The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 62
One of the most remarkable and rapid developments of trade in New Zealand of late years is the freezing of mutton and beef, and its traasport to the English market. It is only a little over ten years ago that the first trial shipment of frozen mutton, conducted by Mr. Thomas Brydone, the general manager of the New Zealand and Australian Land Company, left Port Chalmers, in the ship "Dunedin," for London, and since that time the growth of this export has been almost phenomenal. The project of sending fresh meat to England was then regarded as impossible of fulfilment; and Mr. Haslam's statement, that vessels would be able to carry carcases of 10,000 sheep, was considered visionary. But the improvements made by him in refrigerating machinery have enabled his prophecy to be more than fulfilled, as vessels are now fitted to carry four and five times the number of sheep he mentioned. The yearly export of frozen meat has gradually increased in value since 1882 from £19,889 to £1,194,721 in 1891, the last representing the carcases of 1,447,583 sheep, 338,444 lambs, and parts of carcases—which page 23 weighed 103,007 cwt.—of bullocks. The greatly-improved price of sheep caused by the demand for this export trade has much encouraged the farmers of the colony, and has caused increased attention to be given to clearing and laying down bush-land in grass, and otherwise improving holdings, in order to increase the bearing-capabilities of the land. With the total value of the meat export in 1891, it is necessary also to take into consideration the value of preserved meats, amounting to £111,133; of salted beef and pork, £15,795; and of bacon and hams, £25,182.
Notwithstanding the large increase in the numbers of sheep exported in 1890, the sheep returns for April, 1891, gave an addition of nearly 600,000 on the number in May of the previous year, thus showing that, even with the present flocks, there is a reserve that might supply a much larger export than at present; and the further progressive increase in the number of sheep that may be looked forward to from the extension of clearing and improvements gives promise of a future export of a magnitude possibly manifold greater than the present. The markets of the civilised world are, having regard to the growth of population, without a corresponding increased area for food-production, practically unlimited. This export has had the effect of helping the colony through a period of great depression, and, next to the production of wool, with which it is now inseparably connected, may be regarded as the most important factor in our well-being. It would be an idle speculation to consider in what condition New Zealand would have been had the process for meat-freezing now in use not been discovered, but there can be no doubt that it has been of almost incalculable value to this colony.
"The frozen-meat trade furnishes one of the most remarkable instances of the application of a scientific principle to commerce. The sheep-farmers in New Zealand did not know what to do with their surplus stock. They boiled them down for tallow, or they preserved them in tins. But there was very often very little page 24 profit on either of those processes, and both together failed to meet the requirements of the case. Meanwhile the great cities in Great Britain were in chronic want of meat, and especially of mutton. One day it was discovered that mutton could be sent from New Zealand to Great Britain in a frozen state without losing anything in quality. The process is in principle this: Air, at the ordinary natural temperature, is compressed to, say, one-third of its natural bulk by steam-power. It is then let into a chamber with walls impervious to heat. The sudden expansion of the air to its natural bulk again reduces it to one-third of its former temperature, producing an intense cold within the chamber, and this process being constantly maintained by steam-power the temperature within the chamber is permanently kept down to a point corresponding to the compression of the air. The carcases of the sheep, ready dressed for sale, are placed in the chamber, where they are frozen quite hard, and remain entirely unchanged until they are landed in England. There they are slowly thawed, and are not only as wholesome, but as palatable and as agreeable in appearance as the best English mutton.
"The arrival of the first vessel, a sailing-ship, with a small cargo of frozen mutton, in 1881, created a profound sensation in England, and the most erroneous and absurd notions were entertained regarding it. A violent prejudice was created against the meat, which was declared to be unlit for human food, and to have lost all its nutriment by being frozen. The Duke of St. Albans wrote to the Times protesting against fresh meat being brought from the Antipodes to compete with English meat. His Grace, however, sought to allay the alarm of the English farmers by assuring them that the thing could not last—that it was merely one of those unnatural experiments which are often attempted but which always fail, and that even if the supply could be kept up from New Zealand, which was impossible, the inferiority of the meat would soon render it unsaleable. The success of the shipment, nevertheless, was unmistakeable, and it was immediately followed by others. Many mistakes were made at first, and heavy losses were incurred, especially by the employment of defective machinery on board the ships, and by exposing the meat too long before it was frozen. For a time the trade appeared to be in a precarious condition, and it looked as if the Duke of St. Albans' prediction would be verified. The colonists, however, pushed it on with great enterprise, rectified their mistakes, adopted a variety of improvements, and very soon found out how to organize the export. The solution of ail their difficulties, in fact, was found to lie in having freezing- page 25 works on shore, near to the place of shipment, or near a railway leading to the place of shipment. At Petone, near Wellington, a hulk is used for this purpose, moored to a wharf close to the slaughter-house. The sheep, which are specially bred and selected for the Home market, are taken from adjoining paddocks in perfect condition, skilfully slaughtered, skinned, and dressed, and trucked down to the hulk, the whole interior of which is a freezing-chamber, kept at an even temperature by a powerful steam-engine and a compressor, as already described. As soon as the hulk is full, she is towed across the harbour to the wharf, where the vessel for England is lying, perhaps a mail-steamer of 4,000 or 5,000 tons. The frozen carcases, each encased in a clean calico bag, are promptly transferred from the freezing-chamber of the hulk to the freezing-chamber of the steamer. In other cases no hulk is employed, but the freezing-works consist of a large building with a chamber, and powerful engines constantly at work. The frozen carcases are passed through small hatches into tightly-closed vans, and carted or railed alongside the steamer, and at once transferred to her freezing-chamber. The whole of the operations are perfectly cleanly and inoffensive, the frozen carcases being as hard as marble, and the calico bags as unsoiled as a lady's muslin dress. In this way a large vessel, calling at two or three ports, will take in a cargo of 20,000 or 30,000 carcases in a few days, and land them in London in precisely the same state in which they left the works.
"Innumerable trials have been made, by which it is incontestably proved that the most fastidious connoisseur cannot tell New Zealand frozen mutton which has been killed two months from English mutton a week from the daises, when it comes to table. The result is that the trade has already expanded enormously. The export this year (1889) will probably not be less than a million carcases of mutton and lamb, besides a very large quantity of beef. It may be asked, How about the Duke of St. Albans' assurance that the colony could never keep up the supply? How are the flocks affected by this enormous drain of a million sheep and lambs a year—a thing never before heard of in any country in the world? The reply is that the flocks are not at all diminshed by the export. The colony could not afford to have them diminished, because it is to them it looks for its greatest staple of all—its wool. The effect of the export of meat, however, is not to diminish the flocks at all, but merely to keep both the flocks and the pastures up to the highest standard of quality by the regular withdrawal of the surplus stock. Not only prime wethers, but ewes and broken-mouthed sheep are page 26 worth exporting, and fetch a remunerative price. Thus there is no overstocking of pastures, and there are no old, unprofitable, degenerate flocks. On the other hand, the certainty of the market for mutton has enabled the farmers to put into permanent pasture great tracts of country which they could not afford to deal with before; and also to resort largely to turnip-feeding, by which means they have immensely increased the carrying-capacity of the country. This process can be extended almost incalculably. In a word, New Zealand can already send a million sheep a year to England as the surplus of her farms, and greatly to their benefit; and there is every reason to believe that within a very few years she will be able to send two millions a year, and still possess larger flocks and better flocks than ever.
"The meat is sold wholesale in London at about 4½d. per pound. At that price the grower gets from 12s. to 14s. per head, including what he makes by the skin and the offal; which pays very well.
"It will be readily understood that a trade of this magnitude employs in all its branches—pasturing, cultivation, shepherding, slaughtering, freezing, carrying, shipping, fellmongering, and so on—a very large population. These are distributed among various classes of the community, and include the wealthiest landowners in the colony, a multitude of smaller landowners or leaseholders, and working-men of all sorts and conditions. The actual freezing of the meat is mostly in the hands of companies, who either buy the stock and freeze and ship them on their own account, or freeze for the growers on a fixed tarriff of charges. These companies are all doing very well, the dividend last year being 10 per cent, in almost all instances, after making ample reserves. One company—the Gear Company, of Wellington-have paid back 60 per cent, of their whole capital in dividends in six years from their start, besides acquiring their land, works, and appliances, which are of great value. The Wellington Refrigerating Company, another important organization at the capital of New Zealand, is also making great strides. On the whole there is no industry in the colony which is more uniformly flourishing than the meat industry; and all the various classes of people concerned in it may be deemed to be very fortunately situated."
Preserved meats also form a considerable item of export. The total value in 1891 was: Preserved meats, £111,183; salted beef and pork, £15,795; bacon and hams, £25,182. The quantity tinned in 1890 was 6,291,278 lb., valued at £122,280, to which may be added corned beef, valued at £14,006; tallow, £144,282; bonedust, £15,484; oil, horns, hoofs, &c., £18,075; bringing up the total value of all produce in this industry for the year 1890 to £1,464,659.
New Zealand frozen mutton now commands a large sale throughout England, and is fast growing in popular estimation. Provided care be taken to see that the meat is thoroughly thawed, and well hung, before it is cooked, it is difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between New Zealand and the best English or Scotch mutton. The following episode is confirmatory of this.
During his visit to the Canterbury Agricultural and Pastoral Association's show at Christchurch, New Zealand, in November, 1891, the Earl of Onslow (then Governor of New Zealand) supplied the Christchurch papers with the result of an experiment which he had recently made with frozen mutton, the object being to ascertain whether the difference in price of English and New Zealand mutton was due to any great divergence of quality, or to prejudice; and, if so, whether the latter had any just cause for its existence.
Six sheep were selected by Mr. John Grigg, at Belfast, in the Colony, and were transmitted in the usual way to Messrs. Fitter, of the London Meat Market. His Excellency selected from the different classes of London society six gentlemen of his acquaintance, who are known to have first-rate cooks, and to have no personal interest in English sheep-breeding. Messrs Fitter were desired to deliver a sheep thawed and ready for consumption at the London house of each of these six gentlemen.page 28
In writing to advise them of the shipment His Excellency informed them that the sheep were not sent as a present for which any thanks were expected, but that he might, for his own personal information, ascertain whether the freezing process in any way caused deterioration in a joint of mutton which he had himself found when eaten in the colony to be equal to that which careful breeding and considerable expense had enabled him to produce from his own flock of pedigree Southdowns. To make certain that the opinions given were without favour or prejudice His Excellency caused a seventh sheep to be sent round the world and brought back to him in Christchurch, and he has no reason to doubt the perfect good faith of his correspondents.
The gentlemen selected were Baron Henry de Worms, M.P.; the Earl of Rosebery; Sir Augustus Harris, of Drury Lane Theatre, the late Sir Morell Mackenzie, M.D.; M. Waddington, the Ambassador in London for France; and General Sir Henry de Bathe, one of the Committee of the Beefsteak Club, whose members have a house-dinner once a week, at which one member of the committee has to dine, to select the principal dish, and to be responsible for its excellence.
The following are the opinions which His Excellency received:—
Baron de Worms, M.P., Under-Secretary for Colonies.—"We found it quite excellent. The freezing did not hurt it in the least; in fact, the greatest epicure would fail to discern that it was not Home-grown."
Lord Rosebery.—"The mutton was excellent, and not to be distinguished from English mutton."
General Sir H. de Bathe, of the Beefsteak Club.—"Last Friday we had a large assemblage at the B.S.C. to eat your mutton. The consensus of opinion was that it was most excellent. Dick Grain, Frank Burnand Bancroft, G. A. Sala, Alf. Watson, and some dozen others all so agree. I, who am a dweller on the Southdowns, can safely aver that your individual sheep was better than what I can buy in Chichester, where it always wants age and colour. It was as tender as a chicken. Gould the club make arrangements for a regular supply of mutton of same quality; and, if so, should we have to pay more than our London butcher's prices?"
Mons. Waddington, French Ambassador in London.—"The New Zealand mutton was a great success. I had recommended it to my cook, and it was carefully roasted. All present pronounced it quite equal to the best English mutton. The freezing of the meat had produced no appreciable difference."page 29
Sir Morell Mackenzie.—"Last week we had a little dinner of connoisseurs on purpose to sit in judgment on the mutton. I can only say that my friende and I were unanimous in giving a most favourable opinion. It had a great deal of flavour, and was very tender. In fact, I only recollect tasting mutton as good on one or two occasions. I suppose, however, that the specimen you were good enough to send me was much better than the ordinary consignments from New Zealand."
Sir Augustus Harris, Drury Lane Theatre.—"We duly received the sheep. Had it cooked and eaten. It was really delicious. Never had I tasted anything more tender or better flavoured. All I can say is, the trial was perfectly successful, if, as I suppose, it is an experiment of some new process.
Mr. Grigg has since assured His Excellency that two-thirds of the sheep sent from Belfast are of similar quality. The inference to be drawn is that there is no foundation for any prejudice which may have been formed against New Zealand mutton, and that some effort might, with advantage, be made to induce those at Home who are in a position to set the fashion to use the primest New Zealand meat, and thereby remove any feeling of prejudice which may still exist in the minds of the masses. Also, that it should be made easy for those who desire to do so to obtain in the West End of London the best joints from carefully selected carcases.