Packer and Knox

Packer & Knox, 1891-1923

Packer Check Butts 1891
The earliest checks written by the firm date from 1891 when it was located at Stafford. This is a section of a larger framed collection of 27 butts dating from January to October 1891.

Joseph Packer came from Doynton in Gloucestershire and arrived in the Colony of Queensland in 1878 at age of 25 for a cost of one pound. He had worked on a farm in England and served 7 years with the British Army in India. Arriving in Brisbane, he worked at Childs' Vineyard, Nudgee and married Eliza Kemp. He worked at Maunsell's Tannery for 13 years with David Knox and they started on their own in 1891 possibly at Cox's Paddock, Stafford

The following note appeared in the Queenslander on 29-8-1891 p.416 "Messrs. Packer and Knox of Stafford-on-Kedron exhibited shoe, lining and saddlers' basils, all good weight."

In 1898 they moved to Hamilton Rd, Downfall Creek. The Brisbane Courier reported a Scoured Wool Sale on 22-5-1901 p.7 and noted that Packer and Knox, Downfall Creek came second in the quality of a 250 pound bale of Scoured Wool.

In 1913 Joseph Packer's five sons were included in the partnership, each bringing different skills and the firm continued to grow but it could not support five families so two of the brothers went into motors, one of them into Thorneycroft Lorries which was why the firm used that type of truck.

Branding Irons for Cattle

Packer Branding Iron Registration
Branding marks were registered by the Colonial Government, now the State Government. In the early times when fences were few different herds could get mixed up and brands made it easy for owners to identify their cattle.

Branding cattle was the traditional method of identifying cattle and this brand was registered with the Colonial Government in 1883 when the firm was still at Stafford. The firm has always run cattle on the property as a side product and to keep the grass under control. This also acted as a bush fire precaution during the summer months..

Aerial View of Works 1946

Photo taken in an aerial survey in 1946. Hamilton is the E-W road and Webster is the N-S road and today there is a large roundabout on the intersection with Downfall Creek flowing through it. The tannery is in the south west corner. The large black section beside the tannery sheds is the ponding of Downfall Creek. Originally Hamilton Road went over a bridge while Webster Road weaved around either end of the bridge, hence the offsetting of that road. Today the bridge is still in place in the middle of the roundabout while the creek is piped under the roads as they circle around about. The tannery was separated from the urban area of Chermside and only farms surrounded it. There is no sign of the tannery today as the whole area is covered with houses and streets. The area has changed from an industrial site in farmlands to a suburban dormitory site. (Brisbane City Council Aerial Photo Copyright)

The firm had about 64 acres (26 Ha.) of land along Downfall Creek at the intersection of Hamilton and Webster Roads; the site occupied three parts of the four quarters surrounding the intersection. Saib's farm occupied the remaining quarter. The water supply was good, local slaughter yards supplied hides and employees were local men off the small farms. A sawmill occupied the present site of Craigslea School which Packers took over while the slaughter yard of Robinson and Traves was nearby. The government resumed 14 acres for Craigslea School from Packers.

A pond was created on the creek with a stone drop wall and later was replaced with a concrete wall. This provided good water and the pond was full of fresh water mullet (15 inches - 381mm) and eels but after World War II, when the housing estates developed upstream, the quality of the water deteriorated because there was no sewage system in that area and the creek became contaminated.

The first buildings were the skin shed, tannery, boiler house, sweat houses where the wool was sweated off the skin.There was also a small orchard.

Fellmongery, Wool Scouring and Tanning

Wool drying in the open air. Packer & Knox Wool Scour Hamilton Road, Chermside; this wool scour and tannery business was on the south west corner of the present roundabout at Webster and Hamilton Roads. Today the area is residential around the streets of Covey, Murr, Bachmann, Packer, Felsman and Wittacombe in West Chermside. This view is looking east towards the hill of Hamilton Road to the left of the boiler house chimneys. The photo shows Mr Packer and Mr Knox standing behind a batch of newly washed wool, spread out on Hessian sheets, to dry in the sun. A change in the weather would require all employees to hurriedly gather in the wool before it rained and store it in the nearby wool shed. The tower on the roof of this building covers the mechanism of the wool press. The sheep skins were bought from local slaughter yards, and after a time in the "sweat house' the wool was hand pushed from the skin, which was then processed to become basil. Water for the washing process and the boilers was drawn from Downfall Creek, behind the buildings. The buildings were simple and functional with vertical slab and corrugated iron walls; the roofing was also corrugated iron. A couple of wool bales can be seen beside the double doors and, what looks like a ship's tank to collect rainwater on the nearest corner. (Photo and caption from Lindsay Packer)

A fellmonger is defined as "one who removes hair or wool from hides in preparation for leather making". It is derived from the word Fell = skin, hide or pelt + Monger = broker or dealer.

The fellmongery was where the wool was sweated off using the natural enzymes in the green pelt (skin) then the pelt went to the tannery; the skin wool was scoured and dried on the greens (grass) then baled in the wool shed using a wool press and finally taken in drays to the wool stores at Teneriffe.

Transport Changed over the Years

When the wool was processed and baled it had to be taken to the Wool Stores at Teneriffe. Backloading of fresh pelts reduced the cost but the time taken was considerable as the horses were slow. This flat top waggon, known as a lorry and driven by a lorryman, was used by Packer & Knox in the early days. (See Item 5 in the sidebar.) The horses were great animals but they had to be harnessed up each morning, fed and watered during the day, unharnessed each evening, rubbed down, fed and watered. And the manure had to be cleaned up.

A Packer & Knox Thornycroft truck with a load of sheep skins on their way to Chermside for processing. The truck was a 'no frills' model with solid rubber tyres, open cabin, crank handle starter, direct steering and if anything went wrong the driver was expected to fix the problem. This was state of the art road transport in the early 1920s. The horse wagon probably took all day to make the round trip to Teneriffe whereas the lorry only took hours. No harnessing, feeding, manure cleaning, just crank the engine and away it went. And, the driver had some shelter. Some of these trucks were still on the roads after World War II (Packer Family)

The Scouring (Washing) Process

The early scouring was done by hand but later machines were installed. The mechanised process was done in four troughs each about 15m long: The first one was a dirt trough with hot water, but no soap, to loosen up the wool, get the dirt out. The wool was then squeezed through rollers into the second trough. There soap was added and the wool scoured or washed and then put through rollers to the third trough for a second wash and rolling. Finally the fourth trough was just a warm water rinse and after another rolling ready to dry.

The wool was transported forward in the troughs with fingers rotating slowly drawing the wool forward and up over a loop to slide down to the rollers which squeezed out the moisture. The lower roller was bare metal while the upper one was covered with wool wound around it acting as a cushion.

They made their own soap out of tallow and caustic soda but in the early 1960s they changed over to detergents.

Drying in the early days consisted of laying the wool out in the open on hessian sheets with the drying time depending on the weather. If rain came then it was all hands to roll up the wool quickly and when night came it would be rolled up anyway; next day roll it all out again. The drying area covered a good acre of land which gives some indication of the work involved since it was all by hand. In later years this whole drying process was mechanised with tumble dryers.

The tanning of the pelts followed standard tanning procedure of washing the pelt and putting it into lime pits with paddles to circulate the liquid. This lasted for a couple of days. Then the pelt went through the fleshing machine to remove any flesh still adhering. Much of the smell of the old tanneries came from the dead flesh and the chemicals used in the process. The pelts were washed again, de-limed, pickled in a mixture of salt and solution of Sulphuric Acid and stored before going into the bark tanning process. The tanning took 2-3 days while the pelt soaked in the liquors made from imported wattle bark.

After the water was used in the factory it went into a receiving dam and was then pumped up on to paddocks to irrigate Kikuyu grass on which cattle grazed.

1923 Change of Management and Firm.

A report of a visit by a journalist to the Red Cross Workshop in Brisbane where disabled World War One veterans where helped.

In 1923 the founding partners retired and the following year the Packer family bought out the Knox family who set up their own firm at Belmont. The original firm continued as G. W. & J. Packer Pty Ltd with George Packer, son of Joseph, as Managing Director

However the old name of Packer & Knox is still heard occasionally by some of the older residents of the local area. Thus it is not surprising to find a newspaper reference dated 1934 still using the original name.

The family control continued with Ron taking over from George and in 1967 when Ron died Lindsay, fourth generation, became manager.

G. W. & J. Packer Pty Ltd 1924-1945

Chermside Cycle Club, 1910 - L-R: W E Sammells, W Packer, C Bachman, F Willis, F Staib, G Early, H Hamilton, N Early, D Barker, R Verney - caption by A R C Hamilton. Local clubs such as this were common in the early 20th Century. They had no uniforms, no helmets, probably no gears and they rode over the roughtst roads, at top speed, for miles and miles. (Packer Family photo)

The firm was an extended family in the pre World War Two days, when entertainment was largely self-made, transport was poor, no social security, wars and the depression all forced small communities to be self-reliant. Relationships were a lot more formal in those days, even the employees looked rather formal, ties and hats were common.

Bicycles were commonly used as transport to and from work as well as to most other places. It was a time of manual rather than machine production and occupations included pullers who took wool off, scourers who washed the wool, pressers who pressed and baled it, boiler attendants who had to have a licence or 'steam ticket' to operate the boiler, carters who drove the horse and drays, tanners who tanned and curriers who softened and coloured the leather; wheel barrows were used for short transport around the works.

There were about 50-60 employees, mostly living in Chermside and many of them spent their whole working life with the firm. This contrasts with the situation in 2012 when keeping an employee for about 5 years is regarded as good.

Packer Works Aerial Photo

This photo comes from the larger aerial photo taken in 1965 and was used as a base for the following numbered sketch.

Post WWII to 1967

This sketch map was developed from the 1965 aerial photo of the tannery at Chermside.

1. The drying shed - in which the newly arrived pelts (sheep skins) were hung individually to dry. It was also used to store the finished products awaiting sale and delivery to buyers.
The roof of the drying shed was arranged so that it had two full length open spaces on each side so that the air could circulate freely but keep out the rain.
2. Skin stock shed where the 'raw' or 'green' sheep skins were stored after they had dried out in the drying shed.
3. Soaking shed - the skins were soaked in tanks of water, a paddle wheel constantly stirred up the water.
4. De-burring shed where the burrs and other rubbish was taken out of the wool by a revolving cylinder with hooked blades.
5. Sweat Houses - the wet sheep skins were hung individually to allow the bacteria to loosen up the wool so that it could be easily removed.
6. Pulling floor - the wool was removed by men pushing it by hand in the early days and later, by machinery
7. The Wool Scour and Drier - the wool was put through a series four troughs in which it was cleaned using soap and later, detergents. The clean wool was laid out on a hessian underlayto dry in the sun. It had to be rolled up and stored in wool store at night and, if rain threatened, by day also. Later the drying was done indoors using a series of steam pipes to keep the room warm.
8. Boiler House - supplied steam to the drying shed and to a steam engine in the tannery which drove the machines there.
9. Spare store - used for chemicals
10. Wool Store - the wool was graded and put into separate bins - pressed in hessian bales ready for transport.
11. Tannery - Beam Shed where the pelts were:
Limed by soaking in lime water which was kept agitated by paddles. The process 'opened up' the pelt.
Fleshed - the remains of any flesh taken off by men using long knives and later, by machines.
The wet pelt was then de-limed in water to neutralise any acidity and pickled in a solution of salt and Sulphuric Acid
Tanned in chemical liquid using paddles to make sure each pelt is thoroughly soaked. This preserves the leather.
Fat liquoring was a process to restore oil to the pelt.
12. Set Shed - the grain on the outside of the sheep skin was smoothed down and the skin pushed to its full shape. The skin was then hung on hooks in rows to dry - when dry they are staked (softened). The finished sheep skin without the wool was known as basils.
13. Office
14. Pump House - used water from the Effluent Pond to flood irrigate the pastures.
(A) Marks the area where the wool was put out to dry long ago.
Irrigation - pastures which were irrigated.
Effluent Pond - waste water from the works.

Change from Manual to Machines

Gradually mechanical drying and mechanical scouring replaced the manual system and the boiler, originally fired on cordwood, was converted to bunker oil in the 50s or 60s. Still later diesel engines supplied the motive power of the plant. In 1931 all the local slaughterhouses were closed so skins came from Cannon Hill Abattoirs or the wool stores at Teneriffe which made it a long day for the horse and dray as the roads were poor and the horse was slow; so Thorneycroft Lorries mechanised transport.

At peak production, in about the 1950s, there were between two and three thousand pelts being processed per day with the best leather going into shoe lining and the lower grades into industrial gloves. This was the time of the 'wool boom' when demand for wool rose dramatically due to the Korean War, which many feared might become World War III, and the price of wool doubled overnight.

In 1946 Roy Packer, son of George, left his butchering business and joined the firm becoming the Managing Director on the death of George in 1957. Roy's eldest son, Lindsay, a wool-classer, joined the company and developed new tanning techniques which provided the future direction for the company. Roy died in 1967.

The fellmongering plant was closed down in 1967 because it had become uneconomic.

Time to Move

This 1965 aerial photo shows the new housing developments encroaching on the tannery. It contrasts with the 1946 aerial photo which shows mostly farms and bush. People did not want their new homes to be withing smelling distance of a tannery. Change was in the air.

By 1971the pressure to move was increasing as housing was encroaching on the site and the Brisbane City Council refused them permission to upgradr the tannery; the company ceased production at Chermside and the land was sold for development.

G W & J Packer (Tanning) Pty Ltd 1972-2012

Packer Narangba Sign New
The move to Narangba took place in 1972 and the name was changed in 2000. The carefully trimmed green hedges gave the place a clean green look for the 21st Century

Lindsay Packer fourth generation tanner became the Manager of the firm in late 1960s. He then shifted the site of the works from Chermside to Narangba in 1972 and today is the last tanner still operating in Brisbane;

When the firm started in 1891 there were dozens of tanneries, fellmongers and wool scours operating in an around Brisbane. When Packers moved to Narangba in 1971 there were seven other tanners in Brisbane, now only Packers remain. The firm survived the enormous changes brought about by the two great wars, the Great Depression, the rise and rise of the plastics industries, foreign competition, the move offshore of many manufacturers and a host of other challenges over the last 120 years; and it is still run by the same family. The only other local industries from Chermside that can compare with this record are the Vellnagel Blacksmith family which has moved to Brendale and the Hamilton Body Building firm which is now in Kedron.

A new firm G W & J Packer (Tanning) Pty Ltd was formed and opened at Boundary Road, Narangba with Lindsay Packer as the fourth generation Managing Director. In 1973 an associate Company - Packer Associated Tanners Pty. Ltd., began the Bovine and Kangaroo leather production. It is located at Boundary Road, Narangba and, while it is no longer smelly industry, it has to operate in an industrial area such as Narangba.

While chemical tanning is done at Narangba there is still some vegetable tanning done using imported tan bark powder from South Africa and Brazil. These countries grow Australian Wattle in plantations to provide the supply of bark. The vegetable tanning is done to produce 'Drumstuffed' Kangaroo hide which is used for 'greasy' whips.

In 2000 the firm's name was changed to Packer Leather and it operates successfully with 120 employees specialising in kangaroo hides which it started to use in the 1960s and now sells on the international market. The firm is run by the fourth and fifth generations of the family while the sixth generation is growing up.

Why did Packer's Survive and Prosper

Packer Leather Aerial
As this photo show Packer Leather has taken its place in world leather production. It also shows something of the extensive nature of the buildings housing the complex machinery needed for a modern tannery. (Courtesy of World Leather - February/March 2014)

When Lindsay Packer talks about the tannery he talks from his heart, for him running a tannery is his life-long occupation. His Great Grandfather Joseph, Grandfather George and Father Roy preceded him, as he says "tanning was and is in their DNA". As a child he played around:
The tannery where the leather was produced,
The fellmongering where the wool was separated from the skins,
The scour where the wool was washed.

He got used to the smell which was the 'trade mark' of the industry, the hustle and bustle, the feel of the wool, the trucks loaded with skins coming from the abattoir, the sheep skins coming from the 'sweat room' with their wool ready to be pushed off by hand, the fine leather, the work of the curriers who processed and finished the leather, he knew the employees, many of whom worked all their lives in the tannery and their sons followed them.

Except for economic 'ups and downs' it was a world of stability for the young Lindsay; the firm had the same accountant, same solicitor, same employees all run by the same family for generations.
This was his early education and it continued through his formal education at school. He left school as soon as he could and began to learn wool classing which gradually morphed into running the whole plant.

But by the 1960s change was in the air , housing was moving closer to the works and the smell was becoming an issue, other tanneries were actually closing down all over Brisbane, the city council was tightening regulations and increasing pressure on the tanners to upgrade, move or close.

When his father Roy died in 1967 Lindsay became the manager which was the natural progression for him. He had already pioneered the use of kangaroo leather in the firm and was keen to expand production.

One of the first problems he had to solve was where would the firm go when the Chermside site had to close. A site at Narangba was chosen, bought and application made to the Council to build a tannery. Then a tug-of-war erupted between two local authorities which had to be settled in court, in all there were 1,600 objections to a tannery in the area. As Lindsay noted "nothing had changed"; it seems that tanneries were still 'on the nose.' Another problem was the Federal Government banning the export of Kangaroo hides in the mid-1970s; Packers ploughed on even doing short term contract work for tanneries in Europe. They did anything to 'keep the doors open' and by the end of the 1970s the situation was improving.

This experience may have discouraged the six other larger tanneries still operating in Brisbane from continuing. Lindsay feels that some of them "gave up, sometimes at five to midnight just as things were about to change for the better." Part of this was that accountants were running some of the tanneries rather than the master tanners.

The shoe manufacturing industry was going offshore and some tanneries were giving up so Packers were able to hire some of their people and buy some of their machinery at good prices.

Packers persevered backed up by four generations of family with 80 years of experience and learning in the industry. What else can you do when there's tannin in your blood? Lindsay says that you can't run a tannery from the office; you have to be on the work floor in amongst the hides where the leather is made.

Packer & Knox started in sheep skins and wool; today 134 years later, Packers have a niche market with kangaroo hides accounting for 70% of their output. Sheep skins and wool account for 5% and cattle skins add 25% of the output.

The family is still the same with Lindsay (Joint managing director) and brother Graham (sales and marketing director) are the fourth generation while David (joint managing director) and Susan (customer service manager) represent the fifth generation. The family looks forward to the sixth generation and the next fifty years.

Lindsay Packer Speaks to the CDHS Meeting

Gordon and Lindsay Packer
Gordon and Lindsay Packer at the CDHS meeting after Lindsay gave his address.

On Sunday 1st March 2015 Lindsay Packer spoke to the members of the CDHS and explained why Packer Leather survived while other tanners in Brisbane simply 'faded away'. Not only has Packer's survived but it has prospered by pioneering new products in new markets. Seven senior members of the Packer family came to the meeting and made a mini family reunion of the event.

From Traditional to State of the Art Technology

The tanning industry has changed enormously in the lifetime of the fourth generation of Packers. Very complex machines worked by highly trained operators have replaced a largely manual work force, The mix of raw materials has changed drastically. The markets are international and the uses of leather have changed as have the users.

Clean Water - Then

Packer Water Supply Downfall Creek
Traditionally tanneries were located on local creeks which would be damned to have a reserve of water for dry times. Packers used Downfall Creek and the dam, covered with Water Hyacinth, was beside the tannery. In the lower left is the settling pond for used water which was sprayed on to the pasture paddocks which were used for grazing cattle. If you look closely in the bottom right corner you can see the little pump house which resembles the old back yard dunney.

Clean water is one raw material which still remains fundamental to the tanning industry but the source and processing of it has changed. It is an example of how technology has changed.

The old system was simple, the water came from the dam which supplied clean water. The used water went into the settling pond where any solids settled on the bottom. The water was used for irrigation on the grass.

Previously during times of drought staff had to be laid off and the works might have to shut down till the drought broke. (See Sidebar 3)

Fishing in Packer's Dam See Sidebar 8.

Turtles in Packer's Dam See Sidebar 9.

As farms, houses and industries moved closer the creeks became polluted. (See Sidebar No. 7)

When Council water became available it would have been used to overcome the problem of pollution of Downfall Creek

Clean Water - Now

Packer Water Supply Narangba 1
(Photo courtesy World Leather February/March 2024)

At Narangba the water comes from three sources.

1. 50% of the water used comes from the Council Mains.

2. The water used in the plant is collected and purified in settling tanks and then in two lagoons.

3. Rainwater from the factory roofs and hard areas such as parking lots is collected in three reservoirs with the water from the Council mains. .

Packer Water Supply Narangba 3
(Photo courtesy World Leather February/March 2024)