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These two were not just a couple of adventurers with fiery ambition. There was something special - they had a head for business too. The year was 1842, and gaslight introduced South Africa to rapid industrialism, which generated a hub of activity.
Those were the days when young men went into the fields, the mills, the mines. Those were hard times but young Joseph was quick enough to be fortunate. Thomas Mossop, a Keswick tanner who perfected his trade in Cumbria taught his two sons, Joseph and James, all he knew about the Tanning industry.
Eager to carve out their destiny in the leather industry, the two sons emigrated to new borders where opportunity and excitement presented itself. So Joseph took with him the knowledge of tanning to a new, booming city of Cape Town, South Africa. In the days of this boom, leather was in wide use. There was no lack of demand for saddles, harnesses, boots and shoes, and with that Joseph launched his company, Mossop and Sons. Operations began in Rondebosch in 1846.
The story has it that Joseph, noting the gentle, but steady flow of soft mountain water, built his tannery on the banks of the Liesbeek River. There he was well positioned to service the passing trade that was on its way up to the mines in central and northern parts of the country.
Not long after Joseph Mossop started his tannery on the banks of the Liesbeek River, a former railway worker from Yorkshire, England came and settled in the Winelands town of Wellington, South Africa. He formed the Western Boot and Tanning company. His name was John Henry Coaton. In due course, John brought his sons Bertie, Bob and Bill to Wellington, and in 1871, with a quick whip of the pen the “Old Tannery” as it’s known today was established as the Western Tanning & Boot Company.
The brothers were determined to ramp up the tannery’s production. They employed 160 workers and embarked on an ambitious project to tan thousands of skins and manufacture several thousands of pairs of shoes per year. Very quickly, the Western Tanning & Boot Co. developed into a truly Southern African enterprise: hides and raw material were sourced from the Cape, Gauteng, Free State provinces and Zimbabwe. Power for the factory was delivered by a steam engine and turbine that delivered 100 horsepower and is still used today by Mossop Leather.
By 1910, the year that the Union of South Africa was created, the tannery was a large establishment consisting of several buildings, modern machinery and at least 200 workers. Traders came from all around to buy and sell leather and footwear from the tannery in Cape Town and Kimberley, flourishing after the diamond discovery in 1871. By the close of the century, Mossop and Sons together with Western Boot and Tanning, were household names on the African continent. They serviced leather for long-standing shoemakers Strassberger who needed leather for their shoes - as tough as the terrain of Cederberg and surrounding areas. This was to be a relationship that continues 175 years later.
These two tanneries became the
biggest names in a rapidly growing
footwear industry, in South Africa.
They were unstoppable.
Mossop and Sons moved their operation to Parrow, the industrial sector of Cape Town, to streamline their operation and better service their market. Even after receiving international funding, a further four-generations of Mossops continued to lead the company into the new millennium.
In a similar fashion Western Boot and Tanning discovered their own surge in growth. One bolt bit of 19th-century corporate raiding saw an injection of finance to Western Boots and Tanning from a group of Cape Town businessmen.
The backing also brought with it fresh new talent in the way of three specialists from Germany. They were: Hugo Kocherthaler, managing director of a women's fashion footwear factory near Berlin, his designer, H. Gassert and his young friend, Sigbert Fleischmann. Western Boot and Tanning was thrust into the fashion limelight, producing leather for the brand Panther who was sported by Queen Elizabeth. Interestingly, Alfred Jordan, the founder of Jordan Shoes and a household name in South Africa, made shoes for the Panther at Western Boot and Tanning before leaving the "Westerns" to create his own footwear business.
Later Jordan Shoes would come together with Watson shoes under one name - Bolton Footwear. Today, Bolton Footwear manufactures shoes for various international brands, major retailers, and home ground brands like Barker, Bronx, and Grasshoppers. The designer H. Gassert would pass his passion for design to his son, Gordon, who as the current Bronx and Bolton designer is testimony as to how long the relations with both customer and supplier go back.
In 1996, Western Tanning Co. merged with Mossop & Son Leather. under a new company formed and named “Mossop Western Leathers”.
At the turn of the century, the Parow factory was closed, and operations consolidated in Wellington. The tannery produced approximately 140 000 m² of leather per month, enough to supply half of all the leather used in South Africa. Two thousand hides per day were tanned and processed for around 750 000 pairs of shoes. The tannery began to expand into the international market, with 15% of leather production sold overseas.
2006 saw the sale of the buildings and land that today constitute the Old Tannery (now used as a wedding or function hire venue). Mossop Western Leathers moved in 2007 to a more modern facility, on nearby Blignaut Street in Wellington, which it today calls home, our home. It is here that we make up 2,000,000 Sq. Ft in Shoe Upper And Upholstery per month, and 600,000 Sq. Ft Laminated Split Leather monthly.
What would the two industrial adventures John and Joseph have thought of all of this? We believe they would love it - just as we do. Dreamers they might have been but they, their families and associates that followed them, were possessed by a fire-in-the-belly ambition, with skill and intelligence to boot.
Almost two centuries later and Mossop is still "more than just a tannery". To achieve this slogan, we are setting goals to become a greener tannery, which creates a positive work-life ethos and a supply chain that provides ubiquitous value - after all, this is the world's oldest recycling business.