Harvesting of various wattle species began in Victoria and southern NSW around the time of the gold rush in the 1850s.
Black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) is a small, fast-growing, leguminous tree and was highly prized for tanning leather. The tannin is also used to produce waterproof adhesives in reconstituted wood products.
Bark was stripped from the wattles in spring and into summer when the sap began to flow which made it easier to remove. But harvesting killed the tree.
The bark was bundled and dried, then chopped and crushed by machine or by hand and mixed with water and other chemicals in deep pits to brew tannin liquor. Large hides, which had already had the hair removed by using a lime solution, were immersed in the pits until completely tanned. The hide was then stretched, dried and compressed by rolling between massive brass rollers.
Unsurprisingly, the left-over bark material was called “tanbark” and was often reused as a garden mulch or on pathways. The Tan, the 4 km path around the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, gets its name from its original wattle bark surface.
By the early 1800s, areas around Western Port and Portland were major centres for wattle bark stripping, but operations soon extended across Western Victoria and well into the southern estuaries of East Gippsland.
At Lakes Entrance bark was used to tan sails and season fishing nets to protect them from decay in the salt water.
The industry developed very rapidly and at one stage in 1868, there were 2000 tonnes of bark ready for shipment from Bairnsdale. During the period 1871 – 1884 nearly 20,000 tons of wattle bark was exported from Portland.
The establishment of tanneries at Sale, Stratford and Bairnsdale added to the demand and by 1875 wattle stripping had even extended to Orbost.
By 1882 a pound and a half of Black Wattle bark was said to make 1 lb of leather, and a ton of bark was considered sufficient to tan between 25- 30 bullock hides.
The strong demand for bark coincided with the selection of land for agriculture. Bark stripping not only helped farmers to clear their land but also provided much needed income.
State forest was also harvested by ex-miners and other itinerant workers. Bark stripping paid well but it was very arduous work.
Bakeries valued the left-over wattle branches, a by-product of bark stripping, because it produced a quick hot fire. The wattle timber also produced a very fine white ash, which could be blown out of the oven and the bread cooked in the residual heat.
Wattle was used as garden stakes.
But tanning required large quantities for fresh water and were always sited on waterways and usually close to towns. Tanneries had a reputation from being smelly and polluting waterways with effluent. Most of Melbourne’s tanneries were in the northern suburbs and along the Yarra.
But uncontrolled bark striping across the State forests nearly brought wattles to the edge of extinction.
The State Government’s concern about forest devastation and the potential impact on both the footwear and tanning industries led to the Wattle Bark Board of Inquiry in 1878.
The Inquiry had some distinguished figures including Joseph Bosisto, Member of Parliament and eucalyptus oil pioneer, and Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, the State Government botanist. The Board made many sweeping recommendations including licensing of wattle harvesting, seasonal restrictions and encouraging cultivation.
Attempts were made to grow wattle, with some degree of success. A Government financed plantation was planted in the Kentbruck area but was burnt out by a bushfire before it was harvested. Others were established at Majorca near Maryborough – 500 acres, Havelock – 300 acres, and the You Yangs – 1,080 acres
Forests Commission Annual Reports indicate an ongoing supply of tan bark from State forests at 1919/20 – 471 tons, 1929/30 – 614 tons, 1939/40 – 796 tons; 1949/50 – 424 tons and 1956/57 – 445 tons. Most harvesting had concluded by 1960 because of the increased availability of alternative chemical tanning agents.
Black Wattle is native to Australia but was introduced to South Africa in 1871 and now dominates what remains of the global market.
Report of the Wattle Bark Board of Inquiry – 1878.