Page 1: Biography
Dahl, Carl Edvard Johan
Businessman, importer, vice consul, community leader
This biography, written by Donald Hansen, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Carl Edvard Johan Dahl was born on 6 August 1856 at Kalundborg, a port on the island of Zealand (Sjælland), Denmark. He was the son of Ane Justine Laurentze Luja and her husband, Christen Fasland Dahl, a shipowner and master, who later became an innkeeper. On leaving school at 14, Dahl was apprenticed to a sailmaker at the port of Nykøbing. About 1875 he went to sea, serving on American ships until 1877 when he disembarked from the Henrietta in Melbourne, Australia. Soon after, he tried the New Zealand goldfields but found them unprofitable. In 1880 he was employed as a grocery store manager in Campbelltown (Rongotea), Manawatu, and was appointed postmaster there in 1881. By 1882 he owned land worth £150. Commonly known in New Zealand as Charles Edward Dahl, he was married on 2 June 1883 at Carnarvon to Elizabeth Turner.
Although the 'bold young Dane', as he described himself, had rapidly become established in New Zealand, he experienced financial problems during the depression of the 1880s and in September 1883 went bankrupt. He continued as postmaster and commission agent, and as a farmer for a time. In 1885 he was naturalised, and in the same year he moved to Palmerston North and opened a wholesale tent, sail, flag and cordage business in Main Street. He prospered over the next 40 years, extending his product lines to include tarpaulins, oilskin clothing, hosiery, boots, wickerware, horse covers and other canvas goods. In 1895 he registered the trademark 'Hercules' to label his 'ready-made clothing of all kinds'. A visitor in 1897 noted that Dahl's business had grown at a truly surprising rate. His oilskin clothing production was then said to be the largest in New Zealand. Several thousand horse covers were made each year and tent accommodation for a thousand people was available at any time for sale or hire. He also had a shirt factory and rope works in Grey Street and imported soft goods and saddlery. He employed well over a hundred people. About 1901 he opened a branch of the tent business in Masterton, but had closed it by 1903.
Dahl had long been interested in dairy technology. In 1891 he and a Rongotea farmer, George Suisted, patented a hand-held mould for making butter pats, which they sold as Suisted and Dahl's Champion Diamond Butter-mould. Around 1900 Dahl revisited Denmark, where he saw the potential for importing Danish dairy machinery into New Zealand. Initial financial losses were overcome and in 1907 he established C. Dahl and Company to handle this branch of his business. A short-lived agency operated at Hawera from about 1910 to 1912. Dahl made another five trips to Denmark in connection with this trade before selling out in 1921 to the larger National Dairy Association of New Zealand.
Dahl's Danish connections led to his appointment as a vice consul in 1919, a role he performed to King Christian X's complete satisfaction. His work as vice consul and in promoting an export market for Danish dairy machinery was rewarded in 1926 with the Knight's Cross, second class, of the Order of Dannebrog, a Danish award similar to the MBE.
In 1922 Dahl purchased a beach cottage at Otaki. About three years later he added a 'convalescent and rest home for destitute and indigent children, irrespective of their creed…denomination or race and free of all charge'. It was run by the matron, Ellen Anna Feltham, along the lines of contemporary children's health camps. After Dahl's death his Children's Rest Home was eclipsed by the larger Otaki Children's Health Camp, and by 1937 it had closed down.
Carl Dahl died at his Palmerston North home on 15 August 1929 from influenza. His funeral cortège was one of the longest seen in the town for many years. He was survived by his wife, Elizabeth, five sons and two daughters. Four of the sons had worked for their father as commercial travellers and managers, and one continued manufacturing tents after Carl's death.
Despite initial setbacks, Dahl had readily adapted to business life in New Zealand and his enthusiasm and initiative had brought him considerable success and recognition. By making Denmark's dairy technology available to New Zealand's dairy production he realised benefits for both countries. He was a Freemason and a Lutheran, and was known for many acts of charity and kindness, especially towards his fellow Danes in New Zealand.