Leather Makers

the Gittos family of tanners and leather merchants, 1841-1991 1841Truttman, Lisa J Truttman, 2008

Part 3 Establishment of the company: the Gittos family at Avondale
In 1845 war flared in Northland between Nga Puhi and the British government. In the midst of the panic that ensued, the Gittos family were evacuated to Auckland in the government brig Victoria in January 1846. Any home industry Benjamin may have started in the Hokianga was cut short, and he was left to start all over again. The family set up a home in Hobson Street (freehold), and Benjamin became a teacher. Gittos, the youngest son, was born in Auckland in 1847. 2 In June 1849, a public meeting was held in the Catholic School Room in Auckland “to take into consideration the necessary measures for erecting a Teetotal Hall.” The aims were to have a meeting place for the Pt Patrick’s Total Abstinance Society, and a place during the day “devoted to educational purposes” as the existing school room was inadequate. A Mr. Gittos was appointed to a committee “to open a subscription list, and to adopt the necessary measures for erecting St Patrick’s Hall.”
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Two years later,

Benjamin Gittos was secretary of the committee, advertising for subscriptions addressed to the Church of St Patrick in August 1851, and then a month later calling for

“Benjamin Gittos Esq, A Token of Grateful Respect For Favours Received By James Redfern, 1863.” From Murray Gittos collection.

carpenters and joiners to submit tenders for the new building. 5 The hall was complete by 1852,

and formally opened by Bishop Pompallier in 1853,


but by then, Benjamin

Gittos appears to have left his Catholic connections. In April 1854, as one of the members of “the Congregations worshipping in the Wesleyan and Independent Chapels, High Street”, he signed a petition opposing the establishment of a hotel to be named “Bunch of Grapes” near Albert Barracks. 8 That year, he was listed in the Jury List as a shoemaker, in Hobson Street. 9 By 1857 he was in the leather and grindery business, and rented premises in lower Wyndham Street, importing boots and shoes.

“Leather and grindery” was a traditional term used

by wholesalers to the shoe repair industry, and also supplied harness makers. He had “a new brick shop” in Wyndham-street by August 1863, 11 and by 1864, he was producing his own trade currency. His penny had no artistic pretences and was a straight-out advertisement. The Obverse stated: “B. Gittos, Leather Merchant. Importer of Boots and Shoes” while the reverse was: “Wholesale and Retail Leather and Grindery Stores, Wyndham St, Auckland, NZ.” 12

Benjamin went into business as a combination of retail and wholesale – but was to take the further step into manufacturing with the advent of another war. The tanning and currying business of Auckland has hitherto been conducted by one firm, and the dealers have been under the necessity of importing what the province presents every facility for manufacturing. One firm alone have sent to Sydney a considerable sum of money every year for leather, the material for which has been exported from Auckland by another firm to a very large extent. Mr. Gittos, leather dealer, of Wyndham street, has therefore resolved to expend a considerable sum of money on the erection and fitting up of an extensive tannery at the Whau, plans and specifications of part of which have been prepared by Mr. Keals, the architect, and will be let by tender this day.

The land on which the premises are to be built was bought by Mr. Gittos from Mr. Spiers [A. H. Spicer], and is a very eligible site for the purpose, possessing many natural advantages. There is an area of 24 acres, with a commodious house on it, lately in Mr. Spiers' occupation. The water supply, so essential in a business of this nature, is all that could be desired, and will be improved as the business is extended. From the hides, fresh from the slaughter-house, to the dressed leather fit for the use of the boot maker or the saddler, the different stages of its manufacture will be carried on.

The process is a long and tedious one, and both patience and capital are required in carrying on such a business; the green hide of to-day requiring as long as from twelve to eighteen months in its preparation before it passes from the currier's shop to the hands of the mechanic. The longer the process, and the weaker the infusion used in the tan-pits, the more durable is the leather, and the more impervious it is to wet. The building at the Whau will be a compact two-storey construction, with offices and fixtures complete for carrying on an extensive business. To commence with, there will be nine tan-pits and .three lime pits, the latter 8 feet by 5 feet and 7 feet deep; five of the tan-pits will be 7 feet by 5 feet and 6 feet deep, and the other four 5 feet long by 4 feet wide and 5 feet deep. Machinery has been sent for from Tasmania, and is expected to arrive shortly.

The building is to be constructed of kauri, and where exposed to damp or weather only heart of kauri is to lie used. Between each pit there will be a distance of 15 foot, and a separate drain for each will be constructed. The upper floor will be used for currying, and racks will be fitted-up the entire length of the building for drying and seasoning purposes. There will be a sloping platform the full width, firmly pinned to 4 x 3 posts, 7 feet high, and a three-feet passage round the building. Its erection is to be completed by the 25th of January next, by which time Mr. Gittos will be in a position to commence operations in earnest. There are a large number of hides exported to Sydney by Messrs. Ireland, too, and these causes have led to the steps taken by Mr. Gittos for the establishment of another tannery …

Mr. Gittos has already been offered a large supply of hides, which are at present exported to Sydney, at so much loss to the labour-producing trade of Auckland. The barks used, too, will be largely mixed with all the New Zealand specimens, but chiefly towai and the white and black birch; although the New Zealand barks are characteristically weak, and fail to possess that gummy resinous property which others possess, and which are essential in the tan. Mr. Gittos has had a large supply of Wellington tanked leather, which he pronounces very much superior to Sydney tanned, although it is not manufactured with Now Zealand barks. In his Whau tannery there will be accommodation for 200 pits all along a fine level flat. But the business will not be confined to the fellmongering, tanning, and currying alone, but will embrace that of wool-cleaning and dressing, for all of which purposes a large continuous supply of water is absolutely necessary. This has been secured in the admirable site chosen for the purpose. 13

The property Gittos secured was in three parts. The majority was part of Allotments 58 and 62 of Titirangi Parish, owned from 1861 and 1863 respectively by Archibald Hitchens Spicer but obtained from him in October 1864 by Gittos under payment of the

Map of the Gittos Tannery at the Whau, from survey plan for Kaipara Railway, c.1879. From Murray Gittos collection.

equity of redemption when Spicer failed to repay mortgages. The remainder was part of Josiah Buttress’ Stoneleigh farm (Allotment 65), after the New North Road had been dedicated through his property in 1863, isolating a portion bounded by the Oakley Creek, the new road, and Blockhouse Bay Road. Gittos may have leased this from Buttress until 1868 when he purchased it outright, along with a north-west corner of Buttress’ farm where the Avondale Baptist Church and local fire station stand today. 14 Further west, Thomas Henderson found a solution to the recreational needs of his saw mill workers: he started annual race meetings. In the Whau, the temperance-supporting Benjamin Gittos would have required some sort of similarly non-alcoholic pastime for his employees – and the Whau Amateur Minstrels began. At first, the singers went doorto-door at New Years, singing to the residents (so Dr. Thomas Aickin recalled). Then, in March 1867, the Minstrels performed publicly to raise funds for the building of the district’s public hall.

A number of young men of musical ‘proclivities’ belonging to the Whau district having banded together under the above title, determined to give a musical entertainment to their friends, and accordingly the event came off on Friday evening last. A pavilion was speedily erected, with stage &c. beautifully decorated with flowers, evergreens and two fine specimens of the nikau in the centre towered over all, and claimed the admiration it ever receives; while, thanks to the artistic labours of Mr Bell, over the top of the stage was suspended a curtain, having upon it a well executed design of the Royal arms, (flanked by the “Stars and Stripes”), the “implements” of the profession, and over all the words “The Whau Minstrels” … The whole affair passed off without a single hitch to mar the evening’s enjoyment; and for the nonce, the ‘Whau’ was changed from the ‘valley of desolation’, as the name implies, into a scene of innocent mirth and amusement. The caustic amenities usually interchanged between ‘Brudder Bones’ and his colonial competitors for popular favour, were interspersed with some smart local allusions which added additional piquancy to the entertainment.

Several of the “Minstrels” are employees at Mr B. Gittos’ tannery establishment at the Whau, a fact which would go for to prove the efficacy of the old proverb, “there’s nothing like leather.” There could not have been less than 250 persons present, a number of whom were ladies and gentlemen from town. J. O. Hamley Esq., Military Superintendent of Stores, kindly furnished the tarpaulins for the pavilion, and to Messrs Henderson and Macfarlane, and Capt. Nearing the ‘Minstrels’ were equally indebted, for the use of the bunting belonging to the Alice Cameron. 15 The hall was completed and opened in November 1867 – and still stands today in St Georges Road, although moved slightly on its site and enlarged. That month, 24-year-old Francis Gittos proposed at a meeting of the Hall Committee that “the members of the Committee procure as many books as possible for the formation of a library for the Hall,” thus initiating the first (although subscription only) library in the district. 16 In January 1874, Benjamin Gittos announced that his sons John and James were entering the firm, to be re-styled “Benjamin Gittos & Sons.

John, 29 and James,

27, seem to have replaced their elder brother Francis, 31. However, Francis had left the firm by February 1874, and was fêted by his friends in the Whau District “prior to his departure for another portion of the colony for the benefit of his health.”

“I cannot give expression by words to my present feelings. I never dreamt that my services for the advancement of the district would have been

thought so much of, and that I should have been favoured with such a banquet as the present. I have tried to do my duty as a citizen as well as I could, and I am happy indeed to receive

Francis Gittos. From Murray Gittos collection.

such marked recognition at your hands. I shall ever cherish the remembrance of this evening in my mind wherever I may go, and should Providence again permit me to return to my former home – the Whau – where I have spent about 11 years of my life, I shall with pleasure do all I can in the furtherance of the interests of the district.” 18 Where Francis went to for the next nearly eight years isn’t known at this time. Two years later, in June 1876, Francis’ name was struck off the roll for the Eden electorate. 19 In November 1881, however, Francis purchased part of Benjamin Gittos & Son’s Whau property to the south of New North Road for £600 from the firm and their mortgagors, the NZ Loan and Mercantile company. 20 “At the eastern angle of the junction of the two roads, and opposite the Whau tannery, Mr. F. Gittos has fenced in, cleared, and laid afresh in grass a tenacre section which under other ownership had lain desolate for a quarter of a century. On this he has built a six-roomed residence for himself, and another

dwelling for letting. It was regarded by many practical farmers utter folly to expend money on such soil – the “cold clay soil of the Whau”, as the phrase goes – but the result was not only satisfactory to himself, but proved a stimulus to others to take up the Gallagher, the owner of one of the finest estates in the district.” 21 In the 1882 sale of the Rosebank Estate, the former farm of Robert Chisholm, both the firm of Benjamin, John and James Gittos, and Francis Gittos,
John Gittos. From Murray Gittos collection.

purchased sections, and planted them out.

“Messrs. Gittos and Sons have some ten acres in oats out of their 30-acre section; it was light fern land, and put down in oats. The crop is an excellent one, and is now in stook. Further westward, Mr. F. Gittos has also a fine crop of oats on the section purchased by him, and which will be cut down by Mr. Bollard this week with his combined reaping and mowing machine. “22 In Francis’ absence from the district, Benjamin Gittos stepped in to become a benefactor and community stalwart for the Whau residents. His wife Ann died on 16 June 1874, after a long and painful illness, according to reports published in papers as far afield as the West Coast of the South Island. By the end of that year, Benjamin was the examiner for the Whau Public School,
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harking back to his early days as a

teacher in the Hokianga and Hobson Street, and in January 1875 he was elected onto the Whau School Committee. He may have been the “Brother Gittos” who was a

member of the Excelsior Lodge of Good Templars in the Whau during 1875, or this may even have been his son John. The Good Templars supported temperance,

another issue dear to Benjamin’s heart. James Gittos was elected to the Whau Highway District Board in July 1875.

One of the Gittos family was also present at

the annual meeting of the Whau Presbyterian Church in September that year. 27 In January 1876, the Gittos family organised an event for their workers which seemed, on the face of it, to go against their temperance sympathies. Perhaps, though, the supply of alcohol at what was likely to have been the biggest shin-dig the Whau district would have seen for years, may well have been tightly controlled – and part of a general good-will exercise by the firm for their local community. “Perhaps the gayest party that ever was held in the Whau took place on Monday evening, 10th inst., in the Whau Public Hall. The Messrs. Gittos, with their usual liberality and large heartedness, thought they could not celebrate "Little Christmas Day,” or "Twelfth Night," better than by giving their employees and their friends, together with a large number of the principal residents of the district, a ball and supper.

“One of the chief objects was to foster and encourage a more kindly and neighbourly feeling towards each other, which, no doubt, will be the result, for all such gatherings that on Monday night have a tendency to unite one another more closely in one common brotherhood, and to rub off the cold restraints which society imposes, and which is so detrimental to the social prosperity of country districts. “The hall for the occasion had been decorated with flags and evergreens, and the stage portion was converted into a refreshment room, with a long table across the hall, and seats on either side. The curtain of the stage was dropped, thus cutting it off entirely from the ball room. The refreshment table, which was ably presided over by Mr. and Mrs. Davis, was kept abundantly supplied with everything that could be desired. The wine and spirit department was attended to by one of Messrs Gittos' employees, who did his work well, and to the satisfaction of all who patronised him. The tastes of the lovers of John Barleycorn were not forgotten, as in a small room at the back a good-sized keg [of beer?] was on tap, and was well looked after. “Shortly after 8 o'clock, Mr. Gemmell, M. C., announced a quadrille, when the admirers of dancing soon responded. A very judiciously arranged programme of eighteen dances was gone through during the night, and at the close, Mr. Sinclair, on behalf of the visitors, proposed a hearty vote of thanks to the Messrs Gittos for their kind invitation. Seconded by Mr. Hepburn, and responded to heartily by all present with "For they are jolly good fellows." Mr. J. Gittos was very attentive to everybody during the evening, and did all he could to make everyone comfortable. Mr. Turrell, jun., was pianist on this occasion, and played well and on a good instrument. About 40 couples were present. It would be well if employers of Labour generally showed such an active interest in the welfare and amusement of their employees. We hope to see the example set by Messrs. Gittos become more general than it is at present.” 28


“List of Men within the Town & District of Auckland in the Province of New Ulster, liable to serve on Juries for the year 1851-1852.” Sighted on http://ouraucklandstuff.freeserve.com, 29 May 2004. Benjamin Gittos is listed as a “Teacher”. 2 Murray Gittos, p. 100 3 Southern Cross, 13 July 1849

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New Zealander, 20 August 1851, p. 2 Southern Cross, 30 September 1851 6 New Zealander, 14 August 1852, p. 3 7 Southern Cross, 18 March 1853 8 Southern Cross, 21 April 1854, p. 2 9 Southern Cross, 7 February 1854 10 First There Were Three, p. 75 11 Southern Cross, 13 August 1863 12 John Cresswell, “The Money Merchants”, Auckland Waikato Historical Journal, April 2001, No. 77, p.2 13 Southern Cross, 19 November 1864, p. 5 14 Deeds indexes for Allotments 58, 62 and 65, LINZ records 15 possibly from NZ Herald, early March 1867, from pp. 143-148, Vol. 22, Scrapbooks, Auckland War Memorial Library. 16 Heart of the Whau, 2003 17 Public Notice, Southern Cross, 14 January 1874 18 Speech by Francis Gittos, reported in Southern Cross, 7 February 1874, p. 3 19 Electoral Revision Court report, Southern Cross, 14 June 1876, p. 3 20 Deed 73090, DI A2.246, LINZ records 21 NZ Herald, 24 June 1882 22 NZ Herald, 2 February 1884 23 Southern Cross, 22 December 1874, p. 3 24 Southern Cross, 25 January 1875, p. 3 25 Southern Cross, 10 June 1875, p. 7 26 Southern Cross, 31 July 1875, p. 2 27 Southern Cross, 28 September 1875, p. 2 28 Southern Cross, 12 January 1876, p. 3

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