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William Zwar (E5)

  • Born: 1st May 1861 Broadford, Victoria, Australia
  • Parents:
    Michael and Agnes Zwar nee Zimmer
    • Married:
    • Lucy Eleanor Smedley in 1884
  • Lived:
    In Victoria and on King Island, Australia
  • Died: 9th May 1933 on King Island, aged 72 years
  • Buried:

Detailed biography

The fifth child and third son of Michael and Agnes Zwar 1.5.1861– 9.5.1933


William Zwar was born in ‘The Hut’ – the old house on the Broadford farm – on 1st day of May 1861.

When William was 16 years old he began an apprenticeship with the Broadford Tannery (on Dry Creek) on 13th June 1877. He began work at 6am in the morning and knocked off at 6pm in the evening. The Indenture paper for his apprenticeship reveals that for the first two years he would work without receiving any pay. In his third year he would receive 5/– (50 cents) per week, and this would double to 10/– per week for his fourth year. In his 5th and final year his salary would double again to 20/– ($2.00) per week and he would also receive board and lodgings.

William completed his apprenticeship on 30th June 1882 and continued to work at the tannery. He proved to be most capable at his trade, and within two years he was made foreman.

Marriage and Children

William married Lucy Eleanor Smedley on 3rd March 1884 when he was almost 23 years old. Their first child Sylvia Margaret Agnes Zwar was born on 1st July 1885 at Broadford, but died on 23rd October before she reached four months of age.

Albert James Zwar was born the following year at Broadford on 15th October 1886, and died the following year on 9th June, aged seven and a half months.

What could one say to the grief stricken parents? The local newspaper announcing the death carried the following verses:

Oh, why did cruel death come in
To our peaceful home
And lay his cold and icy hand
On him, our only one.

No note of warning did we have.
Oh, Death, you silent came,
And took away our little one,
And left a sorrow pain.

The following year their third and last child, Emily Mabel Zwar was born, in 1888, and Emily grew up to outlive her parents.

Beechworth Tannery

In 1887 the Ovens Tannery at Beechworth was advertised for sale. It had been established in 1858 by Matthew Dodd and was run by the Dodd family. The tannery consisted of four small buildings and employed 15 men.

William Zwar was by now a very competent tanner & currier. He had been foreman at the Broadford Tannery for the past five years. He contemplated branching out with his own tannery. He consulted his younger brother Albert for some financial advice. Albert Zwar was an experienced clerk now in business in Yarrawonga. William took leave from the Broadford Tannery and hurried to Beechworth where he bought the Tannery, freehold and all, (Early records suggest that the price was £500 …. J. J. Macaulay).

Zwar Bros and Co

Although an expert tanner and currier, William lacked the administrative skills which would be necessary to run the business. He sent for his younger brother (by two years) Albert who left Yarrawonga and joined in the new enterprise at Beechworth. The two brothers needed finance, so Leonard Lloyd, proprietor of Eliza Tinsley Pty Ltd. joined them as a third and equal partner. It says much for the two Zwar brothers that Leonard Lloyd was prepared to back them financially. Albert Zwar had worked for him in Melbourne, and Lloyd had an interest in the Broadford tannery where William had worked.

They registered their partnership as “Zwar Bros & Co.”, re-named the tannery “The Beechworth Tannery”, and began operations in September 1888. William provided the tanning know-how, Albert the business skills, and Leonard Lloyd the finance. The vendors who handled the sale believed that their enterprise would fail.

William Zwar was now 27 years old and had been married four years. His young 15-year-old brother Henry Peter Zwar also joined his brothers at Beechworth to learn the tanning trade.

On 20.4 1889 The Ovens & Murray Advertiser carried a lengthy description of the tannery six months after the Zwar Bros took it over:


During the present week we paid a visit of inspection to the Beechworth Tannery, the property of Zwar Bros. & Co. situated a couple of miles from the town on the Malakoff Road. On arrival we were courteously met by Mr. William Zwar a member of the firm (The other partners being his brother Mr. Albert Michael Zwar and Mr. Leonard Lloyd of Messrs. Lloyd Bros. & Maginnis who own an extensive tannery & fellmongery at Broadford employing 27 men and putting through 200 hides per week).

The first portion of the establishment inspected was the bark shed, an extensive building 90 x 22 feet roofed with corrugated iron where 130 tons of wattle bark is stored. Ascending to an upper story we were shown the bark mill and the process of cutting, grinding and disintegrating the bark by means of a Bunoles machine driven by a four horse power engine, practically explained and the information given that whereas at present 2 and a half tons are crushed the firm purpose obtaining more powerful machinery capable of putting through 6 tons. We were also shown some myabolams, valonea and extract of oak which are used in the tan pits, the two former being species of nuts from the East Indies trees and imported from Smyrna and India, the selling price of each being 16 pounds per ton Melbourne, the extract of oak – a dark liquid resembling treacle in consistency – being brought from England and its value as explained by Mr. Zwar pointing to a dozen medium sized casks the content of which were said to have cost 50 pounds. We mention these facts to show the expense the tanner has to incur in raw materials in preparing his goods for the market, apart from the cost of skilled labor and machinery and numerous other items.

In answer to a question as to the supply of hides we were told that it is found equal to the present demand – viz. 50 a week – independent of calf and small skins; but in addition to those obtained locally the firm import South American hides bought in London and brought originally from Buenos Aires and shipped in casks costing when landed in Beechworth 2 pounds per hide. Mr. Zwar stated that such a course was found necessary as colonial hides didn’t come up to the imported article in thickness – proof of which was afforded on our being shown one of each by way of comparison.

But to proceed with our account of the visit. We were then taken over the pits (30 in number) which are substantially built in brick and cement in excavations in the ground under shelter contiguous to each other. The first being the soak pit where the raw hides are soaked and then come two lime pits and after liming and unhairing the hides are fleshed when they are ready for the tan pits.

There are four pits technically known as “spenders” in which the bark when ground is placed and soaked with water and when it has been nearly spent steam is introduced into the pits and their contents boiled up thus ensuring complete extraction of the active properties of the bark. The liquid thus obtained is pumped into the tanning pits by means of a Tangye steam pump. In these latter pits the hides, as they come from the hands of the flesher are placed side by side (40 together) on frames attached to a wooden rocker, an ingenious contrivance worked by steam from the boiler and to show the value of this arrangement it may be stated that but one third of the time originally taken in tanning is occupied, the rocker causing the hides to be thoroughly soused and impregnated beside keeping the liquor in the pit in a constant state of agitation.

After being colored the hides are stored away in pits for from two to three months, sole leather being placed in bark as well as in liquor. All dressed leather after being colored in the pits is handled every second day and the liquor renewed when required. Sole leather occupies three months in tanning, harness two months and bag, bridle and such like lighter leathers six weeks. The process of tanning having been fully explained we proceeded to the currying rooms where men were engaged in putting on the finishing touches.

The hides before drying are treated with a composition of oil and tallow applied to the flesh side which is afterwards scraped off, the object being to render it more pliable and impervious to moisture. They are trimmed and those that require colouring are subjected to the process. In the drying rooms, there were at the time of our visit 80 sides awaiting treatment, this building being a spacious one, 60 x 22 feet, the currying room being about the same dimensions.

In the former is an improved steamroller by means of which the leather is rolled, having to undergo a pressure of 4 tons, the cost of that machine being one hundred and fifty pounds. The more than foolish practice of using large brands on cattle was illustrated on looking at one hide which bore a brand fully two feet in length and about a foot wide, the marketable value of the leather being thus of course greatly depreciated.

A 16 h.p. boiler has been set in granite and connected with it is a large and handsome chimneystack 40 feet high, in the building of which 11,000 bricks were used. The boiler is fed by an injector on the automatic principle and is fired by waste tan, little wood being used though a supply of 70 cords is stacked close by.

Since taking over the tannery from Messrs. M & T Dodd on the 1st of September last Messrs. Zwar Bros. & Co. have expended three thousand pounds in improvements and express themselves as being well satisfied with their undertaking, their leather being readily placed on the Melbourne market where it sells at the highest ruling rates and a quantity is being prepared for shipment to London. Nine men are at present engaged (Note: there is no reference to juniors) and as the business expands that number will be increased.

We may mention here that Mr. William Zwar who has the management of the tannery was for twelve years in the employ of the Broadford firm before mentioned and for five years as their foreman. The water supply is excellent, being conveyed in pipes from a large dam on the property fed by a constantly running stream. Altogether the visit under notice was a most interesting one and we have much pleasure in presenting our readers with these few discursive remarks concerning it and at the same time complimenting the new firm upon their enterprise and hoping it will be a highly successful one as it deserves to be, a first class article being turned out in all departments of the trade.

Production in the first years at Beechworth concentrated on saddlery and sole (shoe!) leathers. “Many hides and skins were purchased locally, and the products sold in Melbourne and country Districts.”…
J. Macaulay.

Output Grows

The Tannery output grew with each year. The first year 1,523 hides were treated and sold. Ten years later 11,487 hides went through the tannery in one year. A small export trade was beginning to develop in these years. Profits went back into the expansion of plant and the purchase of land adjoining the tannery.

William Buys in Melbourne.

In 1900 William Zwar sold out his third share in the tannery (to his brother Albert, Mr. Lloyd and a smaller part to his youngest brother Henry Peter) so that he could buy another tannery in Melbourne. William had been at Beechworth for 12 years.


William Zwar’s second tannery was a small one in Cramer St. Preston, which employed 15 hands. It was registered now as “William Zwar & Co.”

William & Lucy and their daughter Emily lived nearby at 8 Bruce Street, Preston.

On December 15, 1903 The Australian Leather Journal carried an article headed


Messrs. W. Zwar and Co. Launching out – New additions and Machinery.

We shall probably have occasion to give an extended notice in a future issue of the great improvements that are being made in the Parkside Tannery, Preston, Melbourne, conducted by Messrs. William Zwar and C. N. Bidstrup, under the name and style of William Zwar and Company, but we take the opportunity of this special issue of the A.L.J. to make both gentlemen known in a more personal manner to our readers. ..

…Mr. William Zwar, whose photograph will be found on this page, is very well known to most of our Victorian readers, and a good many of our interstate friends as well. Between two and three years ago he arrived in Melbourne from Beechworth, (Vic.), where he had been actively engaged in the tanning industry, and leased the Parkside Tannery, adjoining the Preston Park. His venture was attended with the best of success.

His leathers, including the famous W. Z. & Co. over P. brand of sole, harness, bridle, skirt, and bag leathers, tan hide and glaze hide, soon became exceedingly popular, with the result that Mr. C. N. Bidstrup was taken into partnership, and, with new blood in the concern, its importance was further emphasized, and the work which formerly fell on Mr. Zwar’s shoulders alone was equally divided between the two partners.

Not content with the eminent success already attained, the firm decided to still further launch out, and a handsome new brick building was erected adjacent to the old premises for the manufacture of japanned and enameled leathers, Mr. Howe, an expert of considerable experience, being engaged as superintendent at a good deal of expense. …

They are at present employing close on twenty hands, and new machinery to the value of seven hundred and fifty pounds is being erected, as we write, at the tannery. This includes a whole hide band knife splitting machine, whole hide measuring machine, fluffing machine, setting out machine (Pullan and Co.) and a Vaughn shaving machine, supplied by Fred. Alderson and Co.

Messrs. William Zwar and Co. are at present supplying many of the principal saddlers and bag makers of Sydney, Launceston, Adelaide, and Perth with all saddlers’ and bag makers’ leathers. From a photograph we give of the tannery, it will be seen that it is a very roomy and commodious building, with a tall chimneystack, which is quite a landmark for some miles around.

Mr. Zwar, like Mr. Bidstrup, is not a man likely to have much to do with failure. He is a shrewd, clever, commercial man of the best Melbourne type, and as he knows he has got a good thing in his hands, he will hold on like grim death until he has made his best of it. He is comparatively a young man, and therefore may be congratulated on the enterprise that made him enter on a speculation of such large extent and possibilities.

Australian Leather Journal

The Australian Leather Journal of July 15, 1905 carried the same photo of William and another article describing the latest leather specialties in bags and trunks being produced at the Parkside Tannery, Preston. It also records:

The Messrs. Zwar and Co. are fortunate in possessing what is claimed to be the largest splitting machine in Victoria, enabling them to turn out bag and strap leather sides of 65 square feet measurement. In variety of prints and colours a good range of samples is shown, while for well and evenly selected hides, careful manipulation, slow tannage, and good finish, these leathers have a very enviable reputation, which bids fair to increase the fine reputation the firm already possesses.

So far as the other lines, including sole, harness, bridle, skirt, and enameled leathers are concerned, no further testimony to the excellence of these goods is needed than mention of the fact that Messrs. Zwar and Co. are increasing their output all round, and the demand from Sydney, Adelaide, and Tasmania, in addition to local business, continues to be very satisfactory.

Exhibition Building

In the February 15 edition of 1909 a large photo of the display by ‘William Zwar and Co’ heads the report on the leather exhibition held at the grand Exhibition Building in Melbourne. The ‘Notes on the Various Exhibits’ begins with:


Messrs William Zwar and Co., Parkside Tannery, Preston, are right up to the front again at the A. N. A. Exhibition this year with a splendid assortment of leathers, embracing motor and carriage trimming hides of beautiful luster and finish, equal to any of the imported goods that have reached this market. There are also winker middlings, patent belt leathers, collar hides, patent calf, and hard and soft dash of a very high class.

They have a great display of stained work in ladies’ belt leathers, strap, and bag, in every variety of print and finish, from crocodile to sea lion, and seal and curly straight grain, all finished by the Moenus embossing machine. We have no hesitation in saying that the class of goods on show reflect the highest credit upon this enterprising and progressive firm.

William Zwar Retires to the Land

After 10 years William left the running of the tannery to his younger brothers. On 1 January 1911 both Albert and Henry Zwar entered into partnership with William. Henry Peter Zwar became the manager ($11.00 per week) at Preston and William retired from the tannery business, although he still held financial interests for some years.

Although he was nearly 50 years old William had a yearning to go back to the Land. He had bought two tanneries and left each to be taken over by a younger brother, Albert at Beechworth and now Henry at Preston.

King Island

William Zwar bought a property on King Island, situated between Victoria and Tasmania. King Island lies in the western end of Bass Strait and belongs to Tasmania. The island is about 60 km long and 25 km wide. There were 700 people living on the island in 2002.

Beef and Scheelite

When William bought the property it was virgin land covered in bush and gum trees and consisted of approx. 750 acres. He cleared the land and developed it as a beef property where he raised cattle and also took an interest in a scheelite mine.

At first he lived at a point which became known as “Zwar link” but later moved to the Surprise Bay Area, where he erected two huge whalebones to form an archway in front of their home. [This arch was still standing in 1983.]

“The scheelite deposits are worked at Grassy on the south east coast, and they represent the principal source of tungsten ores in Australia and are one of the largest in the world”. … Australian Encyclopaedia.

Uncle Billy

William was known to his family as Billy. Uncle Billy to his nephews and nieces. His nephew Gavan Crowl recalled how Uncle Billy would come over to Broadford from King Island at unexpected and infrequent intervals and stay with his three sisters at Wattle Grove.

“My recollections of him always started with clouds of smoke seen when we were coming home from school and coming from the ‘back paddock’. Uncle Billy would be out there burning off. Another sign of his advent was a kangaroo hide, beautifully tanned and beautifully cut into boot laces.”

Emily was always very sympathetic and considerate about Bill’s visits, though Ada became a little less so if the stay was a long one, as she was the cook and did all the housework.


William died suddenly at the age of 72 years on King Island 9th May 1933 and was interred there on his property.

© Kevin P Zwar