Story: Workshop industries

Page 1. A nation of workshops

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Workshops are small manufacturing businesses, typically employing fewer than 20 people. They tend to carry out all or most stages in the production of their products, using a range of craft skills.

Workshops are dominant in industries as diverse as clothing manufacture, panel beating, signwriting and design. Together with factories (larger manufacturing businesses employing more than 20 people), they make up New Zealand’s manufacturing industry.

The importance of workshop industries

Workshop industries are very important to New Zealand’s economy. In 2008 more than 90% of New Zealand’s manufacturing enterprises employed fewer than 20 people. Workshops in the creative industries have helped to build New Zealand’s international reputation for ground-breaking design and communications.

Successful workshops may expand to become full-scale factories, so workshops can also be seen as the first stage in the life cycle of a firm’s economic growth.

Manufacturing nation

 

In 1884 the New Zealand Manufacturers’ Association was formed in Dunedin. At the association’s inaugural dinner, the guest speaker asked rhetorically, ‘What nation can exist in modern times that is composed entirely of tillers of the ground and shepherds of sheep? ... We are contributing our mite towards the building up of a State which may eventually occupy a prominent position among the nations of the world.’1

 

The workshop in New Zealand’s industrial development

The small workshop was the backbone of New Zealand’s early industrial development. New Zealand industry was not dominated by large foreign-owned enterprises, as was the case in some South American countries. New Zealand’s economy developed later than the economies of those countries, and was further away from the main markets in Europe. Also, New Zealand’s rapid population growth from immigration created a strong domestic market for its locally made products. Together, these factors discouraged large international companies from setting up in New Zealand and allowed local workshops to flourish.

Because of this, New Zealand entrepreneurs dominated the industrial landscape. At the core of this economic expansion was the small firm relying on the personal capital and expertise of one or two owner-operators and their staff.

Most tradespeople acquired the tools of their craft during their apprenticeship, so the main set-up costs for their business were a building and some land. Often their home, shop and workshop were under one roof. Sometimes apprentices lived there too, and family members were frequently vital to the business.

Workshops as places of discovery

Workshops have a special symbolic and historical importance to New Zealand culture. They help to define New Zealanders as a nation of ‘tinkerers’ – practical, resourceful people with a tradition of innovation. The workshop is traditionally a place where ideas are tested, and it has played a part in building the idea of ‘Kiwi ingenuity’.

In 1895 Ernest Hayes began his small engineering business from a 7-square-metre farm shed in Ōtūrehua, Central Otago. There he invented and manufactured a remarkable range of agricultural tools and implements. His best-known product, the parallel wire strainer for farm fences, was patented in 1923.

The South Island high country farmer Bill Hamilton and his staff spent many hours in the workshop at his farm at Irishman Creek in the Mackenzie Country in the 1950s. There they found the isolation, concentration and equipment necessary to perfect the world’s first jet boat.

Footnotes:
  1. John H. Angus, The ironmasters: the first hundred years of H. E. Shacklock Limited. Dunedin: H. E. Shacklock Limited, 1973, p. 38. Back
How to cite this page:

Ian Hunter, 'Workshop industries - A nation of workshops', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/workshop-industries/page-1 (accessed 23 November 2019)

Story by Ian Hunter, published 11 Mar 2010