Story: Factory industries

Page 1. Factories before the 1880s

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Factory industries have seen dramatic rises and falls in their contribution to New Zealand’s economic output and employment. The factory sector started in the 19th century with many small and medium-sized firms producing a range of goods demanded by the local population. It became a highly protected sector in the 1950s and 1960s, encouraging the development of bigger and bigger firms. After shrinking in the 1980s and early 1990s, the sector grew again, this time with an increasingly global outlook.

Early factory development

Because New Zealand is geographically isolated and its settlements were spread widely across the country, goods needed to be manufactured locally. A reasonably diverse manufacturing base was necessary – the colony could not continue to rely on imports.

Factories were needed to process natural materials – wood and clay – into construction materials for homes, and commercial and industrial buildings. As New Zealand’s settler population (excluding Māori) grew from 137,000 in 1861 to 256,000 in 1871, there was also a pressing need for manufactured foods and beverages. Baked goods, flour, cordial, aerated water (soft drinks), sugar and beer were all products in high demand.

1867 census of factories

The earliest record of the number and scale of New Zealand factories is the 1867 census of factories. Altogether, there were 406 manufacturing establishments. The largest were in sectors that reflected the stage the country’s economic development had reached, such as brick-and-tile works and woodworking factories.

Otago was the richest and most populous province, and its factories made beer (nine factories), bricks and tiles (eight), candles and soap (one), rope and cord (one), tanned hides and scoured wool (seven), processed flax (three) and flour (15), and made ironware and machinery (one). A large category grouped sawmills, sash and door makers together (11) – the same business often handled both milling and joinery.

The same kinds of factories were also found elsewhere in the colony, along with biscuit makers, coachbuilders, and beverage manufacturers.

Skills and equipment

Factories were often set up by immigrants using skills that they had acquired in their home countries. In the 1860s and 1870s provincial councils and central government offered bonuses to manufacturers to encourage the establishment of strategically important factory industries, such as sugar refining, paper production, cheese production for export and wool processing.

In some cases entrepreneurs brought machinery with them from overseas. In other cases they returned to Europe to purchase machinery and sometimes hire staff.

Public interest


The local community followed with interest the fortunes of the Mosgiel woollen mill. Detailed accounts of building and extensions, the shipping of new machinery, and the finding and then arrival of skilled staff from England were all reported in the local newspaper. The exact size and material used for buildings, the function of machinery and how many jobs it would create, the home towns and skills of new workers all became public knowledge.


Wool processing

The Mosgiel woollen mill was a successful example of a newly established factory. Founder A. J. Burns sailed to England to buy the necessary plant and machinery, and to hire staff. By October 1871 Burns had produced the first Mosgiel tweed and, with the demands of the factory growing, in 1873 the Mosgiel Woollen Factory Company was established. Burns set up a significant industrial enterprise, which by 1885 had electric lighting and shift work. This was a factory that made the transition from personal capital to industrial capital.

Factory work and conditions

In early factories skilled or semi-skilled workers controlled and carried out whole aspects of the manufacturing process, from start to finish. The breakdown of manufacturing into an assembly line controlled by managers – where each worker was responsible for only a small part of the process – would not become typical until the 20th century.

Prevention rather than cure


A law protecting women and children was prevention rather than cure, MP James Bradshaw told Parliament. It was needed because ‘love of money-making was as great here as elsewhere, and our morals no better than our neighbours’; and these evils, resulting from too close a worship of mammon, would be perpetuated if not stopped now before vested rights grew up.’1


Factories were often unheated, draughty and dirty. They were sometimes insanitary, unsafe and unhealthy. Despite this, factories were accepted as workplaces for men, but were not always regarded as safe or suitable places for women and child workers, who were seen as particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

Working conditions, hours of work, and payment for women and then children were regulated from 1873, but these provisions were seldom enforced. There were no factory inspectors. Police were responsible for checking on hours and conditions, but they usually had other, more pressing, problems.

  1. Otago Witness, 22 August 1874, p. 8. Back
How to cite this page:

Ian Hunter, 'Factory industries - Factories before the 1880s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 May 2024)

Story by Ian Hunter, published 11 Mar 2010