Leather Makers

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

Part 1
Early settlers to New Zealand came to a land stranger than their homelands of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland, but fairly rapidly they began to study and experiment with our native trees and plants to work out how best to utilise them and either make life easier in the new colony, or to turn a profit. In the Hokianga in 1841, one Benjamin Gittos looked at the native trees near where he and his family, newly arrived in the colony, lived – and pondered on how each different bark would do in order to provide the curing agent for animal hides. From out of that curiosity would spring a business that lasted into the early 20th century, and a landmark industry in the history of the Avondale district. Tanneries in early Avondale and Waterview were located near sources of running water. One was started by John Buchanan, near the head waters of the Whau Creek c.1878 ; others appeared for a time along the banks of the Whau on the Rosebank Peninsula; while two existed along the Oakley Creek, that of the Garrett Brothers at the site of Thomas’ Mill at the mouth of the Oakley later in the nineteenth century, and the earlier tannery of Benjamin Gittos just south of what is now Avondale Heights. Only those of the Garretts and Gittos family were full-scale commercial set-ups, lasting longer than a few years. John Buchanan’s business, known as the Riversdale Tannery, was operated by Bell & Gemmell, both of whom may have been former employees of the Gittos tannery from the 1860s. An enduring tannery business, Elijah Astley’s (another former Gittos employee) just across the boundary in New Lynn, was also located near the Whau River.

Arrival in New Zealand
Benjamin Gittos was born in 1808 in the town of Bridgnorth, Shropshire. His father appears to have been a draper and tailor, and also at some point an auctioneer. For some reason as yet undetermined, Benjamin left his home in 1826 to emigrate to Australia, but his
Benjamin Gittos. From Murray Gittos collection.

ship was wrecked on the Godwin Sands before he left British waters, and he ended up instead in the village of Ingleton, County Durham. There, he met and married Ann White, and they had their first three children there: William, Hannah and Mary. It is said that Benjamin was a well educated man, and took on tutoring as a source of income in Ingleton.

In 1840 came the decision to emigrate to New Zealand and the new settlement of Te Mata, in the Hokianga, being founded by Ann’s two brothers, William and Francis White. The Whites were Wesleyan missionaries at the Mangungu mission station. The Gittos family left from London on the barque James, as steerage passengers, and after ports of call at Hobart, Port Nicholson (Wellington) and the infant Auckland, they arrived at the Bay of Islands in April 1841, before going inland to their destination at the Hokianga. There, they named their home “Ingleton” after Ann’s home village. Whatever had happened in 1826 that had precipitated Benjamin’s initial journey away from his birthplace, he seems to have shut the door firmly on that part of his past. His first two sons, William and Francis (the latter being the first son born in New Zealand) were named after his brothers-in-law, and the name “Ingleton” was to follow the family through to 1884.

The family grew by two while at the Hokianga, sons Francis and John born there. According to his great-grandson Mr. Murray B. Gittos in his book First There Were Three (a history of the White and Gittos families), Benjamin’s education earned him a solid reputation up north and he taught the children of the other settlers for a living. But this alone can have hardly been enough to sustain them. In a later statement from 1870, Benjamin described his experiments with finding the right mix of natural dye and tannin in the bark of native trees around his home. When residing on the Hokianga River, in the year 1841-42, I tested the various qualities of the towai, rimu, tanekaha and hinau barks, and although the results showed that they all contained a portion of astringent qualities, yet by no means sufficient to guarantee a profitable return for the outlay of capital. The towai was deficient in the gummy, resinous properties for which the English oak is so celebrated; the rimu possesses too much gum of a dark blood colour, and too little of the tanning principle; the tanekaha has a superabundance of dye, with a moderate amount of tanning principle, which latter is counteracted by the presence of a large quantity of turpentine; and the hinau contains too much black dye, which must be very objectionable in the appearance of leather.

Benjamin may well have gained some knowledge of tanning and tanneries from his birthplace at Bridgnorth (located on the River Severn, and the site of several tanneries up the river) or in Durham, where while I couldn’t find a record of a tannery at Ingleton, they appeared to be scattered throughout that county, as long as there was flowing water nearby. He had early contact in that period in the Hokianga with Bishop Pompallier (although Gittos himself was Wesleyan Methodist) as the bishop, according to Gittos family tradition, regarded him as: …the only really educated man in the north and later, in Auckland, Pompallier arranged for Benjamin to teach in the Catholic school while awaiting the arrival of priests qualified in teaching. Given the antipathy that existed between

Wesleyans and Catholics it suggests that Benjamin was unusually wellqualified as a teacher.2 Bishop Pompallier landed at the Hokianga in 1838, then moved to Kororareka (Russell) in 1839. His mission built a printery there, now known as Pompallier House in 1841-42 (around the time Benjamin Gittos arrived in New Zealand). The printery served as a tannery for the leather binding of the Bibles and religious texts the printery produced which were in Maori. The printery also used the bark of the black wattle, Acacia mearnsii, as the source of the tannin for the leather they made, and imported it from Australia. It is coincidence, I would imagine, that the two men who knew each other both had links with tanneries in New Zealand and the introduction and use of black wattle tree bark. But it is still an intriguing possibility that Benjamin Gittos may well have been fully aware of the pioneer printery and tannery at Korareka, and this could have led him to his bark experiments at the Hokianga.

1 2

Benjamin Gittos statement, Report of Committee on Colonial Industries, August 12 , 1870 Murray B. Gittos, First There Were Three, Biographies & Genealogies of the White/Gittos Families, Second Edition 1992, p.74


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