Story: Factory industries

Page 3. Gathering strength, 1900 to 1945

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Going north

For much of the 19th century Otago had been the centre of industrial production, and was the chief province in both exports and imports. As the population increased and became more urban, the cities of Wellington and Auckland expanded. With substantial investment in buildings and machinery, and the main trunk railway completed in 1908, the North Island was well placed to see an expansion in factory production.

Food-processing factories contributed to the North Island’s growing industrial dominance. Dairying was expanding, and most dairy factories, along with nearly half the meat-processing plants, were in the North Island. Frimley’s, Hawke’s Bay’s first successful fruit cannery, was opened in 1904, followed by Wattie’s in 1934.

Car assembly plants were built from the 1920s, many of them in the Hutt Valley. W. D. & H. O. Wills’s factory began producing Three Castles cut tobacco and Capstan cigarettes, first in Wellington, then in Petone. In Auckland, Fisher & Paykel began manufacturing washing machines in 1939. By 1949 the firm was making 600 washing machines, 500 refrigerators and 700 vacuum cleaners a month.

Factory fun


Some factories were more than workplaces. Social halls complete with piano and library, sports teams, debating societies, weekly card evenings, concerts and annual picnics attended by whole families were part of the social life of large workplaces like Dunedin’s Hillside engineering works. The Hillside workshops’ picnic included a baby show judged by the local member of Parliament, tests of skill and strength with prizes donated by local businesses, and a band.


Factory work

Between 1900 and 1920 factory employment increased faster (157%) than the number of factories (100%). By 1920 factory workers had become 20% of the labour force. This trend continued, and by the 1950s factories employed approximately 27% of the labour force.

Within many factories the 19th century pattern of drawing supervisory staff from the factory floor continued. At Dunedin’s Hillside railway workshop, for example, the manager was always an ex-fitter, while the foremen in charge of each division were skilled in the relevant trade – a blacksmith, boilermaker or carpenter, as appropriate. Leading hands were the next level of authority down, and in a large factory like Hillside, they did most of the direct supervision. The leading hand would often be called by his first name, while those further up the hierarchy were addressed as ‘Mr’.


From 1920 the number of factory accidents rose rapidly, well ahead of the increase in numbers of workers. From 1,218 in 1920 the number reached 4,938 in 1939, and then rose to 7,525 in 1948. Manufacturing processes, chemicals and machinery within factories had become more sophisticated and riskier, and inspections were fewer and less effective.

Electrification and the assembly line

Many factories were using electric power by 1920, replacing steam, water-wheel, coal, gas and horse power. Electricity allowed jobs to be broken into small steps that could be done by a semi-skilled or unskilled worker.

Once freezing works were electrified, the moving chain production line began to replace skilled solo butchers responsible for an entire carcass. The new ‘one man, one cut’ system allowed the employment of cheaper, unskilled workers and resulted in an increase in production in factories that introduced it.

A similar change had occurred in clothing factories. Making a shirt, for example, was broken down into 37 separate steps, each done by a different person. Skilled tailors, who knew the whole process, were replaced by semi-skilled workers able to do one or two parts of the job.

Many New Zealand factories adopted the assembly-line process later than their English or American equivalents. The cost of installing new machinery, resistance from skilled workers, or management not seeing it as a priority were all factors in this delay.


Many firms diversified or changed tack in the 1930s and 1940s. The depression of the early 1930s, government policy, and the Second World War all encouraged this development.

Christchurch-based Scott Brothers switched from locomotive manufacture to domestic appliances. Between 1931 and 1957 the firm produced over 200,000 Atlas stoves to service the boom in appliance sales following the Second World War. Similarly, Mason and Porter (Masport), which was founded in 1910 and initially made milking machines, added lawn mowers to its range in the 1930s. During the Second World War, the company also made munitions.

Depression and recovery

With the onset of the 1930s economic depression, factory production in New Zealand fell substantially, as did factory employment (by around 20%). By the mid-1930s recovery was under way: manufacturing output grew by 14% in 1934/35.

In 1938 the government introduced controls on imports to protect New Zealand’s balance of payments. This had a direct impact on the style and type of factory production for the next 40 years. Initially intended as a temporary measure, the controls would remain in place until 1992.

Second World War

The Second World War resulted in rapid development of some factory industries. Clothing and engineering factories grew particularly fast, producing the uniforms, weapons and equipment needed for the war. Protected by war from competition from imported goods, other factory industries, particularly those deemed ‘essential’ and therefore able to retain staff, also grew.

The limited importing possible during the war, combined with import controls, resulted in factory production increasing by 4.5% per year, and the range of goods produced in New Zealand increased by one-third.

At the same time factory conditions deteriorated. Much-needed building work was delayed, new equipment could not be bought, and the pressure of work meant delaying unnecessary activity. So much needed to be done that the shortcomings in New Zealand’s factory sector would not be made up until the early 1950s.

How to cite this page:

Ian Hunter, 'Factory industries - Gathering strength, 1900 to 1945', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 May 2024)

Story by Ian Hunter, published 11 Mar 2010