Tanning – The Historical Tradition

The Historical Tradition

Tanning is one of the oldest colonial industries; the earliest known tanners in the country operated in Sydney from 1803 (1). Directories and statistical registers record the growing incidence of this trade although Bigge’s enquiries in 1819/1820 revealed that few of its practitioners at that time were trained in the profession. The quality of their product was said to be poor.

From 1830 until 1848 there were approximately five to seven tanneries operating in Sydney, approximately six at Windsor and possibly another four at Parramatta. Liverpool, Campbelitown, Maitland and Bathurst all had two or more (2).

In 1848 legislation was enacted which provided for the removal of noxious industries, including tanneries, outside city limits. This led to the establishment of tanneries at places such as Botany, Willoughby and Auburn (3). By the later 1880s a number of tanneries were extremely large and older technology was replaced by mechanisation. Some nineteenth century tanneries still operated within the metropolitan area until very recent times.

There is little or no evidence available at this time with respect to the development of the bootmaking industry in the colony.

The Extended Data Base

A number of tannery sites have left extant remains in New South Wales. They cover a considerable chronological period. At Windsor traces of the timber lined tanning pits of William Busby’s 1820s tannery are discernible on the banks of a creek adjacent to the brick and concrete structures of the later Anschauls tannery (4). This site has been classified by the National Trust. An early tannery site at Berry on the South Coast has recently been located and classified by the Trust.

Until recently Norton Brothers Tannery at Botany operated from a tannery site originally exploited during the early nineteenth century by Simeon Lord. J. Bunce and Sons, also at Botany and until quite recently, operated from original 1887 pits using vegetable tan. During the 1970s it still retained all the traditional technology in situ. This site has been classified by the National Trust. Another tannery site at Botany, Enoch Taylor and Co., has also been classified.

The Hemlock tannery at Auburn was also the site of an original nineteenth century operation and survived until the same date (5). W. Chaffer and Sons tannery at Willoughby, built in 1890, survived intact alongside newer technology at least until 1979. This site has been classified by the.National Trust.
The Pioneer tannery on Burns Bay at Lane Cove, a very large tannery of the 1880s, was demolished in 1941, however, the sites of three tanning pits are still intact and the site has been classified.

The sites of a number of famous nineteenth century tanneries are known of but long since built over, for example James Forsyth and Sons Tannery at Willoughby is now the site of the bus depot (6).

Outside New South Wales a number of tanning sites have also been preserved. For example, the 1840s tanning pits of the Tasmanian Bothwell Tannery survive as well as the millstone of the bark mill; this appears to be a unique relic. On Maria Island (off the East Coast of Tasmania) there appears to be the remains of a convict operated tannery of c.1825 – 1832 (7).

“It has been concluded with respect to the significance of tannery sites in New South Wales that flit would be difficult to overestimate the significance of the tanner’s craft in nineteenth century Australia and the number of old tannery sites that must still lie undetected along creek and river banks in the older parts of the colony.” (8).

However, it has also been recognized that, despite the number of extant sites and good documentary evidence which survives, the state of knowledge and understanding regarding the function and layout of these sites is still rudimentary. In particular dating the various changing aspects of the tanner’s craft is still uncertain and the variations produced by different local conditions is an unknown factor.

Only one bootmaking factory has been classified by the National Trust in New South Wales. This is the Forward Boot factory at Bondi Junction which, in 1980, contained industrial buildings and structures. There is little available information regarding the development of the bootmaking industry in this state.

The Potential Archeological Resource

Any tanning site required perennial water. This was usually a stream which may have been dammed either to ensure the water supply or to provide power for a mill. Mills were later run by steam. The mill was used to grind the wattle bark to produce the tanning liquor.

In addition to water, tanneries required a large number of lime, water and tan pits from 24 to 30 in a small establishment to upwards of 60 in larger businesses. The earliest pits appear to have been simply dug into the clay and lined with timber planks set horizontally about 150mm apart with puddled clay between them to seal them. Later, planks about 80mm thick were set vertically and by the later 1870s brick and stone lined pits were in widespread use. However,

“Such dates are the roughest of guidelines, since local conditions would certainly determine the materials of constructions (9)

Sheds and other buildings housed the various functions of the trade. The latter began as fairly ephemeral structures and became complex and substantial structures. For example a description of a tannery at Lane Cove records that the main building was four storeys high with numerous substantial outbuildngs (10).

A typical tannery site of the nineteenth century contained an office, a weighing room, a storage shed, layer pits, handler or floater pits, leaching pits, suspender pits, lime pits, an offal pit, a water pit, a beam house with mastering pits, a bark store and a bark mill (11).

The most enduring characteristic of tanning sites are the various pits. Traces of these elements have survived from the 1820s until the present time. In addition, soil science testing can reveal evidence within these sites of the processes used to tan (12). Even when pits have long since been filled with silt or rubbish the disturbance to the subsoil remains and very often this results in the growth or luxuriant vegetation on the site. This difference, or “crop marks”, may be seen in slanting light or on aerial photographs. It has been concluded that,

“Of the early city yards… nothing has survived subsequent urban development. Out of town, unless floods have removed all traces, physical evidence must remain.” (13).

In many instances the roads which led into the site were given names which can provide clues to the earlier use, for example the name of the tanner or some of the processes.


  1. Birmingham, J. et.al. Australian Pioneer Technology, 149
  2. Birmingham, J. et.al. Australian Pioneer Technology, 149
  3. Birmingham, J. et.al. Australian Pioneer Technology, 148
  4. Birmingham, J. et.al. Australian Pioneer Technology, 147
  5. Birmingham, J. et.al. Australian Pioneer Technology,
  6. Birmingham, J. et.al. Australian Pioneer Technology, 149
  7. Birmingham, J. et.al. Australian Pioneer Technology, 147
  8. Birmingham, J. et.al. Australian Pioneer Technology, 149
  9. Birmingham, J. et.al. Australian Pioneer Technology, 147
  10. Birmingham, J. et.al. Australian Pioneer Technology,148
  11. Adapted from plan of Rhapadr Tannery in Ibid., 146
  12. Pers Comm. D. Bairstow Soil Science testing on the tan pits at Carrington Port Stephens.
  13. Birmingham, J. et al. Australian Pioneer Technology, 149