James Gear was a significant figure in the business development of New Zealand. His range of activity was limited, but he opened up economic opportunities for many other people.
He was baptised at Ilchester, Somerset, England, on 13 October 1839, the son of James Gear, a labourer, and his wife, Sarah Fudge. He began work in his father's butchery at the age of 10, but in 1857 he emigrated to Victoria, Australia. While it seems likely that he was attracted by the goldfields, he soon returned to the trade he knew well and worked as a butcher in Melbourne. The lure of gold seems to have persisted, as he moved to New Zealand about 1861, probably to the Otago goldfields. However, by 1865 he was established in the butcher's trade in Wellington. He was married in the Wesleyan Chapel in Wellington on 10 October 1866 to Elizabeth Phillips. His wife appears to have died young and without issue.
From about 1865 Gear owned his own butcher's shop, and in 1868 he purchased the butcher's shop of Benjamin Ling, which was described as Wellington's oldest. As the newspaper announcement of the purchase included a statement that the business would 'be carried on under the superintendence of Mr B. Ling', it may be that the retiring owner retained a financial interest as he passed the business to a successor. Gear's business prospered, and he acquired other Wellington shops.
Gear concentrated on the local market, using delivery vans to supply meat to Wellington homes, but he was enterprising in outlook and in 1873 added a preserving plant so that canned meat could be supplied to both the local and more distant markets. Furthermore, he acquired land in Karori and Petone on which stock was fattened, and built slaughterhouses and a boiling down plant in Petone in 1874. This was the start of Gear's role in the development of Petone. He diversified from the butcher's trade into farming, buying a share in an estate of over 1,000 acres at Te Horo, where he engaged in significant land development which converted swamp into productive pasture. In the late 1870s it might have seemed that Gear would conform to the English pattern of the urban businessman who retired to a country estate. That he aspired to a higher social status is suggested by his habit of describing himself, later in life, as settler or gentleman rather than butcher. But he retained his interest in business.
Gear married Ruth Milstead, who was then aged 20, on 16 February 1879 at Wellington. Sons were born in 1880 and 1886 and daughters in 1888 and 1891. Ruth Gear declined to live at Te Horo so he built a new homestead at Porirua, surrounded by enough land to be useful in his business. The house, which now has a New Zealand Historic Places Trust classification, is administered by the Porirua City Council and is occasionally open to the public.
Economic change brought Gear into prominence. In 1882 refrigerated meat was successfully carried from New Zealand to London, and companies were soon being formed to participate in the new trade. The Gear Meat Preserving and Freezing Company of New Zealand was established in November 1882 to acquire Gear's butchering and meat preserving business and to use it as the basis for trade in refrigerated meat. Gear's earlier moves into meat preserving suggest that he would have been aware of the potential of refrigeration.
Gear was joined in this venture by other people prominent in Wellington's commercial society, his best-known fellow directors initially being the lawyer and politician P. A. Buckley, and the stock and station agent W. H. Levin. However, more prominent in the early stages were John Duthie, an ironmonger who became mayor of Wellington in 1890, and later a member of the House of Representatives and the Legislative Council, and Nicholas Reid, a partner in the general import business of Walter Turnbull. The company paid £60,000 for Gear's business although the assets involved were valued at £38,000, which suggests that the vendor's goodwill was regarded as significant.
Gear was active as a managing director in the early years. He seems to have taken responsibility for the choice of refrigerating equipment, which was installed first on a hulk, the Jubilee, moored at Petone wharf, and in 1891 shifted to premises on the shore nearby. Furthermore in 1885 he visited London, and while there made a thorough study of Smithfield meat market, arranging for the better promotion and distribution of his company's products.
Gear had a variety of business interests in the 1880s. Like many members of Wellington's commercial establishment he was a shareholder in the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company. Also, like many of his contemporaries, he appears to have had some liquidity problems during the decade. He kept up his association with the company that bore his name. Although he retired as managing director in 1885 because of ill health he remained a director of the company until his death.
Gear confined his interest to business, rejecting suggestions that he should enter local politics, although he became patron of the Wellington United Butchers Association in 1890. There is probably an accurate assessment of Gear's character in the comment of Dr A. K. Newman at the annual meeting of 1892: 'Our chairman is a great deal better as an authority upon frozen mutton than he is at talking but in declaring a dividend he is, I suppose fulfilling the essentials of the Chairman of any public company.'
According to family recollections Gear became increasingly religious and eccentric in his old age. He suffered from a crippling illness and was eventually confined to a wheelchair. Salt water for treatment baths was piped from the coast to his house. As he was unable to tolerate the noise made by his young children, Gear built an annex on to the house and lived there alone, tended by a manservant and nurse. He died on 5 April 1911. His estate, though substantial, was valued at less than £75,000, an illustration of the fact that really big fortunes were not common in New Zealand.