Write your life

This page is dedicated to stories of people connected to, or from the village of Dunoon, NSW. It is a place for people to share their own stories. Some of our contributors are from a local “Write your life” group, and others are people connected to Dunoon as a resident, worker, visitor or through relatives. Please send in your contributions to editor@dunoongazette.com or contact your local Write your life group.

The Hemmant Tannery
by Douglas Leighton Kesteven

The below extract from this story is in the Dunoon and District Gazette Issue No 199, December 2023-January 2024

In many cultures status has been determined by work. Those doing smelly work like butchers and tanners usually had a lower social class than others. In Japan, families from these industries were the lowest in the social order. However, these trades were pivotal for our evolution from hunter gatherers to the highly urbanised society of today. It is possible that the technical skills required to maximise output — beyond the initial butchering of a beast — meant that those involved were often smarter and thus sometimes richer than their social position would suggest. Their offspring have often excelled in other fields.

In the recent past, we owe a huge debt to Katalin Kariko, daughter of a Hungarian butcher, who was key in the development of MRNA vaccine for Covid. In the 19th century Louis Pasteur, son of a French tanner, set modern medicine on its upward path with his discoveries of the principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation and pasteurisation. In the 18th century there were tanners in my family, but later generations have included numerous medical doctors and scientists.

From the beginning of European settlement in Australia tanning was a critical industry. The first factory in Australia was Wilshire’s tannery in 1803, earlier than flour or woollen mills. Leather was critical for shoes, horse and bullock transport, shipping and, of course, for making cat-of-nine tails to whip convicts. Later in the 19th century tanneries were common. In Sydney there were nine tanneries alone in the St Mary’s and Penrith areas in the 1890s. With government tariffs protecting shoe manufacturers, the shoe and tanning industries were a dynamic part of Australian industry until the 1980s. Donald Dixon’s Hemmant tannery was one of the biggest from 1960 to 1980. Tanneries are now a minor industry in Australia with only three large ones left. There is an appendix on the tanning process at the back of this reminiscence.

This reminiscence concentrates on the Donald Dixon tannery at Hemmant at the mouth of the Brisbane River from 1950 to the 1980s but also makes mention of Donald Dixon’s forbears including Thomas Coar Dixon, his grandfather, who was the founder of the successful T C Dixon tanners and shoe factory of West End, Brisbane. The T C Dixon shoe factory is today preserved as the Thomas Dixon Centre, a performing arts destination and home of Queensland Ballet.

View the full story on Trove at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-3263548330/view or download the PDF version below as submitted by Douglas Kesteven to the Dunoon Gazette.

There is further historical information about the Tannery at the Brisbane Local Heritage Places website – https://heritage.brisbane.qld.gov.au/heritage-places/1762