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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 6, 1995

Remember Griffins

page 10

Remember Griffins

John Griffin was born in the village of God's Hill on the Isle of Wight about 1813. He became a flour-miller, using a windmill to grind his corn. Having an eye for the future and realising that a wealth of opportunity lay before him, John Griffin came to New Zealand to seek his fortune.

With his wife Charlotte and seven children, on the 26th September 1854, Griffin arrived in Nelson from England on the 510 ton barque Ashmore.

In 1855 he commenced business in a bakery shop in Trafalgar Street, Nelson. It was badly damaged during an earthquake in 1855, and this terrifying experience decided him to rebuild in wood. A depressed economy caused him to move his family and his enterprise to Christchurch in the early 1860s, and he is listed as a grocer and draper there in 1867. After a few years, when conditions had improved, Griffin decided to return to Nelson, where he bought land on the north-east corner of Alton and Nile Streets occupied by a wood and coal yard.

He built a house there and continued the sale of household fuel, in addition to operating a flour mill and biscuit factory. It was here he lived and worked until his death on 13 April 1893. Charlotte Griffin had died on 17 May 1889.

Despite all the ingenuity and industry that he employed, John Griffin never saw the full realisation of his dream. When he died he left his two sons, J.H. and G.R. Griffin,
Griffin's mill and woodyard, 1890. Tyree Studio Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum.

Griffin's mill and woodyard, 1890. Tyree Studio Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum.

page 11who had been working with him, something far more valuable than material success. He left them an attitude of mind which did not flinch at hard work, and a pride in producing a good product.

Imbued with their father's ambition, the two sons carried on the business towards the time when they could achieve further expansion. Then everything was lost in a single day when fire completely destroyed the premises in 1894. There was no insurance – in those days there was very little insuring at all.

In order to restore the business, the two brothers formed a public company with a capital of £5172, subscribed by Nelson people.

The first general meeting of the company was held in the Community Building rooms, Hardy Street, Nelson, on 17 January 1895. The first Board of Directors were James Sclanders, the first Chairman, J.H. Cock, T. Field, E. Finney, James Boon, R. Snodgrass, B.S. Chisholm, W.A. Roughton and A.A. Scaife.

The directors realised that if the business was to progress, it was necessary to obtain further capital. Capital was, however, not easy to obtain and the business was assisted very substantially by Thomas Cawthron. The Company's efforts met with a measure of success and progress was such that, in 1897, a chocolate-making plant was purchased.

When James Sclanders died in 1900, J.H. Cock, senior, succeeded him as chairman and held that position for many years. Disaster by fire again overtook the Company, the factory being destroyed a second time on 18 November 1903. Unfortunately only a limited insurance was held, and the original capital was written down by 50% to cover the loss.

Once again the business rose from the ashes. Further capital was subscribed by the Nelson public and a new brick factory was erected in 1904 which commenced operations early in 1905.

The business was steadily built up over the years and, although difficult trading periods were encountered, the company got on to a profit-making basis, with constant expansion being the order of the day.

In 1938 the company took a major step of transferring its entire biscuit manufacturing operation to Lower Hutt, where its factory became, and has remained, an extremely efficient manufacturing unit.

This big move enabled the company to devote the Nelson factory entirely to confectionery manufacture. Great improvements were effected and new equipment imported to meet the constantly increasing demand from all over New Zealand for the wide range of Griffins' confectionery.

The Company now had branches for the distribution of its famous oven-fresh biscuits and highest quality confectionery in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill. It delivered its products by its own vehicles into almost every store in New Zealand. Thus Griffin and Son Limited took its place as one of the largest undertakings of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.

During the Second World War Griffins, with other biscuit manufacturers, produced huge quantities of army biscuits which were shipped to the Middle East. In fact, during that period, the biscuit industry as a whole provided a greater value of goods for war purposes than any other secondary industry in New Zealand. Thus, to a large degree, Griffins put the name of Nelson on the map.

In 1965 Griffins took another turn in direction, joining the stable of companies owned by the American food giant Nabisco. In recent times, however, the deregulation of the sugar industry, high freight costs to Nelson and the removal of tariffs on imported confectionery combined to seriously threaten the company's future in Nelson. Reduced page 12freight costs and proximity to its major markets made Auckland an attractive proposition, but this should have been weighed against other advantages Nelson had to offer, including cheaper industrial land, good industrial relations, less sick leave and retraining and, as a major employer, their duty to consider the social impact of a withdrawal. Along with the 150 workers and their families who were immediately affected by the 1987 closure, industries that serviced the factory suffered also. There were few in the city who escaped the pain of the factory closing, as at least $35,000 a week was removed from the local economy.

Nelson's female employees were especially hard hit, as they made up the bulk of the factory staff. A large number of temporary jobs, such as those created for the Easter season, were also ended, removing a major source of part-time work for Nelson women. Griffins had had a very long and proud association with the city and it was a tragedy when it ended.