The meat run: refrigerated shipping
Until 1882 much of the meat from the colony’s sheep had been wasted. But William Soltau Davidson, general manager of the New Zealand and Australian Land Company, had been watching overseas experiments with the shipment of frozen meat by steamers. He decided to improvise with a sailing ship, the Albion Line’s Dunedin, fitted with a freezing plant and partly insulated. After some technical problems and delays, the Dunedin left port bound for London, carrying nearly 5,000 carcases of mutton and lamb, which she landed in perfect condition.
Refrigeration would underpin shipping services to the United Kingdom, New Zealand’s main trading partner for almost 100 years. It started with converted sailing ships such as the Dunedin and the Mataura, but the development of the more efficient compound and triple-expansion engines very quickly enabled the regular lines to switch to steam. In 1883–84 the New Zealand Shipping Company bought five high-class ships, the Tongariro, Aorangi, Ruapehu, Kaikoura and Rimutaka, almost as big as Atlantic liners but unfortunately not fitted with the latest engines. Shaw Savill and Albion (who had just merged) followed with Arawa and Tainui, 1,000 tons bigger, at 5,000 tons, and fitted with the more efficient triple-expansion engines. Bigger, faster and safer than the old sailing ships, they revolutionised travel between Britain and New Zealand. Like the Union Steam Ship Company steamers, they saved time. These steamers took 30 or 40 days each way, rather than three or four months, and could make three round trips a year instead of one.
The new ships were too expensive for colonials to finance. The Shipping Company ran into trouble in the 1880s and was taken over by British investors. Wool farmers chartered a few ships, forming their own company (Geo. H. Scales), and Poverty Bay farmers briefly ran a freighter after the First World War, but from the 1880s New Zealanders provided almost none of their long-distance shipping services. The ‘Home boats’, as the UK trade ships were called, were British, and they were tightly controlled by cartels, or conferences, which set charges and allocated tonnages to members.
The conference lines phased out the last sailing ships (now mere cargo carriers) in the early 1900s. By then they were building two types of ship. The passenger–cargo liner Rimutaka of 1900 was nearly 8,000 tons, slow but economical. At sea, height and class went together. The Rimutaka carried 40 first-class passengers on the bridge deck, 50 second-class and 80 third-class passengers on the upper deck. A further 170 emigrants were carried in temporary dormitories that could be fitted up in the holds on the outward voyage. The second type of ship were primarily cargo carriers. The Rakaia of 1895 was smaller, at 5,600 tons, but carried 26 first-class passengers above decks and could squeeze emigrants into dormitories in the ’tween decks when required. In 1901–3, the 12,200-ton heavyweights Athenic, Corinthic and Ionic entered a new Shaw Savill–White Star joint service.