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Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.

Refrigeration to the Rescue

Refrigeration to the Rescue

Famous Vessel Used as First Freezer in Poverty Bay

Whilst the freezing industry was in its infancy in New Zealand some Poverty Bay sheepfarmers sent sheep out of the district to be frozen and shipped to London. The first line comprised 500 wethers, which A. C. Arthur, of Matawhero, arranged to have frozen in Wellington. It was shipped by the Mataura in February, 1884, but, on account of a mishap to her machinery, much of her cargo arrived in a damaged condition, and he made nothing out of his consignment. During 1885 he repeated the experiment, and other local sheepfarmers followed his example. Success in connection with the industry paved the way for the taking up of a large number of blocks in Poverty Bay and on the East Coast. Unfortunately, some settlers were lured into clearing bush and scrub from unsuitable areas to the detriment of their own and their neighbours' properties.

In 1885 the Bennett patent process of preserving meat—a mode of embalming—was tried out in Poverty Bay. R. Thelwall and C. Westrup bought the district rights for £200. Carcases were processed by having a chemical injected into an artery in the neck. It cost 3d. to treat a sheep, and 2/6 in the case of a cattle beast. At a banquet held at the Masonic Hotel, Gisborne, both freshly-killed meat and preserved meat appeared on the menu. Some of the guests averred that the preserved meat was the best that they had ever tasted! Shortly afterwards it was reported that some processed sheep had sold readily on the Auckland market, and that a consignment which had been taken to Fiji and back had not deteriorated.

The New Zealand Land and Labour Co. Ltd. (promoted by W. L. Rees in 1885) decided to adopt the Bennett process in connection with its plan to make Poverty Bay's surplus stock available to the Auckland public through retail shops which it proposed to establish there. Mr. Rees told a public meeting at Gisborne in December, 1885, that the new process would “herald a golden era for the district and the colony,” and that it would “be the means of laying the foundations for the future happiness of millions.” When success began to attend the freezing industry his latest wealth-producing vision quietly faded away.

Upon receiving a guarantee that 40,000 sheep would be provided each season, Nelson Bros. Ltd., of Hawke's Bay, built a freezing works at Taruheru, Gisborne. When it was opened in November, 1889, only between page 326 200 and 300 sheep could be handled per day. The carcases, after being allowed to cool, were taken out in barges to the roadstead and placed on board the cold store hulk Prince of Wales, where they were frozen and stored pending the arrival of a Home vessel. In 1890 a freezing chamber was erected at Taruheru. Killings soon afterwards reached 750 per day. Nine years later, notwithstanding that a rival concern had been opened, the capacity of the works had to be doubled.

Managers: G. L. Sunderland (1889–92); A. Dewing (1892–1914); H. E. Clarke (1914–20); F. Tolerton (who had been, for 19 years, on the staff of the N.Z. Refrigerating Co. Ltd., Christchurch, and for four and a-half years secretary to the Westfield Freezing Co. Ltd., Auckland), 1920 till 1923, when the works was dismantled.

In spite of an offer by Nelson Bros, to raise the price for prime wethers from 1¼d. to 1½d. per lb., a movement (sponsored by F. J. Shelton) led to the establishment of the Gisborne Freezing Company, which opened works on Kaiti on 10 January, 1896. The new works comprised a building which had been used in connection with the construction of the breakwater and a new structure built chiefly of wood and galvanised iron. A freezer was obtained from a sailing ship at Napier. Mr. Shelton was the managing director, and J. R. Jones (chief engineer at the Taruheru works) became the manager and chief engineer. During the first season 23,871 sheep were frozen and 24,489 boiled down. A soap works and a preserving department were installed later.

Competition between the two works doubled the price which growers had received when there was only one works. By 1901, however, the junior concern had begun to feel the financial strain. When Mr. Shelton learned in September of that year that Nelson Bros, were offering 15/- for fat sheep in the wool he advised his company's clients to take advantage of the offer, as it would pay to keep their own works closed whilst such high prices ruled. Shortly afterwards Nelson Bros, withdrew their offer. A new company—The Gisborne Sheepfarmers' Frozen Meat Co. Ltd.—was then formed to take over the Gisborne Freezing Co.'s assets. It had a capital of £30,000 and its directors were: P. Barker, W. K. Chambers, F. Hall, W. D. Lysnar, W. Cooper, V. Barker and C. A. de Lautour.

The new company started operations in January, 1902. Mr. de Lautour was chairman of directors, W. F. Cederwall (formerly of Christchurch) general manager, and J. R. Jones was retained as chief engineer. When Mr. Jones resigned in 1919 he was succeeded by J. L. Smaill. In 1922 Mr. de Lautour resigned, and J. W. Nolan became chairman of directors. Upon Mr. Nolan's retirement in 1930 the position went to H. B. Williams. Mr. Cederwall was succeeded in 1926 by W. F. Riach, who held office as general manager until 1930, when A. F. Salmon took over the position.

A movement to establish freezing works at Tokomaru Bay was brought to a head on 18 March, 1909, when the Tokomaru Freezing Co. Ltd. was formed, the directors being: A. T. Ngata, K. S. Williams, E. R. Murphy, H. B. Williams, W. Busby, G. M. Reynolds and H. D. de Lautour. [Two months earlier it had been decided at a meeting of Tolaga Bay sheepfarmers to erect works at Tolaga Bay, but that scheme was now abandoned.] The Tokomaru works, which cost £39,000, was opened on 24 January, 1911, with H. C. Dawson as manager.

A freezing works in concrete was built at Waipaoa in 1915 for the Poverty Bay Farmers' Meat Co. Ltd. W. Douglas Lysnar was the mainspring of the concern, and C. H. Elliott the first manager. The company aimed at building up trade with Bristol and other United Kingdom outports, and on 7 November, 1919, it bought a large tramp named s.s. Codrington and equipped her with refrigerating machinery. In December, page 327 1925—two years after Nelson Bros. (N.Z.) Ltd. had taken over the company's works—it was reported that the vessel was on foreign charter, and, soon afterwards, she passed into other hands.

The Gisborne Sheepfarmers' Frozen Meat Co. Ltd. acquired the Tokomaru Bay works in 1921. A works which the firm built at Hicks Bay, and placed in charge of G. H. Sceats, had to be closed after the 1925–6 season on account of the fat stock supply proving inadequate. As further silting in the Taruheru River threatened to increase the difficulty in transferring meat from the Taruheru works to the roadstead, Nelsons (N.Z.) Ltd.—prior to 1920, Nelson Bros. Ltd.—planned to rebuild on a site which could be served by rail. However, the Waipaoa works came on the market on 3 November, 1923, and that firm, instead of rebuilding, took it over and placed Mr. Tolerton in charge. The Taruheru works was then dismantled.

In December, 1930, Nelsons (N.Z.) Ltd. and the Gisborne S.F.M. and M. Co. Ltd. formed the Gisborne Refrigerating Co. Ltd., took over the Kaiti works, and appointed Mr. Tolerton manager. Upon the death of Mr. Smaill, C. E. Hampton became chief engineer, and, when he retired, the position went to W. J. Ormiston. The Waipaoa works was dismantled after the close of the 1930–31 season. Only two works then remained in the Poverty Bay-East Coast area—those at Gisborne and at Tokomaru Bay. In 1945 Thomas Borthwick and Sons (A/Asia) bought the Tokomaru Bay works.


The Prince of Wales (600 tons) was built in 1850 for the Hudson Bay Company. Her hull was 3ft. thick at, and below, the waterline. In 1856 she was employed in an unsuccessful search for Sir John Franklin, the missing Arctic explorer. She was then used by Nelson Bros, as a cold store on the Thames. In 1889 she was brought out to New Zealand in 124 days by Captain W. Cumming, who remained as her master for 12 years, and then for 11 years was harbourmaster at Gisborne. She had four chambers—two in which the meat was frozen and two in which it was stored. Two hundred carcases could be frozen per day, and her storage capacity was 10,000 carcases. When Nelson Bros, established a freezing chamber at Taruheru works she was transferred to Picton, but was brought back in 1890 whilst the Taruheru works was being enlarged. She completed her interesting career in the role of a coal hulk at Wellington.


William B. Common commenced business in Gisborne in 1878 under the name of Murray, Common and Co. in premises adjacent to the site of the Trafalgar band rotunda. He was joined in 1882 by Frederick James Shelton (born in London in 1858), who had been trained by Saunderson, Murray and Co. Ltd., of London, and had been on the staff of Murray, Roberts and Co. Ltd., Wellington. The title of the firm was then changed to Common, Shelton and Co., and larger premises were taken on the firm's present site. The staff at that time included W. L. McLean (who eventually became general manager). In 1892 the business was taken over by a public company, of which the first directors were: John Clark, F. J. Shelton, C. Gray and Massey Hutchinson. When Mr. Shelton (the managing director) retired in 1902 Mr. Common again took up the reins. Mr. Common returned to England in 1906, and J. B. Kells (who had been the firm's auctioneer for eight years) was placed in charge. Mr. Common died in February, 1917.