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Story: Fraser, George

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Fraser, George


Engineer, foundry proprietor, ship owner

This biography, written by W. A. Laxon, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993. It was updated in June, 2015.

George Fraser was born at Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, probably on 28 June 1832, the son of Rachel Gray and her husband, George Fraser, an iron moulder. After attending a local school he was apprenticed at the age of 14 to Hall, Catto, Thompson, and Company, engineers and iron shipbuilders of Aberdeen. When he had completed his indentures, Fraser served first as a draughtsman with Smith and Tulloch, engineers of Greenock, then briefly as manager of the Caulton Foundry in Glasgow.

On 8 October 1854 at Glasgow George Fraser married Christina Davidson. They were to have seven sons and three daughters. The couple embarked on the Cornubia, arriving at Auckland, New Zealand, on 30 April 1855. They immediately moved north to Matakana where George had been appointed assistant manager of the flax mill for the Glasgow engineers Hopkins and Wilson. In 1856 George, Christina and their first child shifted to Auckland where George became the engineer at the Wharf Flour Mill of Thornton, Smith and Firth.

In 1861 George Fraser established his own foundry and in 1864 was joined in partnership by Theodore Tinne. (Tinne retired in 1881 and the firm later became known as George Fraser and Sons.) The site of the first plant was in Mechanics Bay, and the initial output concentrated on sawmilling plant and general machinery, especially flax-dressing machinery. By applying his engineering knowledge and skills to the rudimentary machines then in use, Fraser enabled his firm to gain a leading place in the New Zealand flax industry. Fraser and Tinne also acquired a flax mill at Kaihu which, with the aid of the firm's machinery, was later turned to the production of paper. The firm provided heavy machinery and boilers for the stamping plants on the quartz goldfields at Thames, Karangahake and Waihi.

Increasingly, Fraser designed much of his machinery for ships. Fraser had built his first marine steam engine in 1867 for the coastal packet Tauranga. In 1872 he delivered two sets of compound surface-condensing engines and high-pressure boilers – the first of their kind to be built in Auckland – for the locally built steamers Southern Cross and Rowena. At St Barnabas Point further waterside premises for subsidiary works were leased for the firm's marine activities, and Fraser and Tinne moved the main plant from its original site to larger premises in Stanley Street under the new title, Phoenix Foundry.

Until this time all locally built ships had been constructed of wood, but on 20 November 1876 George Fraser launched the first iron vessel constructed in Auckland, the Rotomahana. The firm used the ship for the Auckland–Thames trade, where it continued to run for many years. All vessels owned by Fraser flew a yellow houseflag bearing a phoenix. Fraser was also a member of some of the syndicates which formed the Northern Steam Ship Company Limited in 1881.

In January 1884 he successfully salvaged the large steamer Triumph from the shore at Tiritiri Island, a task many had believed to be beyond local resources. Having purchased the vessel for £2,100 he had it afloat and in Auckland harbour within weeks. However, problems arose. The Triumph was too long for the local dry dock and a coffer-dam had to be constructed to enable the work to be completed. His subsequent attempts to trade the vessel failed and it had to be sold in Britain in 1888.

By 1900, when Fraser handed over active control to his sons, the Phoenix Foundry was by far the largest engineering works in Auckland. The main plant occupied over two acres, complete with moulding equipment, steam hammers and heavy cranes; the subsidiary works were devoted mainly to serving the nearby shipping industry.

George Fraser did not have much time for public life. He served briefly on the Auckland Harbour Board from 1873 to 1874, but soon found the conflict with his commercial responsibilities too great to continue. He was also a member of the committee of the Auckland Technical School from its inception.

George Fraser died at his Auckland home on 29 July 1901; his wife, Christina, had died in February that year. He had long been respected as an innovative engineer with a practical bent. Although one of the largest employers in the city, Fraser was regarded as one of the most caring. Apprentices trained in his works carried his methods and skills throughout Australasia long after his death.

How to cite this page:

W. A. Laxon. 'Fraser, George', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993, updated June, 2015. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2f20/fraser-george (accessed 7 June 2023)