A Mossop Story

by Team MDS on Apr 15, 2024

A Mossop Story

Joseph Mossop was born in the heart of Wordsworth country, in the village of Cockermouth in the north of England. He was the son of a tanner. At the age of 26, Joseph and his wife Mary took a ship to the southern tip of Africa. After spending three years as a schoolteacher in Greyton Natal, young Mr Mossop settled in Cape Town. Here, an opportunity presented itself, one that was passed down by his forefathers, where he could return to the craft. He found a site that the firm would occupy for the next 135 years on the banks of the little Liesbeek river in rural Rondebosch. Negotiations were opened with a prominent Cape Town merchant, John Ebden, for its purchase. Ebden was starting a new business and needed capital for a little insurance firm to become known as Old Mutual, so the story began on Belmont Road.

Mr Joseph Mossop's son was the next to join the family craft, young 17-year-old Joseph Mossop Jnr joined the business. There were important developments, and a new partnership was entered into at Mossop's and Ernest Bartholomew Garland. The families were linked by marriage. In 1874, a year before his death, Joseph Mossop handed over control of the business to his son Joseph Jnr. Mossop and Garland grew strength on strength and in 1875 were awarded a special medal for display at America Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.

In 1891, Ernest Garland testified before a selected committee of the Cape upper house, investigating the protection and development of local industries. The two partners' sons, AE Garland and Percy Mossop, departed for England to study leather science at the Yorkshire college under the famous professor Proctor. Shortly after their return, the first Chrome-tanned leather was produced in the country at Rondebosch. Even through challenging times, the company found a way to stay alive. The Rinderpest epidemic destroyed the livestock industry in South Africa; hides became unobtainable. Mossop and Garland were reduced to tanning angora woolskins rugs. In 1899, the Boer war, which lasted until 1902, brought further problems. In 1907, Mossop and the Garlands parted ways, and the firm of Mossop and Sons Ltd was incorporated again with six directors including Joseph Jnr and son Percy. With 20 tanneries closing their doors in the Cape in the years following the war, Mossop was fortunate to have reserves to bail them out of tough times. Saddlery business kept them afloat as well, but efforts to sell these side came with challenges, which are still faced today.

In 1909, Joseph Jnr complained to the government about the branding of cattle and the loss to the tanning industry. In 1910, young Percy Mossop was forced to retire due to ill-health; his brother Harold, recently returned to the Cape after reading law at Cambridge, was called up to serve the company. Harold was a young man of remarkable qualities, and he quickly made himself an authority on the tanning industry. Soon he was able to take over the management of the firm's affairs and free his father Joseph Mossop Jnr for what lay dear to that veteran businessman's heart, the affairs of the South African Manufacturers Association, out of which grew the Cape Chamber of Industries. By the time the First World War ended in 1918, Harold Mossop, as managing director, had assumed full control. He quickly instituted new lines of manufacture in that spirit of innovation and radicalism which marked the Roaring Twenties. He proved that his plant could produce glace kid of the highest quality from South African goatskins, and he gave practical effect to his belief that there was a much wider field for his firm's products than that offered by the domestic market. In this regard, Mossop's were the pioneers of the country's leather export trade on which much of the industry's health has rested since. Much water has flowed down the Liesbeek since the end of World War I. In this time, the memory of World War II has gone; we are merely reminded of the time in books and film. It seems so long ago. Yet it still is possible to appreciate the courage and vision of Harold Mossop in entering the export field and pioneering new markets for South African products. Moreover, like his father before him, he worked for the organisation of the Industry as a whole and took a leading part in the affairs and work of the Cape Chamber of Industries. He was president of that body from 1920 to 1921 and was recalled again to further continue his work from 1922 to 1923.

Harold Mossop's only son, Ralph Harold Mossop, was sent to study leather at the Technical College in England before joining the firm in 1936 when he was thoroughly trained in every department. In keeping with the family tradition, Harold Mossop gave his son complete control of the technical aspects of the company's activities. Once again, a working partnership between father and son operated successfully for many years. Ralph Mossop immediately installed a chemical laboratory at the Liesbeek tannery so that the scientific processes of tanning could be controlled and perfected as new developments occurred in this ancient craft. Africa's tanning industry was worth R20 million a year, and Mossop had become a great name in the footwear industry. During World War II, the company made a substantial contribution to the Allied cause. It became a major supplier of leather for the boots in which the armies marched through the demands of Europe to final victory. In those years, Harold Mossop was a driving force on the Army Boot Committee. From its own hides, South Africa, under the direction of the committee, stepped up its production from 530,000 in 1940 to 2,179,000 pairs in 1945. On his retirement in 1957, Harold Mossop was succeeded as managing director by Ralph, who not only served a term as president of the South African Tanners' Association but also as president of the Cape Chamber of Industries, thus maintaining a family tradition. Three months after the retirement of Mr Mossop, Albert Packham, his cousin and a member of the Board of Directors, who for nearly 50 years had held the responsible post of company secretary, also retired from the business.

During the post-war period, the company was fortunate to have as its chairman another distinguished family member: Sir Allan Mossop, after whom present MD Anthony's elder son is named, returned from service in China as a Crown Court judge in colonial Shanghai and guided the decisions of the board for many years. On his death in 1964, his nephew, Ralph, became both chairman and managing director. In the latter half of the 20th century, there have been changes in the South African tanning industry every bit as radical as happened previously. The chemical industry emerging after the war, fuelled by German inventions in organic synthesis, spawned a whole host of new products, including polymers and man-made fibres which found a ready market in footwear production. Particularly for soles and insoles, competing directly with the natural veg-tanned leathers which formed the core of Mossop's business. Developments were swift, and during the '50s and early '60s, many tanneries closed their doors or embraced the new technology from the US and started to produce upper leathers from hides; until then these light leathers had been produced mainly from calf and goatskins, One of the problems of being an old-established family business, with - by that time - a large and widespread body of indifferent shareholders was the inertia and lack of funding to change the course of events. While their competitors such as Jing Tanning, Western, and Bagshaw adapted to changing markets, Mossop continued to rely on veg leathers in a huge variety for its survival. When Ralph's oldest son joined the family business in 1961 fresh from school, the time was right for change.

Tony Mossop left for London and as History would have it the same college his forefathers to study the family tradition. He carried a precise brief from his father nearly 30 years earlier. Learn all you can about making chrome-tanned leather. Tony Mossop's return from studying in London marked a significant turning point for Mossop Leather. With the veg leather market declining, Tony's expertise in chrome tanning and the addition of Hugh Gray as a marketing partner revitalized the company. They focused on producing side leathers, which became their core business. Despite facing a takeover attempt and industry challenges, including restructuring and investment in new equipment, Mossop Leather flourished under Tony and Hugh's leadership. The company's innovative approach and focus on quality earned them a strong reputation in both local and export markets. Eventually, Mossop Leather was sold to the OSB group in 1979, marking the end of an era but securing its place in the larger material supply chain.

After the move to new premises in Parow Industria, Mossop Leather, under Tony Mossop's leadership, continued to evolve. The relocation marked the end of sole leather production and the beginning of a focus on upper leathers. Despite economic challenges, including apartheid sanctions impacting the economy, Mossop Leather thrived. The company underwent further changes, including a name change to Mossop Leather and the sale of the North Cape Tanning division. This period also saw the formation of Silveroak Industries, integrating various leather businesses under one umbrella. Peter Kaufmann's vision of an integrated raw material and industrial group came to fruition, leading to significant investments and expansions. The 140th birthday celebration in 1986 was a notable event, foreshadowing the company's continued success and growth. Tony departed his role looking over the business in the early 2000s.

2005 saw the tannery move all operations to its new amalgamated company, Western Leather facility on Hermon Road in the Winelands Western Cape town of Wellington. After some hard-fought years, I got the company right. A graduate of ICLT Institutes for Creative Leather Technologies, Gert Kruger, a proud Karoo man, took the reins of Mossop Leather; under his watchful eye and attention to detail, he led the company back to calm waters and then on to further success.

Today, Mossop Leather stands as a modern and world-class leather producer, a far cry from its beginnings. Over the years, the company has evolved significantly, from being all things to all men, to being a purpose-built tannery with a keen understanding of its strength in civilian and industrial footwear leathers, while also utilising its position of being in a vertical supply chain with its new shareholders the Rahman Group, Bier Group, and Bolton Footwear. With a current production capacity of 15 million feet of leather annually, Mossop Leather has become a major player in the industry. The company has significantly invested in modernizing its production facilities, including acquiring improved finishing machinery and re-equipping, as well construction of a state of the art drying facility and the dyeing department with efficient new drums. In addition to these changes, Mossop Leather today has also implemented software technology as a production tool to drive efficiencies and on-time delivery. Mossop Leather has also obtained various accreditations, such as a silver rating from the Leather Working Group in 2022. These developments have not only improved the quality of their products but have also opened up new markets and opportunities for the company. With a workforce of 200 dedicated employees, many of whom have generational.