Kōrero: Agricultural processing industries

Whārangi 7. Freezing works, 1880s to the 1970s

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Refrigerated shipping sparks new industry

The first shipment of frozen meat left Port Chalmers on the Dunedin, bound for Britain in February 1882. It sparked a major industry after its cargo of frozen mutton and lamb sold in London, within a fortnight of arrival, for more than twice the price it would have got in New Zealand. Exports of frozen meat grew rapidly – they tripled from 4,300 tons in 1883 to more than 12,000 tons in 1884.

For the next century most of New Zealand’s meat would be shipped as frozen carcasses to Britain. This was particularly the case during the two world wars, when deals were made to send all available meat there. However, by the 1950s most of New Zealand’s beef went to the United States.

Freezing works

The freezing for the first frozen meat shipment had been done on board ship, the Dunedin having been fitted with a Bell-Coleman freezing plant. When freezing works were built, the animals were killed and the carcasses gutted and frozen there.

Freezing works were New Zealand’s first large-scale industrial plants. They were often built near wharves – but where they were not, insulated railway carriages were developed to transport the frozen carcasses.

Freezing works employed many workers, both skilled and unskilled, and paid them comparatively high wages. In 1927 Gisborne Sheepfarmers Frozen Meat and Mercantile Company, with its large Kaiti works on the Gisborne waterfront, boasted that it was the largest employer of labour and largest distributor of wealth in Poverty Bay.

Nelson Brothers’ empire


William Nelson set up his Tōmoana operation in 1880 as a boiling-down works, producing tallow and canned meat. But he knew refrigeration was coming and made sure he could convert his operation once the freezing process was refined. Tōmoana quickly became a huge works and Nelson Brothers was the biggest company in the freezing industry’s first decade. They opened other works in Waipukurau, Gisborne, Woodville and Spring Creek. In 1920 the company was sold to British firm Vestey Group.


First freezing works

The first freezing works were built at Burnside, Dunedin, in 1882, shortly after the first frozen meat export. In 1883 the Gear Meat Preserving and Freezing Company began freezing operations in Wellington; the Canterbury Frozen Meat Company opened a works at Belfast; and William Nelson started freezing operations at Tōmoana in Hawke’s Bay. By 1892 there were 21 freezing works, 12 in the North Island and nine in the South.

Early works ownership

Some early freezing works were started by butchers, such as James Gear in Wellington and Richard Hellaby in Auckland. About a dozen of the freezing companies set up in the first two years of the industry were provincially based, as combinations of businesspeople, often including farmers, merchants, shippers, politicians and lawyers, pooled their resources to set up freezing works. They saw freezing works as a way of bringing wealth to their area as well as themselves. Farmers formed cooperatives to start freezing works – which meant they had control over the access to killing space for stock when they needed it.

Students and writers in the works


As the busiest part of the freezing works’ killing season coincided with university holidays, students could take jobs there, and the high wages could fund them through the academic year. Writers, including James K. Baxter and Ronald Hugh Morrieson, also took jobs in the works to be able to devote non-earning winters to writing.


The killing season

Freezing works operated on a highly seasonal basis – the the ‘killing season’ started around August and reached a peak in January. Their weekly schedule told farmers the prices they would pay for stock in the weights and grades required. Drovers ‘drove’ – and later trucks transported – animals to the works’ holding paddocks.

Solo slaughtermen and the chain

Before the 1930s solo slaughtermen, who were highly skilled butchers, killed the animals, pulled their pelts off by hand, and gutted the carcasses. They were paid for each animal killed, with tongues used to count the tally. Labourers moved carcasses around and cleaned up the mess.

From about 1930 ‘the chain’ was introduced – which moves carcasses along as workers carried out a specific operation on them.

Slaughtermen strike


Wellington slaughtermen struck in 1907 – the first strike over an award under the arbitration system. They wanted 25 shillings for killing 100 sheep, 5 more than the 20 shillings they’d been awarded in 1901. They settled after a week for 23 shillings, which was soon adopted nationally. The Department of Labour prosecuted 200 men, as striking was illegal under the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act. But many did not pay their fines – and as freezing workers often did not have a permanent address, they could not be tracked.



Freezing workers formed large, strong unions, which were prepared to strike for better wages and conditions in a dirty, dangerous industry. Freezing workers accounted for half the total working days lost to strikes in the 1960s. However, there was no national union of freezing workers until 1971, after 50 years of attempts to form one group. There were 732 strikes in 1976–77 – which meant, on average, each worker walked off the job at least seven times in those two years.

Meat inspectors

Meat inspectors were employed by the government from 1889 to inspect carcasses and offal for quality, disease and contamination. They wore white, while freezing workers wore black. ‘We stood out like a neon sign. We were the policemen in the set-up; the companies tolerated us’, said Gary Leslie, who started as a meat inspector in 1963.1

Pilfering or a perk?


Taking a bit of offal home or having a free feed at lunch time was considered a perk rather than pilfering. Tokomaru Bay solo slaughterman Lance Roberts recalled that, ‘Although we weren’t meant to cook offal, tongues, puku or lamb’s heads it all used to happen. They’d put a whole lot in a bucket, go to some quiet spot where there’s a steamo [steam coming from the boilers], poke the hose in and turn the tap on just a wee bit. Hot steam would go through your meat and the muttoncloth, and by lunchtime it was all cooked.’2



New Zealand meat processing plants produce by-products including tallow (the fat in beef used to make soap but also, in the 2000s, bio-diesel), sheep skins, slipe wool (removed from sheepskins), oils, blood-and-bone fertiliser and glue.

British buy works

By the 1930s British companies with retail butcher’s shops – including Thomas Borthwick and Sons, Vesteys and the Co-operative Wholesale Society – had bought many of New Zealand’s freezing works. By the 1970s the only true farmer cooperative left was the Auckland Farmers Freezing Company (AFFCO), which owned three works.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Quoted in Sheridan Gundry, Making a killing: a history of the Gisborne–East Coast freezing works industry. Gisborne: Tairawhiti Museum, 2004, p. 151. Back
  2. Quoted in Making a Killing, p. 76. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Jane Tolerton, 'Agricultural processing industries - Freezing works, 1880s to the 1970s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/agricultural-processing-industries/page-7 (accessed 18 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Jane Tolerton, i tāngia i te 11 Mar 2010