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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 3, Issue 6, October 1980

Cement Industry

page 30

Cement Industry

The manufacture of cement is now one of the big industries of our country and as the demand has increased the New Zealand producers have expanded their operations. The purposes for which it can be used have increased a great deal as time has gone along. With so much being used it seems difficult to realise that just a century ago concrete was not widely used. At that time Portland Cement was imported from England in wooden barrels.

Portland cement was originally developed in England in 1826 by a bricklayer, Joseph Aspdin. Because of its likeness, when set, to the Portland stone of England, it was referred to as Portland cement. (Portland stone was used in the building of St Paul's Cathedral, London.)

In the early days of settlement in this country very little cement was used but with the building of railways in the 1870s the demand increased. As its use became more general it was appreciated that, with the large supply of suitable raw materials readily available, it could be produced here. Shipping was then the main means of transport and with lime and coal adjacent to the sea coast there appeared to be no difficulty in developing the industry and distributing the cement around the country.

An Auckland correspondent assured the writer that the first commercial manufacture of Portland cement in the Southern Hemisphere was commenced at Mahurangi, north of Auckland, in 1884 or 1885, and that the original plant there to manufacture hydraulic lime concrete was established as early as 1878. This was the start of the Wilson's Portland Cement Company which operated there until operations were transferred to Portland, on the Whangarei Harbour, in 1924. (I have visited the old Mahurangi works near Warkworth where derelict concrete buildings and tall chimneys still give some indication of the extensive operations. The tallest concrete chimney was blown down by the Home Guard during the Second World War as a training exercise).

One of the early undertakings in this industry was at Ferntown, across the Aorere River from Collingwood. T. J. A. Metcalfe stated in 1882 in his book A Ramble Through the Inangahua, Lyell and Collingwood Reefs,"… the well known firm of Brogden and Son, having purchased the coal mine at Ferntown, near Collingwood, have recently erected the necessary appliances for the making of hydraulic cement, an industry employing fifty hands alone."

Concerning this the Handbook of N.Z. Mines, 1887, stated, "Four years ago a gentleman was so well satisfied that cement could be profitably manufactured that he put the whole of his capital into the venture. After thoroughly satisfying himself that all the necessary materials for the producing of an article equal to the imported cement could be readily obtained, he erected, at considerable outlay, compact buildings, containing all page 31the necessary appliances, improved machinery, crushers, hoppers, distributors, bins, etc., which are still in position, and ready for use at any moment. As the necessary coal, clay, and limestone lie within a radius of half a mile from the works, it is anticipated that an enterprising company will be found to take them over. Tests made on brickets manufactured from a small quantity of the cement turned out gave results equal to those obtained from brickets made from Portland cement, it is thought that judicious expenditure of about £2000 ($4000) would put the works in motion and place a supply of cement on the market."

Optimism about this industry brought more people to the district and William Grant moved his portable 12-horsepower steam engine from his sawmill at Marahau to drive the works. His son, the late C. L. Grant told the writer that he could remember the old cement works and that the buildings covered about a quarter of an acre. He could not remember that any cement for selling purposes was ever turned out.

A news item in the Golden Bay Argus of August 27, 1886, said "Ferntown Portland cement works are to be sold at auction next week. We had hoped that the Collingwood Coal Company could have purchased this valuable plant so as to work the two industries conjointly but we presume that the want of capital has prevented them from doing this." In a general statement it was said that the plant was quite capable of turning out 50 tons weekly. It further said "Government statistics show that about 15,000 tons of Portland cement was the average annual importation in the last six years." Apparently the plant did not sell and one can only conclude that the works continued to remain idle as, on April 2, 1896, they were offered for sale. The goods and effects included 6 cottages. During the course of the next few years news reports recorded the shipping of the plant from Ferntown to Taranaki.

It is of interest that this was not the only attempt made to get a works in the area. In October 1906 it was stated that 100 acres (40.5 ha.) at Pakawau had been acquired for the purpose. Meanwhile other developments had been taking place in the Motupipi district. In the Handbook of N.Z. Mines, 1906, it is stated that "At the present time Mr French is working cement machinery at Motupipi in Takaka. The machinery started in April 1906. Mr French is well satisfied that cement can be profitably manufactured from the materials at Motupipi, and has put a large amount of capital into the venture." Also the report of Dr J. Macintosh Bell in the Geological Report: Parapara Subdivision, 1907, stated: "For some years until quite recently, work was prosecuted on the more southerly of the Tata Islands, and on the mainland adjoining, by the Marlborough Lime and Cement Company, about 7,000 tons of stone in all having been shipped to Picton for manufacturing into cement. For the past year or so lime and cement have been manufactured in a small way near the mouth of the Motupipi River." (Concerning the operations at the Tata Islands it is interesting to note that the authorities became apprehensive about the islands being removed as this would lead to the page 32eventual destruction of the only harbour of refuge in Golden Bay. The islands were taken over under the Public Works Act. Some of the concrete foundations of the old cement works at Picton can still be seen beside the highway leading over the hill from the town.–J.N.).

In March 1909 the cement works at Motupipi were advertised for sale by auction the following month and, when the detailed list was advertised, it was stated that the plant had only been closed two years.

In the prospectus for the Golden Bay Cement Company dated February 20, 1908, a number of Nelson men were listed among the directors but the second prospectus dated January 8, 1909 showed most of the directors as being Wellington men. Also the second prospectus showed that the capital, originally £25,000 ($50,000), was being increased to £60,000 ($120,000).

For the purposes of the article it is not necessary to trace the story of the present company but it is interesting to note that while the works had a capacity of 20,000 tons per annum in 1909 it now has a capacity of 400,000 tons per annum.