Greenhalgh's a Ballarat institution in leather

Razor-sharp: Ross Greenhalgh (r) and Ian Smith put a hide through the splitter. This machine with its sharp blade thins the leather to a desired width. Photos: Lachlan Bence.
Razor-sharp: Ross Greenhalgh (r) and Ian Smith put a hide through the splitter. This machine with its sharp blade thins the leather to a desired width. Photos: Lachlan Bence.
Scudding: Peter Hinchey

Scudding: Peter Hinchey

At the height of Melbourne’s industrial boom that grew from the 1870s, the city boasted hundreds of tanneries, mostly located along the Maribyrnong River.

Leather was a vital industry as well as a logical extension of the business of the many abattoirs they were set up alongside. And while the businesses were noxious and polluting, they were major employers and remained so until well after World War II. Leather was not just used for shoes, upholstery and saddles. Everything – from the washers in taps to book covers to the brakes on carriages –  needed leather.

The veteran: Ian Smith.

The veteran: Ian Smith.

Today there are few left in Australia: the ruination of the footwear trade by the cessation of tariffs and the push to import cheaper, poorer quality goods from countries like China and India has seen the disappearance of an ancient and precise trade, that of turning a raw hide into a valuable piece of leather.

Greenhalgh’s Tannery has been operating continuously from its premises in Bunker Hill since 1865. It’s a vegetable tannery, meaning wattle bark rather than a chemical substitute is used to add preservative and pliable qualities to the raw hide.

It’s provided leather for everything from saddles to football and cricket ball pieces, the leather for belts and boots, expensive tabletops in Parliament House, Canberra and the leather leggings and kit that the Light Horse wore in the world wars. Horsehide was split into bootlaces for soldiers and workmen, one piece at a time.

Today their major trade is still with the saddlery industry, along with providing high-end hides for bespoke jobs. There’s a core of five people working in the production: Ross Greenhalgh and his brother Bruce; Peter Hinchey; Ian Smith, who has been working at the tannery since 1962; and Debbie, who has been there for 35 years. 

While the business itself is thriving, the future for the historic tannery has been imperilled by several factors: massive housing developments encroaching on farmland and heavier EPA regulations.