The Establishment of the Tanning Industry in the St Marys District

Little information is available about the development of St Marys’ tanning and bootmaking industries prior to the commencement of the local paper, the Nepean Times (NT), in the early 1880s. However, from the available documentary evidence it appears that tanning was the first industry to be established in St Marys, taking advantage of the ready supply of water (from both the creek and nearby springs), the availability of hides through the local cattle industry and the local supply of suitable tanning bark.

While it was claimed in 1884 that “at one time” there were no less than twelve tanneries, large and small, in full swing (1), no documentary evidence has been found to identify or locate most of these, the majority of which would have been small, one-man or family operations.

However, local sources, which are largely based on oral history, have identified at least four sites which are believed to have been operating as tanneries by the 1850s.

In reminiscences relating to the village in the 1850s two of these were described as follows :

“Next to Spratbrow” (who had a small slab shop on the south-western corner of the Western Road and Mamre Road) “was the residence of Tom Pasking (sic), who had a saddlers shop and tan yard”. From the present site of Victoria Park “right back to Mamre, stretched the ‘Fattening Paddock’ … (which)… belonged to Mr Page, who had the first tannery here, which was situated on the bank of the creek”. (2)

Of the above, Paskin’s tannery is reputed to have been established in the early 1840s, while the Land Titles Office (LTO) records show that Page purchased his tannery site in January 1856 (3).

The other tanneries believed to have been established by this time were those of Samuel Thompson and Thomas Harford. The former was located on the eastern bank of South Creek, facing the Western Road, and according to family history it started in 1850 with only six pits and seven hides. (4)

In 1853 land was purchased a little further to the west by Thomas Harford. This site was developed as Harford’s Tannery and Boot Making Factory and in 1887 was described as the oldest tannery in the district (5). As Paskin’s tannery was still operating at this time, but under different ownership, this may mean that Harford’s had remained under the one ownership for the longest time; that Harford was leasing his tannery site prior to purchasing it in 1853; or that Paskin’s tannery was not established as early as suggested in some local records.

Despite the apparent suitability of the area to the establishment of tanneries their ‘success was by no means guaranteed, and by the beginning of 1866 John Page’s Saylhurst Tannery had been sold to Robert Saddington following the closure of the mortgage (6).

However, the fortunes of the tannery improved greatly under the new ownership and in 1870 the tannery of ‘Saddington and Sons at South Creek’ was described as one of the most extensive establishments of the kind in the Colony. It employed 48 hands and produced an average of about 350 hides per week (7). Saddington’s works were named the ‘Colonial Tannery’, but within the town they were commonly referred to as ‘the big tannery’.

The Growth of the Industry

In 1872 Saddington was one of only five tanners listed for St Marys in the Post Office Directory. The others were Thomas Harford, Daniel Lord, Thomas Paskin and Matthew Webb & Sons (8). However, over the next few years there was considerable activity which was reflected in changes in ownership and in the establishment of new works. The purchase of a small tannery by Martin Brell in 1879 (9) and the establishment of new works by Andrew Thompson (the son of Samuel Thompson) in 1881 (10) were of particular note as these were to become the two largest tanneries in the district. Within one year of opening his new works in Saddington Street Andrew Thompson had increased the number of pits on his site from 10 to 128 and was employing 25 men (11).

In addition to the above the ‘Parkhill Tannery’ was opened in the vicinity of the present day Desborough Road by Mr. R. Hamilton (c.1874); a large, new site was purchased on the western side of the Windsor Road (Queen Street) by Matthew Webb (1876); Saddington’s tannery was sold to Thomas Henry Alcock and Joseph Davenport (1879); and Thomas Paskin’s tannery was sold to John Herford (c.1882). (12)

Variable Fortunes

From the 1880s the major events in the history of the tanneries of St Marys were well documented in the Nepean Times and it is possible to gain a clearer understanding of their role within the town.

The insecurity of employment associated with the tanning industry during this period must have been a major factor in the development of St Marys. Frequent references were made in the Nepean Times to the difficulties associated with drought (insufficient water), wet weather (inability to dry the hides), the destruction of the tanneries by fire, and the vagaries of the market (ie. the periodic conjunction of a high price for bark and/or hides and a low price for leather). Mismanagement was cited as a problem on at least one occasion (13).

Despite the excellent supply of water from the creek and underground springs drought was still a major problem in the operation of the tanneries, large amounts of fresh water being required for the various stages of the tanning process . In May 1882 this was reported as being a major factor in the closure of St Marys “centre piece of industry”, Mr Alcock’s tanyard. A “considerable number” of people lost their jobs and most of these were forced to go elsewhere to seek work (14). In October of that year the tannery was sold to Ebenezer John White, but despite (or perhaps because of) the ” great improvements” which he made to the tannery, White became insolvent in just over a year and was forced to sell (15). From this time the tannery appears to have remained largely idle until the beginning of 1887 (16).

The mid-1880s appear to have been difficult times and at least two other tanneries changed hands during this period – both apparently due to financial difficulties. In 1886 Webb’s tannery was offered for sale as Section I of a subdivision of the site, but was not sold until 1891. The management of the tannery was taken over by a Mr Forsyth, but by 1888 various other allotments with4Ln the subdivision were being sold by W.C. Hill and W. Clark, as mortgagees exercising the right of sale (17).

At the same time Thomas Harford sold his tannery site to John Harris of Shane Park for- 1000 pounds, but he obviously had no intention of leaving the town or changing his line of business, because he continued to manage the works as a family concern until the mid-1890s (18). However, despite these ‘bad times’ many of the tanners of St Marys managed to survive and some seem to have thrived.

In February 1887 it was reported that the “… tanning industries at St Marys are now looking up immense. There are now seven yards doing a fair amount of work. Altogether these employ between 50 and 60 hands, and will very soon increase this number” (19). The seven tanneries noted in that article where those run by W. Carberry (the manager of Harford’s Tannery and Boot Making Factory and the largest employer at that time), Martin Brell (Brell’s tannery), Mr Farrell (the manager of Wilson’s tannery – originally Page’s), Mr Forsyth (the manager of Webb’s tannery), Robert Hamilton (Parkhill Tannery), John Herford (Herford s tannery – originally Paskin’s) and Andrew Thompson (St Marys Tannery) (20).

Consolidation of the Tanning Industry

By 1890 there were eight tanneries operating at St Marys, but in the following year Mr. Herford’s business had grown to such an extent that he took up new premises on Eastern Creek. Some of his equipment was transferred to another local tannery and his St Marys yard ceased to operate (21). One of the only new tanneries to be established during the last few years of the century was that of Robert Desborough who had opened his yard on Phillip Street (near the south-western corner of the present-day Desborough and Bega Streets) by April 1895 (22).

However, this did not mean that the tanning industry was entering a period of decline, but rather a period of consolidation. During the 1890s the established tanners spent considerable money on upgrading and expanding their works and on adopting new technology.

In 1891 Webb’s yard was sold to Andrew Thompson who subsequently developed it as his ‘No 2 Tannery’ (23), and by 1895 Thompson was reported as making “great additions to both of his tannery yards”. New buildings were being erected under the supervision of an architect, 25 additional pits were put down in the old yard and 9 or 10 in the new yard. At the same time Desborough and Hamilton were reported as having introduced steam to their works (24). Later in the same year Harford’s tannery was sold by the administrators of John Harris’ Estate to Martin Brell, who had owned the adjoining tannery since 1879. He subsequently upgraded and combined the two works and in 1897 purchased additional land to the rear of his property to further enlarge the yard. (25).

Despite the great improvements to St Marys tanneries the weather and fire were still major threats to the industry and in April 1897 it was reported that some of the local tanneries were again being threatened with closure because of another extended drought (26). Later in the same month six thousand pounds worth of property was destroyed by a fire at the Colonial Tannery (the site originally established by Page in the 1850s) (27), and two years later eight thousand pounds worth of damage was done by a fire at Thompson’s No. 1 tannery (28). However, the response to these disasters was immediate and both fires were followed by major rebuilding programmes (29).

By 1906 the industries of St Marys included four tanneries which were operated by Messrs Andrew Thompson, Martin Brell, Robert Desborough, and J. L. Anschau & Sons. The latter were the only new tanners to move to St Marys in the early 1900s, having taken over the Colonial Tannery in 1902 and re-established it as the Colonial Tannery of Anschau and Sons, Tanners and Blucher Manufacturers (30). During the first decade of the twentieth century these four yards appear to have provided steady employment for about 60 men.

In 1907 the three major tanneries were Thompson’s (which employed 26 hands and treated an average of 520 hides per week), Brell’s (which employed 15 hands and treated an average of 450 hides per week)and Anschau’s (which employed 14 hands and treated 100 hides per week as well as producing a large quantity of bluchers – ie. 2,589 pairs in the first quarter of 1905). (31)

The main drawback connected with leather manufacturing at St Marys at this time was attributed to the heavy charges which tanneries had to pay in railage and cartage, both in obtaining tanning supplies from Sydney, and forwarding the finished article to the capital. The railway rate on bark railed from Sydney to St Marys was 3s 5p per ton for large quantities and 4s 8p for smaller consignments. To that had to be added the cost of cartage (2s 6p per ton) from the stores in Sydney to the railway station (32).

The Closure of the Major Tanneries

The first of the major tanneries to close down was Anschau’s Colonial Tannery which was sold in 1911 and apparently no longer used (33). In about 1915 this was followed by St Marys Tannery which closed with the retirement of Andrew Thompson (34)

Both Desborough and Brell were still operating their yards in 1930, but Brell’s tannery closed after his death on 17 January 1934, and Desborough’s followed sometime during that decade. By the beginning of the Second World War the only tanneries operating in the district were those at nearby Werrington and Kingswood (35).


  1. Nepean Times, 12 January 1884
  2. Nepean Times, ‘Old St Marys – As It Was in the Fifties’
  3. Land Titles Office, Book 41, No 527
  4. Andrew Thompson was working at this tannery at the time of his father’s death in c.1863. The tannery was subsequently run by Samuel’s family and then by his widow’s second husband, Mr Mitchell (Source: Mr Bert Evans).
  5. Land Titles Office, Book 29, No 735
    Nepean Times, 15 June 1907: Letter to the Editor
    Nepean Times, 20 January 1934: Brell’s obituary
    Nepean Times, 26 February 1887
  6. Land Titles Office, Book 97, No 242
  7. The Industrial Progress of NSW, Being a report of the Intercolonial Exhibition of 1870, at Sydney 445
  8. Stapleton, E., Other Days, Other Ways, St. Marys Historical Society, 1985
  9. Land Title Office, Book 196, No 466;
    ; Nepean Times, 20 January 1934: Brell’s obituary
  10. Nepean Times, 9 November 1918: Thompson’s obituary
  11. Nepean Times, 21 & 28 October 1882
  12. Nepean Times, 26 November 1921 Hamilton’s obituary (Parkhill Tannery)
    Land Titles Office, Book 163, No 781 (Webb’s Tannery)
    Land Titles Office, CT Volume 464, Folio 26 (Colonial Tannery) NT, 19 March 1927 : Herforti’s obituary;
    St Marys Historical News, Spotlight on History NO: 5 : 18 (Herford’s Tannery)
  13. Nepean Times, May 1882 (Drought)
    Nepean Times, 12 January 1884 (Market Prices)
    Nepean Times, 12 December 1891 (M34.s-management)
    Nepean Times, 24 April 1897 (Fire)
    Nepean Times, 5 August 1899 (Wet Weather)
    Nepean Times, 26 August 1899 (Fire)
  14. Nepean Times, May 1882
  15. Land Titles Office, CT Volume 536, Folio 125;
    Nepean Times, 23 August 1884
  16. Nepean Times, 12 January 1884 (tannery lying idle)
    Nepean Times, 26 February 1887
  17. Mitchel Library, St Marys Subdivision Box, Richardson and Wrench auction poster dated Saturday 2 October 1886
    Nepean Times, 26 February 1887
    Land Titles Office, CT Volume 431, Folio 186
  18. Land Titles Office, Book 357, No 694
    Nepean Times, 6 April 1895
  19. Nepean Times, 26 February 1887
  20. Nepean Times, LTO records; PCL,LHC
  21. Nepean Times, 4 July 1891
  22. Land Titles Office, CT Volume 1039, Folio 68
    Nepean Times, 20 April 1895
    Mr L. Stapleton, ST Marys Historical Society
  23. Land Titles Office, CT Volume 1042, Folio 51
    Nepean Times, 16 October 1897
  24. Nepean Times, 9 March & 13 April 1895
  25. Land Titles Office, Book 557, No 731
    Nepean Times, 6 April 1895
    Nepean Times, 25 December 1897
  26. Nepean Times, 10 April 1897
  27. Nepean Times, 24 April 1897
  28. Nepean Times, 26 August 1899
  29. Nepean Times, 21 August 1897
    Nepean Times, 26 August 1899
  30. Nepean Times, 24 March 1906
    Australasian Leather Trades Review, 1 June 1905 : 17
  31. Australasian Leather Trades Review, 2 December 1907
    Australasian Leather Trades Review, 1 June 1905 17
  32. Australasian Leather Trades Review, 2 December 1907
  33. Land Titles Office, CT Volume 905, Folio 75 ,Sands Directory
  34. Nepean Times, 9 November 1918 : Thompson’s Obituary
  35. Wise’s New South Wales Post Office Directory