Story: Freight and warehousing

Page 4. Road and rail to the early 20th century

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Local distribution: foot, horse and bullock

Once off ship, freight was moved by horse or bullock – but roads were often bad or non-existent. The bullock wagon was the heavy hauler of the colonial era. Everything from logs to wool – and even buildings – was transported along rough colonial roads in this way. Horses carried packs or pulled carts. For over a hundred years they brought wool and hides from isolated farms.

Tricky trip


In the first few decades of the 19th century, Māori porters carried goods, often along coastal tracks. Many early settlers did the same. Samuel Oates transported his goods by wheelbarrow from Wellington to Greytown across the Remutaka Range in the 1850s. It wasn’t easy going – in some places he had to carry both his load and the wheelbarrow – but he made it.


The early land freight industry was localised, reflecting the scattered nature of 19th-century settlement. Individual manufacturers usually had their own transport – in 1867, for instance, the 51 breweries operating across the colony operated 87 drays (two-wheeled carts) between them. A town’s trade vehicles delivered coal, milk, groceries, meat, beer and spirits, and moved furniture and machinery. All used horses.

Tying sea and land freight together was a developing network of freight forwarders, who distributed goods from the port and later the railhead through towns and into the surrounding countryside.

Goods to be carried any distance from town needed to be sturdy and relatively light. Corrugated iron was used for building (rather than slate or bricks), and spirits were preferred to beer.

Their weight in gold


Gold rushes drove road development in Otago and on the West Coast during the 1860s, but initial freight capacity fell short and prices soared. In the mid-1860s, Cobb & Co transport operators charged John and William Walker £1 – over $100 in 2018 dollars – to get their packs from Dunedin to Dunstan.


Road freight takes off

The first petrol-driven trucks arrived in New Zealand in the early 1900s, sharing the road-freight business with steam lorries until the 1920s. By the end of the First World War, mass-produced petrol vehicles using large, high-pressure tyres were available, and motor-lorry registrations grew faster than those for any other kind of vehicle. There was an almost complete transition to the new vehicles – by the late 1920s it was rare to see horse-drawn vehicles other than milk carts in towns.

In 1929 there were nearly 1,400 people employed by the road freight industry, using 893 vehicles for freight alone and another 115 for combined passenger and freight services across New Zealand. Almost 60,000 tonnes of freight were carried over a distance of 1.23 million kilometres. There were over 30,000 trucks registered, however, suggesting that many people and businesses were carrying goods on their own or others’ behalf without being a ‘freight business’.

Rail and coastal shipping

Railways carried freight in a limited and piecemeal way until the 1870s, when the Vogel government laid almost 2,000 kilometres of track. Another burst of construction at the start of the 20th century saw the North Island main trunk line completed.

Building railways provided work for coastal shipping, which brought in the construction materials. Once completed, railways often led to the demise of smaller ports. This was reinforced in some areas by the Railways Department engaging in a fierce price war, undercutting shipping freight rates.


New patterns of warehousing were prompted by the development of refrigeration and railways in the 1880s. Warehouses sprang up around railway stations. In many towns warehousing developed in areas where land was cheap and transport was easy to and from rail and wharves.

Freezers and cool stores were built to hold meat, fish, dairy products and fruit until they were distributed locally or internationally. Meat processing plants and freezers were sometimes next to the port. In Napier, the South British company built their works right by the harbour. At Petone, a wharf was built specifically for the Gear Meat works.

How to cite this page:

Matthew Wright and Megan Cook , 'Freight and warehousing - Road and rail to the early 20th century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 June 2024)

Story by Matthew Wright and Megan Cook , published 11 Mar 2010