Dictionary of Sydney

The Dictionary of Sydney was archived in 2021.

Waterloo Tanning School

Cite this

Waterloo Tanning School

The Sydney Technical College Tanning School, later known as the Waterloo Tanning School, first opened at Circular Quay in 1909. It remained there until 1916 after which it was relocated to Waterloo and operated until 1999 when it finally closed. The School was an extension of the Sydney Technical College, one of a series of off-site specialist annexes which the Technical College operated in Sydney.

Technical education in the trades

With the opening of the Sydney Technical College in 1891, the advantages of technical education for young apprentices in Sydney were increasingly recognised by some of Sydney's trades and industries. The tanning and leather trade was one of the oldest industries in Sydney but still reliant on training and techniques that had been superseded by increasingly sophisticated machines, equipment and a changing market. Through much of the nineteenth century, the leather industry in Sydney had been primarily focused on the boot leather trade, producing heavy work boots using leather of indifferent quality. Although there were some notable exceptions, this trade didn't require high levels of skill in treating or dressing leather. [1] However by the turn of the twentieth century, demand for better quality leather goods required higher skill levels in the workers. Training in the use of the technology and safe use of the various chemicals involved became an ongoing and time consuming issue.

Recognising the need for better education and seeing the possibilities in the developing field of technical education in Sydney, some of the main employers in the leather and tanning industry in Sydney began lobbying the government for the establishment of a tanning school.

The first school

In 1905 a campaign to open a technical tanning school amongst the leather and tanning trades began. Curiously the campaign was opposed by the bootmaking trade unions who considered training young bootmakers to be counter productive because of the high levels of unemployment in the industry. Those in favour of the training considered this approach industrial suicide in an era when the ever-changing conditions of industrial life and advances in machinery demanded a continuing education. [2]

Between 1905 and 1909 negotiations continued with the government while meetings with representatives from the tannery industry in Botany, Willoughby and Granville, Sydney's three main tanning locations, gathered support for the scheme. [3] In February 1908 the campaign was given a boost with the commencement of bootmaking classes as part of the Sydney Technical College.

Delays in finding a suitable instructor and a building were overcome in early 1909 and the school was opened on 18 May 1909 in a two-storey building in Ferry Road, Circular Quay. The official opening was attended by over 60 'gentlemen', including 13 trade representatives. The first machine was officially switched on by the President of the New South Wales Chamber of Manufactures, the Honourable John Gibson Farleigh. [4] The head lecturer was Mr Frank Coombs, a man with a long history in tanning in New Zealand. [5] At the opening Coombs explained the course structure he had set down, which included practical training in leather preparation and finishing as well as a focus on chemistry, which was becoming ever more important in an industry wanting to increase the grade of the leather it produced.[6]

The new school was divided between its two storeys: the bottom floor housed the wet work area with tanning drums and vats for treating hides, while the upper level had a lecture room, leather dressing section, laboratories and office space. The machinery for the school had been provided by the government and the building offered to the College rent-free.

While the program of teaching young apprentices was roundly applauded, the running of the school was considered by some to be less than desirable. In 1912 Coombs was assisted only by one young man, who attended during the day to clean machines and prepare for the classes. As most classes were at night, it was left to Coombs himself to teach and supervise 26 students as well as run the entire operation, over two levels of the building, including the machinery. [7] Further to this, teaching in chemistry as it pertained to the tanning industry was undertaken at the Ultimo campus of the Technical College as there were no facilities or space at the Circular Quay site.

Classes in 1912 were attended by a range of people, from 15-year-olds, to young men and even some employers, who took advantage of Coombs's expertise and the opportunity to learn the most up-to-date methods and theories. The course was run over a four-year period, with the first year covering the basics of hides, tanning and leather work, the second year building on the first with some tanning chemistry and the third-year students undertaking a major project and learning more about physical chemistry of the hides and further general and tanning liquor chemistry. Fourth-year students were encouraged to undertake research into new methods and materials. [8]

Reform of the tanning school

In July 1913 a proposal to reform the tanning school was put forward at a meeting of the Master Tanners and Curriers Association of New South Wales. The school had a close relationship with professional bodies and employers in the industry in Sydney and had sought their opinion on how best to reorganise itself. The inclusion of the employers and the trade unions covering the tanning industry was sought so as to tailor the courses to the most practical outcome for the industry. Further, it was decided to restrict the course to genuine apprentices and adults involved in the industry rather than making it open to any applicant as it had been previously. This had been found to attract enthusiasts undertaking the course for a hobby which was not considered viable for the long-term future of the school.

Students would be taught in the practical side of tanning and leather production, and in machinery work as well as the chemistry and theory behind the industry. This, it was hoped, would produce better employees and be of greater benefit to the industry overall. Australian tanners had suffered because technical skills were not taught effectively, and as a result their products competed poorly against imported leather goods, particularly from Europe. The training the school could provide was seen as one way this could be overcome. Employers were also encouraged to allow their apprentices to attend day classes, rather than having to work through the day then attend night school. It was noted that other trade schools, such as the Bootmaking School at Erskineville was now operating successfully on this model. [9]

A proposal was put forward to move the school to a more convenient location closer to the tanning industries around Redfern and Botany. Tanneries had been established in the southern districts of Sydney around the Waterloo Swamps and Sheas Creek by the middle of the nineteenth century. Some of the large tanneries, such as Alderson and Son in Bourke Street, Redfern, employed more than 300 workers in all stages of the process.

The Waterloo Tanning School

By 1916 an old bootmaking factory in Waterloo, previously owned by LJ Bowen, had been purchased to house the school. The Department of Public Instruction paid £1,934 for the site which included a two-storey brick factory on the corner of John and Cope streets, Waterloo. [10]

In late 1916 the machines from the Circular Quay site were moved out to Waterloo, joining new machines purchased for the school, and classes began there in January 1917. Although the new Waterloo building was larger and more convenient than the former school, a drop in student numbers had occurred during the First World War, with an average of 20 students enrolled each year. This was down from around 34 per year between 1909 and 1914.

With the end of the war, numbers began to increase once more. The school was adapted to take on vocational training for returned servicemen and was extended in 1919 with an annexe added and new machines installed. [11] Vocational training for returned servicemen continued at Waterloo until around 1922.

In 1929, the Waterloo Training School was included in the Sydney Technical College diploma course, offering a higher level of technical education as well as the trade course. Those who undertook a diploma course were recognised as Associates of the Sydney Technical College, an achievement highly valued within many professions, including the tanning and leather trades. Students who studied for the diploma were required to attend the college at Ultimo for classes and the Waterloo school for practical lessons. Although the diploma course provided a higher level of tuition and training, the take-up of students was slow, with just one student enrolled in the diploma course during its first two years, compared to over 150 for Electrical Engineering (1929–30). [12]

Despite the low number of diploma students in the late 1920s and 1930s, the school continued to build on a reputation for high quality work and training. Work of the students was regularly on display, including by some Sydney department stores such as Farmer & Co who displayed works in conjunction with lectures on leather and tanning by the school's head, Frank Coombs, in 1923. [13] A large part of the school's success and growing reputation was due to Frank Coombs. Coombs had been involved with the tanning industry for most of his life and had studied chemistry at Otago and Sydney universities. He was a regular contributor to the scientific and technical literature of leather production and treatment as well as being a practical hands-on teacher. He used the school to experiment with different tanning and production techniques and introduced a number of new methods to the industry, for example the use of shark skin for the production of shoe and bag leather in 1928. [14] By the mid-1920s, Coombs was a recognised authority in the tanning industry in Australia in both the practical and chemical aspects of the trade.

Indeed the success of the school was such that in 1935 it was recognised in a report to the Premier of New South Wales, the Honourable BSB Stevens, as an example of a small but efficient trade school where industrial and experimental research could be undertaken with direct benefit to the industry. The Waterloo school was considered to be of a high enough standard to form the nucleus of a Commonwealth school for leather work. [15] Although there was some discussion about the removal of the school to the Ultimo campus, endorsement of the site by industry figures appears to have swayed the debate and the school was kept at Waterloo.

Tanning for the war effort

With the outbreak of war in 1939, the Waterloo Tanning School applied some of its methods to the manufacture of clothing for the war effort. Coombs and the Tanning School were employed in the treating of sheep skins for use as vests for the RAAF, RAN and merchant seamen for service in Europe and the Pacific. [16]

In 1944, Frank Coombs retired as head of the Tanning School after 35 years and was replaced by Dr Harold Anderson. After the end of the war, Anderson worked to strengthen the ties between the school and the industry. As head of the Australian Leather Research Association (ALRA) from 1954, Anderson built a strong working relationship between both institutions, allowing the ALRA access to plant and equipment for experiments in return for providing the school with lecturers and chemicals. [17] Anderson also oversaw upgrades to the schools machinery through the 1950s and 1960s in association with the ALRA, keeping the students abreast of the latest technology being used in the industry. Anderson died in 1965.

Although the tanning industry was in decline in Sydney from the 1960s, the school continued to take enrolments, with numbers between 20 and 30 per year undertaking the leather and tanning courses through the 1960s and 1970s.

The school remained in operation as part of the Sydney Technical College (later Sydney Institute of Technology) until its final closure in 1999. The school had outlived the industry in Sydney: when it opened in 1909 there were 78 tanneries, when it closed there was one. [18]


[1] S Fitzgerald, Rising Damp: Sydney 1870–1890, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1987, p 153

[2] 'Opening of the Sydney Technical Tanning Classes, Ferry Road, Circular Quay', The Australasian Leather Trades Review, 1 June 1909, p 32

[3] A Quarter Century of Technical Education in New South Wales, Government Printer, Sydney, 1909, p 270

[4] 'Opening of the Sydney Technical Tanning Classes, Ferry Road, Circular Quay', The Australasian Leather Trades Review, 1 June 1909, p 35

[5] 'Education: Technology of Leather', Sydney Morning Herald, 8 March 1910, p 3

[6] 'Opening of the Sydney Technical Tanning Classes, Ferry Road, Circular Quay', The Australasian Leather Trades Review, 1 June 1909, p 36.

[7] The Australasian Leather Trades Review, 10 July 1912, p 40

[8] The Australasian Leather Trades Review, 10 July 1912, p 40

[9] The Australasian Leather Trades Review, 11 August 1913, pp 10–12

[10] Report of the Minister of Public Instruction for the Year Ending 1916, Government Printer, Sydney, 1917, p 9

[11] Waterloo Tanning School-Industrial Heritage Study prepared for the NSW Department of Commerce by C & MJ Doring Pty Ltd, 2005, p 15

[12] N Neill, Technically & Further: Sydney Technical College 1891–1991, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1991, p 39

[13] The Australasian Leather Trades Review, 12 June, 1923, p 26

[14] 'Leather from Sharks', Sydney Morning Herald, 22 June 1928, p 10

[15] Report to the Honourable BSB Stevens, MLA (Premier of NSW) on the Technical Education System of New South Wales, cited in Waterloo Tanning School-Industrial Heritage Study prepared for the NSW Department of Commerce by C & MJ Doring Pty Ltd, 2005, pp 20–21

[16] 'Sheepskin Vests', Letters to the Editor, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 July 1940, p 7

[17] Waterloo Tanning School-Industrial Heritage Study prepared for the NSW Department of Commerce by C & MJ Doring Pty Ltd, 2005, p 24

[18] Sands Sydney, suburban and county commercial directory, 1909, Company Index, p 1632