue) between Warrah Street 1898 – 1963 (nearly 65 yrs)
15A. 1898-1963 (65 yrs) Geering’s Tannery. The initial tannery was quite small with just six pits treating 20 hides a week, but by 1904 Geering had two large two-storey buildings, an office and laboratory, and his 18 employees were treating 200 hides a week. Three years later it had doubled in size and was regarded as one of the largest and best tanneries in NSW. Geering specialised in chrome tanning and his output of dressed leather was in high demand. On his retirement in 1916, Sidney closed the business but Gerald (his son) reopened it several years later and it continued in operation until 1963.
Geering & Sons Tannery pre 1915 – Picture Willoughby
16. Northern side of Scotts Creek with access via a bridge from High Street 1899 – post 1912 ( 13+ yrs)
16A. 1899-1906 (7 yrs) Saxton’s ‘Roslyn’ Tannery. CT Saxton established this enterprise. It was a large two-storey tannery equipped with the latest equipment and had 30 pits. Seven men processed up to 500 hides a week. Saxton closed the business in 1906.
Saxton’s ‘Rosyln’ Tannery
16B. 1907- 1912 (5 yrs) Thomas W. Gates operated the tannery.
16C. 1912- ???? The firm of Forsyth, Pizzey & Gates took over the tannery and continued to operate it in conjunction with its large leather warehouse in York Street, Sydney.
Forsyth, Pizzey & Gates’ Tannery c.1915 – Picture Willoughby
17. Scotts Creek from Short St (near Market Gardens) 1900 – 1962 (62 yrs)
17A. 1900 – 1961 (60 yrs) J. B. Johnston’s Tannery. Joseph Berry Johnston opened a small tannery with one employee and a horse-and-cart in 1900, but with perseverance the business was steadily expanded. JB Johnston became a member of the Master Tanners & leather Manufacturers’ Association of NSW and was highly regarded in the trade. Oscar Johnston (his son) carried on the tannery until 1961.
JB Johnston Tannery 1905 – Picture Willoughby
17B. 1962 sold to Walter Chaffer & Sons and absorbed into their business.
18. 312 High St (the tannery buildings were located on Quandong Road (Douglas Road) behind 312 & 312A High Street 1902 – 1988 (86 yrs)
18A. 1902-1988 (84 yrs) Wilson Brothers’ tannery. This enterprise was established by the experienced tanners Leslie Edwin Wilson and George Henry Wilson. Specialising in chrome hide upper leathers, suede and slipper splits; the tannery comprised several buildings and around 15 pits.
Wilson Bros Tannery- Lepastrier
Inside Wilson’s Tannery – Picture Willoughby
19. Quandong (Douglas) Street next to Geerings, bounded by Warrah Street and Ashley Street 1905 – 1930 (25 yrs)
19A. 1905 – 1930 (25 yrs) Challis Brothers’ Tannery. Frederick John and Herbert Miller Challis registered Challis Brothers as tanners in 1905. Their tannery operations were located at the Willoughby premises, while a shop at 9-13 Kippax Street traded as leather merchants. A few months later, in April 1906, Challis Brothers were among the first leather merchants to exhibit at Sydney’s Royal Agricultural Show when they displayed their kip and tweed goods. [Kip is a cross between calf and cowhide. On 6 February 1930, a major fire destroyed the tannery it did not reopen.
20. Far northwestern side of Tannery (Burns Bay) Creek. (By this time the area was within the Muncipality of Lane Cove) 1913 – early 1990s (87+ yrs)
20A. 1913-early 1990s (87+ yrs) Charles Ludowici (Mangrovite Belting Ltd), son of John Charles Ludowici, formed a separate company in 1913 at an adjoining site south and west of his father’s company. The company also manufactured industrial leather belts and by 1922 it was a public company. It also began producing hydraulic packing and oil seals and continued to operate at the Burns Bay site until the early 1990s. In 1913 this site was within the Lane Cove Municipality.
Furriers tan animal pelts to produce soft, pliable fur. The traditional method of tanning pelts is known as ‘brain’ tanning. First the pelt is skinned from the animal. Then the flesh is removed. Unlike hides, the fur (hair) is left on the pelt. Next, the animal’s brain is combined with water and mixed to a ‘mash’ that is used to tan (preserve) the pelt with fur intact. Finally, the fur is softened by stretching.
Unlike hide tanning, when tanning a pelt, the hair is not removed from the belt. Other tanning steps are similar to leather tanning except the tanning agent is more likely to be ‘alum’ rather than ‘mimosa’ or ‘chrome’.
21. 33 Laurel Street, Willoughby (cnr. Hollywood Crescent) c. 1917
21A. c. 1917 J E Gillis Furrier & Tanner. In 1917 Gillis was operating from 33 Laurel Street as a Furrier, Tanner and Dyer. Tanning pelts for the fur trade was different to the industrial leather tanning undertaken at the major tanneries.
J.E. Gillis Furrier – The Sydney Wool and Stock Journal 1916
22. High Street, Willoughby (near Bedford Street) c. 1930s
22A. c. 1930s. C. Layton, Furrier & Tanner operated in this area.
Layton Fox skin Furrier & Tanner – Sydney Mail c.1830s
OTHER POSSIBLE TANNERS
23. There is a reference to a Trevitt having a tannery in the Willoughby District.[ii] There is evidence that a Trevitt family lived at ‘The Cedars’ 38 Penshurst Street, Willoughby c.1881.
Terry Fogarty, 2016
 Email from Gary Allison (2016), a Bailey descendant from interview with Edric Chaffer in 2003.Allison, Gary 2016, personal, descendant of George Bailey.
[i] Sand’s Sydney Directory of 1885 p.62 and 1893 p.1049 registers Jas (J.) Forsyth & Sons as ‘Tanners and Curriers[i]’
[ii] No author, 1907, Tanning Notes: The Willoughby Tanning Industry, The Australian Leather Journal, September 16 p.353
 A lighter is a shallow draught boat used for transporting goods and people.