Since the first cargoes of semi-processed whales and seals, timber and flax were sent to Europe and North America, New Zealand’s international freight travelled by sea.
In the early years of the colony freighting the wool clip from sheep stations to Britain began with bullock wagons or packhorses. If an established port was available, the wool was loaded directly onto a sailing vessel. Where no port was accessible, wool was carried to the coast and loaded into lighters (barges) or small boats and taken out to sailing vessels. The sometimes difficult journey was well rewarded financially.
Within 10 years of the first refrigerated shipment in 1882, the value of exports increased from £6.2 million to £9.4 million per year. The refrigerated ships, like other freight carriers before and after, struck the problem of backloading. A backload was the cargo a freight carrier found to take on the return leg of their journey, allowing them to earn money on both trips – but there was a lack of suitable backloads to New Zealand.
The bad oil
When oil was first imported in the late 19th century, it was shipped in tins. Rough handling, incorrect stacking, or being tossed about in bad weather could cause the tins to leak. Oil caused several ship fires, some disastrous.
International freight charges were a contentious issue – New Zealand producers believed they were overcharged by the British-owned shipping lines. A formal complaint from the New Zealand government prompted a British inquiry, which reported in 1921 that this was not the case. The lack of reliable backloads was found to be a major cost issue.
Warehousing emerged alongside the freight industry. The economy was relatively localised – roads were poor and there were many ports, each servicing its own small hinterland. Ports needed storage space for the wool, coal, wood and other local products flowing outwards and the imported goods coming in.
When towns were first established, storage was often no more than the local storekeeper’s back room. Later, when more substantial warehouses were built, they clustered near the wharves and then railway stations.
Bond stores – where imported goods were held under customs’ control until duties were paid – were early arrivals on the warehouse scene. The first bonded warehouse was American consul James Clendon’s store at Kororāreka (present-day Russell) in 1840, used while a customhouse was built nearby. Critical to Customs’ revenue gathering, bond stores were quickly built in New Zealand’s settlements.
Wool brokers provided pastoralists with warehouse facilities in export ports. Some, including T. K. Newton in Napier and Charles Kettle in Otago, became wealthy in their own right as a result.