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Searles Leather Expansion; 1895 to 1920 and a look at the Early Leather Industry

Categories // Default, General

We are often asked about the early history of the Searles and much of this is displayed in a picture essay on the walls of our Outeniqua room. What is not shown is the Why? Why did the company expand so rapidly and why was it so successful.

This is an attempt to answer the question bearing in mind that all the early Searle board meeting info has been lost. We also look into first leather tanning.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the Cape Colony was annexed by the British and officially became their colony in 1815. Britain encouraged settlers to the Cape, and in particular, sponsored the 1820 Settlers to farm in the disputed area between the colony and the Xhosa in what is now the Eastern Cape.


The war in the Transvaal: The Boers' method of fighting.
The Illustrated London News, 1881

The changing image of the Cape from Dutch to British excluded the Dutch farmers in the area, the Boers who in the 1820s started their Great Trek to the northern areas of modern South Africa. This period also marked the rise in power of the Zulu under their king Shaka Zulu.

Subsequently, several conflicts arose between the British, Boers and Zulus, which led to the Zulu defeat and the ultimate Boer defeat in the Second Anglo-Boer War.

From its beginning in 1859 Great Brak River was a little back road village started by an unknown family with little experience of business. It had a number of strong advantages. It was located on the banks of an unpredictable coastal river subject to flooding, and which was essential to cross when travelling east. It also had a decent bridge, crossable on most days of the year and it was in a country area far from the many major 'events' that subsequently took place.

Was it the brilliance of the Searle's family? We believe so but they were most certainly assisted by the happenings in the north and the east of the Cape colony.

Charles Searle senior retired in 1884 leaving the brothers, Charles junior, William, and Thomas to open the boot and shoe factory which came about in 1886 and a tannery in 1887.

Charles senior had been convinced that it was Great Brak River and not the operating of the toll that would lead their family to success.

The First Boer War, was a war fought from 16 December 1880 until 23 March 1881 between the United Kingdom and Boers of the Transvaal (as the South African Republic was known while under British administration).

This and subsequent more war rumblings must have been in their minds when they started creating their domain.

They soon started expanding and the Searles outlets opened in Knysna, George, Mossel Bay, Riversdale and Oudtshoorn.

Although concentrating on Boots and Veldschoens, they provided leather of all descriptions for harnesses and other related products.

During 1899, fearing attack from the Boer armies many local guard units were formed and these required good quality boots, saddles and outfits.


An advert from the South African Commerce and Manufacturing Record. 1908

The second Boer war took place from 1899 to 1902 which coincided with the rapid growth of the Searle factory which in the early days manufactured not only boots and shoes but were tanners and curriers (a currier is a specialist in the leather processing industry. After the tanning process, the currier applies techniques of dressing, finishing and colouring to a tanned hide to make it strong, flexible and waterproof).

They were fortunate in purchasing some equipment from the Drummond/de Marillac shoe factory, in close by Blanco, which was liquidated in 1902.

Charles Searle junior became a senator in the first Union of South Africa senate in 1910.

This obviously helped him to spread the company profile.

During 1914, world war two started and in the early war years, there were no tractors to pull the cannons or to position the large guns and this was left to the men and their horses. Both men and horse required suitable gear and leather was top of the list especially in bad weather.

To get back to leather and leather goods manufacturing we need to research its history and determine if it was also a low cost to entry market or otherwise?

By 1886, the Searles had purchased a good deal of land in Great Brak River and were fairly wealthy but they had no or little knowledge of leather. So where did the idea come from? Watching the foot traffic crossing the bridge and the constant need for good footwear and the repair thereof.

Early cave pictographs (could be as far back as 20,000 BC) show leather being used for clothing, the first reference to tanned the leather, however, isn't found until much later.

The earliest references to tanning (preserving the animal hides) appear around 8,000 BC -- and their methods aren't for the faint of heart. These pioneers of leather tanning scraped the hair from the hide and then treated it with urine or brains to preserve and soften the material. This process remained the same for several thousand years, although different civilizations used different substances, including brains, urine, dung, alkaline lime, fat, and salt.


Craftsmen dyeing goatskins. Copper engraving, ca. 1769, France. Courtesy of Granger, NYC.

When our ancestors learned how to wrap pieces of animal skin around their feet to protect them from stones and thorns, they were able to walk faster. When they found out that food could be transported in a bag made of animal skin, they could walk farther. By then they had already learned to cover their bodies with hides to protect themselves from the elements. Once they learned to tan the untreated hides to keep them from getting as hard as wood or rotting away, they produced flexible and long-lasting leather for the first time.

History credits the ancient Greeks with developing a revolutionary tanning formula using water-soaked leaves and certain tree barks to preserve leather. This process, called vegetable tanning, uses the tannins (thus, the term "tanning") that occur naturally in the leaves and bark. The tannins bind to the collagen proteins in the animal hide, coat them, and cause them to become less water-soluble, which makes them resistant to bacteria and prevents the hide from putrefying.

One of the earliest trades of our ancestors, the craft of tanning uses three primary methods-fat, plant-based, and mineral-based tanning-that are still in use today. The search for methods of preserving hides started in the early Stone Age, around 8,000 BC. To create waterproof leathers, humans began to rub fatty substances into the rawhides.

Around five thousand years later, the people of Egypt and Mesopotamia are said to have invented plant-based tanning, using the bark of Acacia Nilotic, or the gum Arabic tree. Plant-based tanning is a slow process that uses tannins occurring naturally in the bark and leaves of plants, most commonly mimosa, chestnut, and bark and results in a stiff leather. Plant tanning was not the only method known to the Egyptians. Craftsmen already knew much about tanning methods based on sesame oil and the mineral alum. The Romans circa 800 BC tanned a variety of leather-tough corium leather for sandals as well as a supple leather they named aluta-using the process now commonly known as alum tanning.


Early tanning pits in Britain.

Vegetable tanned leather became a well-established trade in Greece around 500 BC, and the Romans made wide use of leather for clothes, sandals, and military equipment such as saddles, harnesses, and shields. Decorations and embellishments entered the picture during the Middle Ages when artisans began tooling the material by pounding a stamp into the leather, creating a pattern. The Moors of Spain took the craft to another level with their intricately tooled leather saddles, which made their way to the New World in the mid-1500s by way of the Conquistadors.

With the arrival of vegetable tanning in the colonies, leather flourished as a vital part of everyday life both there and in Europe.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the history of leather takes a dramatic turn. In South Africa several boot and shoe factories had begun but probably lacking sufficient capital soon fell by the wayside.

The Industrial Revolution (1760 - 1840) changed how people made goods -- and how people consumed goods -- dramatically. With the introduction of machinery, leather could be made more quickly and at a lower cost. Although the quality was lower than before, consumers bought more, and producers made more. Industrialization also created a demand for new kinds of leather (like belting to drive machines), and even fashion got in the game with a demand for softer, lighter-weight footwear. Overall, a general rise in the standard of living led to a demand for colourful, ultra soft and supple leather -- and while vegetable tanned leather was (and still is) beautiful, smooth, and durable, it remained too thick and stiff to meet the new requirements.

The combination of new demands and new technology led to the development of chromium tanning (or "mineral tanning"), which irreversibly changed the craft of tanning leather. Mineral tanning uses chromium sulphate, which is faster than vegetable tanning, and produces a more flexible, stretchable leather, much better suited for mass production. But, unlike vegetable tanned leather, chromium tanned leather is not as well-suited for tooling, branding, painting, or carving.

Even so, after the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of chromium tanning, the practice of vegetable tanning nearly died out.


Left, The Searles Tannery Chemist 1920.

Chrome tanning produces a more supple leather, and better water resistance than vegetable tanned leather. It is also more resistant to stains and heat compared to vegetable-tanned leather. Hence it is ideal for boots and shoes.

Girls delivering ice, 1918 . Note the heavy leather aprons.


The process by which chrome tanning is carried out has a negative environmental impact. The toxic wastewater can seep into the ground and affect soil and groundwater supplies.

This is one of the reasons why the tannery in Great Brak River was closed. A large area of our river bank is filled with chrome leather offcuts and for safety sake should remain there.

References: Wikipedia, the History of Leather Tanning by Dr. Josephine Barbe and many others.

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