Story: Manufacturing – an overview

Page 1. Early manufacturing

All images & media in this story

Items made by Māori

Māori made flax and other leaves into fibre, rope, fishing nets, kete (baskets), mats and clothes. They fashioned tools and weapons from timber, stone, shell and bone and carved waka (canoes) from timber. They made houses from timber, rushes and other plants. Food was preserved in fat, dried or fermented.

Manufacturing from 1840

In the 1830s and 1840s Europeans had processed whale oil at shore-based stations, and built boats. Manufacturing developed from the 1840s onwards. European settlers demanded manufactured goods that they had enjoyed in their home countries, such as clothing, crockery, wines, beer, biscuits, bread, confectionary, newspapers, and boots and other leather goods.

Manufacture of some of these goods required sophisticated techniques. Because they were not able to be produced easily or cost-effectively in New Zealand, they had to be imported. Other manufactured goods – bread, beer, clothing and confectionary for example – could be readily made locally. They provided ready opportunities for new migrants, who set up firms to produce these goods and supply the growing community.

Factors boosting manufacturing

Factors significant in this stage of New Zealand’s manufacturing history were:

  • many industries set up in the mid-19th century did not require significant capital – a small brickworks, tannery or clothing workshop could be opened on limited funds
  • many settlers had been apprenticed in manufacturing in England and elsewhere, and they understood production practices and had the skills to make goods
  • settlers required manufactured goods in large quantities – houses, shops and factories had to be built, and required milled timber, joinery, bricks, glass and ironwork in increasing quantities.

A hard life


Early manufacturing wasn’t always easy. After numerous attempts to produce paper failed, two paper mills got going in 1876. One entrepreneur, who had struggled for years to establish his mill, put it on the market a month after going into production. The others persevered but found their mill did not flourish, and sold it in 1884 for £5,000, a fifth of its cost.


Local markets

Demand for goods grew steadily in the 1850s and early 1860s, and then rapidly from the 1870s as migrants flooded in and the population doubled.

The accelerated demand for goods, combined with New Zealand’s limited transport and communication infrastructure, meant that early manufacturers served their local area. Timber mills, joinery shops, brickworks, printers, boot and shoe factories, and coachworks were established to supply the needs of their town and its immediate neighbours. Few of these manufacturers aimed to sell further afield.

Boom in the 1860s

The 1860s gold-mining boom buoyed manufacturers. Some, like Dunedin engineering firm A & T Burt, were able to expand their businesses rapidly. The rapid increase in population also created a demand for housing and amenities.

The 1867 census showed 406 manufacturing plants. Flour mills, breweries, sawmills, brick and tile factories, and clothing and boot manufacture were the main types of operation.

To encourage greater depth of manufacturing among specific industries, the colonial government instituted bonus schemes from the late 1860s. The schemes gave a financial reward to the first company to set up a working manufacturer in a particular sector. The production of paper at Woodhaugh in Dunedin, and refined sugar on Auckland’s North Shore, both began in part because of a government bonus which, when won, provided some capital.

Railways, telegraph and migration, 1870s

Improved communication in the 1870s, promoted through Julius Vogel’s public works and immigration scheme, pumped £14 million (over $2 billion in 2019 terms) into the New Zealand economy. The scheme funded the construction of railroads, public buildings, schools, harbours and bridges.

The boom in activity stimulated manufacturing plants that supplied construction materials and engineering goods.

How to cite this page:

Ian Hunter, 'Manufacturing – an overview - Early manufacturing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 May 2024)

Story by Ian Hunter, published 11 Mar 2010