History of the Old Tannery

The “Old Tannery” in Wellington was established in 1871 as the Western Tanning & Boot Company.

The “Old Tannery” in Wellington was established in 1871 as the Western Tanning & Boot Company. It was founded by John Henry Coaton on his farm Olyvenhout, which adjoined Wellington. J.H. Coaton was a former railway worker from Yorkshire, England, who presumably brought a knowledge of tanning and footwear manufacture with him to South Africa.

In due course, J.H. Coaton brought his sons Bertie and Bob to Wellington. A third son, Bill, is said to have taken up law and, after qualifying, joined the firm as a secretary. The brothers determined to ramp up the tannery’s production. They employed 160 workers and embarked on an ambitious project to tan thousands of skins and manufacture 100 000 pairs of shoes per year. 

Very quickly, the Western Tanning & Boot Co. developed into a truly southern African enterprise: skins and hides were sourced from the Cape Colony and the two independent inland republics – Transvaal and Orange Free State – and even Rhodesia to the north; coal and whale oil came from Natal; tallow, bass and lime came from the Cape colony; and salt came from the Orange Free State. 

Power for the factory was delivered by a steam engine and turbine that delivered 100 horse power.

The factory and its modern machinery produced a wide range of shoes and boots, as well as harnesses and bridles. It also manufactured high quality shoe soles. Power was delivered by a steam engine and turbine that delivered 100 horse power.

By 1910, the year that the Union of South Africa was created, the tannery was a large establishment consisting of several buildings, modern machinery and at least 200 workers. Shoes were produced under the brand “Olyvenhout” and sold by small traders in Cape Town and Kimberley (which was booming following the discovery of diamonds there in 1871).

By 1910, the tannery was a large establishment that consisted of several buildings, modern machinery and at least 200 workers.

The Great Depression of the early 1930s created serious challenges for the Western Tanning & Boot Co. but an injection of finance from a group of Cape Town businessmen, coupled with the employment of three specialists from Germany, put the company back on an even keel. They were Hugo Kocherthaler, managing director of a women’s fashion shoe factory near Berlin, his designer, H. Gassett and his young friend, Sigbert Fleischmann.

At this point in time, shoes were manufactured under the brand name, “Panther”. Interestingly, Alfred Jordan, the founder of Jordan Shoes – a household name in South Africa – originally made shoes for the Panther brand before leaving the tannery to create his own shoemaking business.

Sadly, in 1939, the shoe factory was totally destroyed by fire and it never re-opened. The tannery, however, continued to operate successfully, specialising in the production of shoe upper leathers, clothing made from sheep and goat skins, and lining leathers. With the closure of the shoe factory, the company reverted to its original name, “Western Tanning Co.”

Until 1940, the business was in the hands of the Coaton family but in that year it was sold to B. Rosenthal, and in 1944 it was taken over by S.A. Mercantile, a supply business located in Port Elizabeth. Jimmy Carter, a hard drinking and colourful individual, was appointed executive chairman of the tannery. His background was in selling imported leather and he expected the tannery to emulate international practice and produce high quality products.

As with tanneries in other parts of the world, the disposal of comparatively large volumes of highly saline effluent became a problem and in 1961 legislation was passed that prevented the pumping of effluent from the tannery into the nearby Krom River. Working in partnership with the Department of Water Affairs, the company built a series of evaporation ponds, with the idea that during Wellington’s hot, dry summers, the worst of the pollutants would evaporate from the effluent water.

Improvements to the evaporation ponds were made in 1986 and again in 1997 with the installation of a high-speed oxidation plant.

By the year 2000, approximately 140 000 m² of leather was produced per month, enough to supply half of all the leather used in South Africa

In 1969 the Western Tanning Co. became a branch of the Searle-Desiree Investment Corporation, and in 1982 it was bought by Vleissentraal and Edworks, which at the time were shareholders in the King Tanning Co. in King Williamstown.

Vleissentraal gained full control of the company in 1986.

In 1996, Western Tanning Co. merged with Mossop & Son Leather, a company with an equally long history of tanning and producing leather products. Mossop Leather was founded in 1846 on the banks of the Liesbeeck River in Cape Town, and later moved to Parow Industria, to the north of Cape Town. Following the merger, the company’s name was changed to “Mossop Western Leathers”.

In 2000, the Parow factory was closed and all tanning and manufacturing was consolidated in Wellington. At this point in time, the company produced approximately 140 000 m² of leather per month, enough to supply half of all the leather used in South Africa.

Two thousand cow hides per day were tanned and processed and 750 000 pairs of shoes could be produced from the leather. The company began to expand into the international market, with 15% of leather production sold overseas.

In 2006, the buildings and land that today constitute the Old Tannery were sold, and in 2007 Mossop Western Leathers moved to a smaller and more modern facility nearby. With the Old Tannery unoccupied, the property began to decay and when the current owners purchased it, the buildings were seriously dilapidated.

The process of reclaiming the timeless splendour of the Old Tannery is well underway and it is envisaged that in time the property will provide a matchless venue for people to eat, drink, shop and work.

Information courtesy of the Wellington Library, Wellington Museum and Mossop Leather.