Sunday, October 26, 2008

Bell & Gemmell and the Riversdale Tannery

Image from a detail from Deed 40, LINZ records.

 The Bell and Gemmell tannery remains a mystery at this stage. I know roughly where it was: along the Whau River shoreline, between the railway line and bridge (north of Olympic Park) and the Whau Bridge at Great North Road. This was all land owned by John Buchanan, one of the early elders of the Avondale Presbyterian Church. But, with Bell (a member of the Whau Public Hall Committee and auditor for the Highway District Board) and Gemmell either working for Buchanan or leasing the property for the tannery from him, details are sketchy. There is, however, a likely archaeological site worth investigating along that stretch of the river, if anyone cared to give it a go.

The tannery appears to have been operating as early as 1878. In November 1879, the firm won a first prize at the Auckland Agricultural & Pastoral Show for "sole leather, sides, kip, butts, tweed, calfskins, memel kip, belting, hose leather, black and brown harness and bag leather." That's quite a range of product. All else that is known comes from a scattering of contemporary sources. Herald, 1882: "On part of Mr. Buchanan’s estate, at the head of the Whau Creek, is the fellmongery and tanning establishment of Messrs. Bell and Gemmell, who, from small beginnings, have now succeeded in acquiring a business which is as large as their plant can overtake. They are now making additions to buildings and machinery with a view to an extension of their trade.

Out of the 16 acres available they are about to plant a considerable breadth in wattle, so as to produce their own wattle bark at first hand, and save expense of importation."

Weekly News, 1883: "The Riversdale tannery and fellmongery (formerly Messrs. Bell and Gemmell's), recently converted into a company concern, has been enlarged, fresh pits put down, and additional machinery added of an improved description. Adjacent, some ten acres of land have been planted with black wattle for tanning purposes. This factory, and the older established one of Messrs Gittos and Sons, near the railway station, are now turning out large quantities of manufactured leather for local use and the interprovincial trade." Herald, 2 February 1884 (11 days before the auction of the property in the above image): "The Riversdale Tannery, situate on Mr. Buchanan’s estate farther westward, has been enlarged, and the machinery improved by the Riversdale Tannery Company. This factory is still on the fringe of the settled sections of the district, but if the Auckland suburban population pushes westward at the pace it has done of late years, it is only a question of time when the above institution will also be requested to “move on”."

 From Parliamentary reports, AJHR, H-14, 1884: T. Thompson prepared a report for the Premier, including an extract from Auckland merchants Potter & Co, regarding "The Cultivation of the Wattle". "I enclose copies of some information re wattle-growing in Victoria, also the result obtained from a tree cut down by Mr. Bell, manager of the Riversdale Manufacturing Company, Avondale, Auckland. I may mention that this company have 10 acres planted with wattle. The trees have been planted three years, and are now 12ft. high. Other 30 acres were planted last year, and are doing well ..." Memoranda from Mr. Bell, Avondale. "I cut down one of the wattle trees growing by itself on the Riversdale property, stripped and dried the bark, and it weighed when dry 56lb. This would give about 90 tons per acre for four or five years' growth. The tree I cut down would be four years old."

 By 1885, however, it appears that the firm had vanished from Avondale's landscape. Perhaps Buchanan pulled the plug in selling his "Avondale Estate" in February 1884. Perhaps the Long Depression began to bite, and the removal of the Gittos Tannery in 1886 convinced the firm to pack up and leave the area themselves. I'm just not sure -- but if anyone reading this sees any further references to them or to the tannery, I'd appreciate the info.

 An update (31 October 2008): On reading through some notes and articles I have on the Gittos tannery in Avondale, I saw that both a Mr. Bell and "R. Gemmell" were around in the Whau village in the late 1860s, associated with the Whau Minstrels, which took in most of its members from the Gittos tannery. Slender stuff, but Bell & Gemmell, like Elijah Astley, may have learned the skills of the leather trade while working at Gittos', and then branched out with Buchanan's assistance.

 Further update (5 November) here.

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