2nd Newsletter March 2020


In the last newsletter, we introduced Sir George Morris Sutton, a pioneer of the black wattle industry and by all accounts,an adventurous spirit who was born in Lincolnshire, married in Illinois and settled in the Howick hills of the KwaZulu-Natal midlands.

The Boer War had fractured but not killed the budding wattle industry through the last decade of the 19th Century. Once peace was restored, Sutton focused his attention on the plantations once again, rising to prominence by presiding over the Pietermaritzburg Agricultural Society from 1905-1907, then an institution of some influence in the capital. In his final year as president, Sir George founded the Natal Wattle Bark Union, with a stated goal of exploring the marketing opportunities for bark abroad. It was this vision that sowed the seed for NTE’s establishment some 13 years hence.

By this stage, Sir George’s earlier publication of a pamphlet called ‘Wattle Bark: A Paying Industry in Natal ‘ had become something of a cult classic in the area, and it had increased the numbers of growers significantly for miles around. Initially, exports of the chopped bark made it to London on very little profit. But as the demand rose, so negotiation of cheaper space and shipping partnerships emerged, and with it, the profits grew. It was about this time however that the world was cast into the turmoil of the Great War.

Above: 24 Timber Street in Pietermaritzburg: NTE’s original headquarters

Demand for South African goods rose sharply, and while the need for tannins for military gear did too, the premium on shipping space meant that the traditional method of sending sacks of tightly packed chopped bark was no longer viable. It was this shift that fomented the need to find black wattle extracts, and experiments began in earnest.

Above: The Pietermaritzburg Factory, where the first production of Mimosa Solid was developed at scale.

The breakthrough is credited to a partnership in Johannesburg between a Mr. Bilbrough and a Mr. Frew, who moistened the wattle bark with alcohol and warm water and then pressed it between high-pressure bronze rollers. The process extracted virtually all the tannins from the bark and could then be solidified through a process of reduction into the product still marketed today as NTE Mimosa Solid. A patent for the process was issued in April 1914 and production began in earnest a year later. It was predicted at the time that the new extraction process would revolutionise the export of wattle extract and that prediction still rings true today.

Following the end of the Great War, the world economy fell into depression, and the wattle industry again faced tough times. Trade between Natal and London slowed, and the local industry consolidated under the stewardship of three partners: Owen Walters, Thackery James Allison, and Arthur Horace Himes.

On 13 September 1915, the Natal Tanning Extract partnership was incorporated and a factory erected in Pietermaritzburg to produce the solid mimosa product. By the end of 1915, the first fruits of their success were in evidence. Supplying both local tanneries and global trade in wattle extract, records from the time show that 439 tonnes of solid mimosa were exported by the year ending February 1916.

Above: An announcement that appeared in Commerce Reports, 1915, Issue 254, announcing the new process of developing mimosa solid.

Several new enterprises entered the market during the time, but tough conditions saw few succeed. New capital was required for expansion, so Mr. Allison approached the other major player in the sector, the Forestal Land, Timber & Railway Company, with an offer of collaboration.

A new entity, the Natal Tanning Extract Company Limited, was established on June 30, 1920, for a price of £553 332, which included controlling interests in both the Alfredia Wattle Company and the Inanda Company. And thus, NTE began its 100 year journey to the company celebrating its centenary today. The early years were difficult, and at times the venture found itself on the brink. It was only later, under the stewardship of Mr. Charles W Biggs, that NTE would flourish. That story will be covered in our next edition.