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Leather Makers

the Gittos family of tanners and leather merchants, 1841-


1841-1991
Lisa J Truttman,
Truttman, 2008
Part 4
The end for the Gittos Tannery

Just two years later, rumblings of dissatisfaction with the state of things along the
Oakley Creek for the farmers who shared the water source with the tannery, came to
the notice of the Mt Albert Road Board.

In 1876, a Public Health Act had been introduced, replacing former Provincial
Council control of public healthy issues with that by local health boards. Territorial
authorities, such as highway district boards or road boards, were constituted as “local
boards of health”, reporting to a central board. i Under the terms of the Act, nuisances
to public health were defined, and each local board was required to inspect its district
for nuisances. While offensive trades, such as tanneries and wool-scoring operations
(both of which formed the basis for the Gittos’ business), could be outlawed outright
within a borough under the Act unless written consent was obtained, a road board had
few options, until far stronger powers were conveyed much later under succeeding
Public Health and Municipal Corporations Acts.

Four farmers adjoining the Gittos tannery (which was, then, just within the boundary
of the Mt Albert Road Board) named Woodward, Edwards, Young and Howard,
complained to the Road Board in 1878 that the tannery was poisoning the waters of
Oakley Creek which flowed through their own properties. At another meeting, there
were further complaints lodged, and a denial from the tannery. The board declined to
arrange for an inspection of the creek, and invited all those affect to attend another
meeting – only one of the Gittoses turned up. At yet another meeting, however,
complaints were laid against Woodward and Young for spreading city night soil on
their land; possibly a bit of tit-for-tat. The matter lapsed. ii
The Public Health Act was amended again and again in ensuing years, and in 1882
once such amendment dealt with drainage nuisances on the boundaries of contiguous
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boards. Now, the Mt Albert petitioners took their campaign to another level,
approaching the Avondale Road Board to do something about shutting the tannery
down. This board declined as well, and so Messrs. M. Woodward, John Burke,
Thomas Young, Thomas Read and Wright Lindsay took the Avondale Road Board to
the Police Court in April 1883 “to show cause why they should not cleanse a certain
water-course, known as Oakley’s Creek, bounding the Mount Albert and Avondale
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districts.” After hearing both sides, the complainants’ and the road boards’, the
magistrate ruled that “if the cleansing of the stream would be sufficient remedy he
might have made the order for such being done, but as, according to the evidence
adduced, the remedy involved the closing of the tannery, he could not make the
required order.” The only option left to the complainants, under the Act, was to take
the Gittoses to court themselves. This, they did in 1883, taking out an action for
£1000 damages to water rights against the firm. The result this time was an injunction
compelling a ceasing of operations at Avondale within three months. v

Benjamin and his sons had already started to make moves to leave the district. It was
reported in February 1883 that architect Edward Bartley had been commissioned to
design a new tannery complex at Richmond, using the Western Springs water supply
and draining straight into the Waitemata Harbour, “removed by the tide, so that no
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possible nuisance could arise.” This was to become, from 1884. the new tannery
called Bridgnorth (site today near Savage Street off Old Mill Road), five acres in
extent, with buildings from one to three storeys in height, designed by Bartley, built
by a Mr. Morris and with brickwork by a Mr. McLean. The facility included
caretaker’s residence, cart sheds, and stabling. Francis Gittos was back, serving as
manager, and Elijah Astley received an early mention in the press, lately from
Manchester (although via working for the Ireland Brothers at Panmure) and serving
as head of the leather-dressing department. vii

But in August 1884 came the first blow – Benjamin Gittos died, leaving the firm to
his sons John and James.
The next blow – was bankruptcy in 1891.
viii
John Gittos, giving his statement before the Official Assignee in 1891, declared
that the business of B. Gittos & Sons was prospering up to 1883. The civil action for
damages, however, forced their hand in moving to Richmond earlier than they had
planned. The injunction on operations at Avondale meant that they effectively
couldn’t operate for 18 months, given the amount of time it took to set-up the new
tannery and have the pits curing. The sale of their “Ingleton Estate” at Avondale was
only partly successful, so capital couldn’t be immediately freed up from that
direction.

They tried to compensate by reducing the total amount of the business’ overdraft –
but the bank, by now, wanted even more reduced, then security, and then declined all
further loans. An attempt to float the business in 1888/1889 as a limited liability
concern also failed – and now, Auckland was in the depths of the Long Depression.
The tannery went to their mortgagors, Parker & Jagger, for nearly £2000 less than the
price they paid for the buildings alone in 1883/1884. Finally, chased for overdue
interest, John and James Gittos declared bankruptcy.

One thing that stood John Gittos in good stead was the goodwill the company had
with those it had dealt with over the years. “The creditors present stated that they
desired to express their high appreciation of the conduct of the debtors during the past
five year, and their manful efforts to pay their debts under the exceptional and
adverse circumstances in which they were placed, owing to the stoppage of their
business and other causes, and that the unsecured debts have been reduced to so small
an amount as specified in the schedule: also that the Official Assignee be requested to
facilitate the bankrupts’ discharge.” ix

John Gittos had been a strong supporter of the St John’s Methodist Church in
Ponsonby for many years, including holding the posts of trustee and lay preacher. He
had donated the church’s organ and bell. But, according to Murray Gittos, soon after
the firm had filed for bankruptcy a deputation of church trustees visited John and
advised that in the circumstances it was appropriate that he relinquish his office in the
church. John apparently continued to worship at St. John’s even after this had
happened, but when a second deputation arrived on his doorstep, this time from St
Stephen’s Presbyterian Church asking him to join them, he did so. He was to become
Manager and later Elder at his new church. x

The firm of Benjamin Gittos & Sons continued to be listed in the directories until the
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latter part of World War I, although from the mid 1890s the business was styled in
advertising in those same directories as “John Gittos & Co, Leather Merchants.” John
Gittos was back to the original business his father began in 1857 – importing leather,
and making boots and saddles. He died at Devonport in September 1919, and is

buried at Waikaraka Cemetery in Onehunga. xii The tannery at Richmond didn’t long
survive him, if at all – it vanished from the directories in 1919. The land was vacant
for a long time before it was purchased for housing.

Brother James Gittos after the bankruptcy lived in his own home in Ponsonby, but
never married. He died accidentally in 1930 when he fell down the back steps of his
home, aged around 83.

Francis Gittos started up his own, small tanning operation on land he leased from the
Crown from 1890 xiii in what is now the Avondale South Domain at Blockhouse Bay.
This tannery was towards the bottom of the slope down Lewis Street.
Still, Francis Gittos left his mark in
the Blockhouse Bay district, as he
had in Avondale. His family
supported the building of the
(Anglican) Chapel of the Good
Shepherd, St Andrew’s Church hall,
and the Green Bay Mission Hall (this
last building now a Baptist church).
xiv
Just after World War I he moved
to his last home at Eldon Road in Mt
Eden, and died there in 1924, after
losing a leg to gangrene after a
xv
stroke. He is buried at the George
Avondale South Domain land leased by Francis
Gittos from 1890. LINZ record, NA56/293 Maxwell Memorial Cemetery in
Rosebank, Avondale.

The family’s close association with leather, however, was to continue down to 1991,
with Stan Gittos, grandson of Francis, the last of the line to cut bootlaces by hand
from leather, the last lace cut on 12 November that year. xvi

i
F. S. Maclean, Challenge For Health, A History of Public Health in New Zealand, 1964, p. 422
ii
Dick Scott, In Old Mt Albert, 1983, pp. 61-62
iii
Maclean, p. 417
iv
NZ Herald, 7 April 1883
v
Statement by John Gittos, NZ Herald, 26 January 1891, p. 3
vi
NZ Herald, 17 February 1883, p. 5
vii
NZ Herald, 16 May 1885
viii
NZ Herald, 26 January 1891, p. 3
ix
NZ Herald, 31 January 1891, p. 4
x
First There Were Three, p. 99
xi
Wises Directories
xii
First There Were Three, p. 99
xiii
NA56/293, LINZ records
xiv
R. Walker, “Let Us Worship”, from The 1990 Blockhouse Bay Settlers Handbook, p. 12
xv
Family history notes from Murray Gittos
xvi
Stan Gittos, “The Gittos Story of Leather, from 1842-1991”, via Murray Gittos.