New Zealand’s early industrial workshops were a wide range, from tailors through to umbrella-makers and pumice works. The most common types of workshops in 19th-century New Zealand were aerated-water manufacturers (the early version of modern soft-drink factories), grain mills, brick-and-tile works, coachbuilders, furniture makers and breweries. There were more than 100 of each of these enterprises spread around the country, most employing fewer than 10 people.
A large proportion of small manufacturing industries were owned by business partnerships. Working with a partner, instead of as a sole trader, could provide additional capital or special technical assistance, sales or marketing expertise, or access to particular clients or markets.
Workshop industries typically made their products to order or in small batches.
Pop to coffee
The aerated-water industry was once based on a nationwide array of small workshops. Its place in New Zealand’s cultural life has been taken over by the coffee roasting industry which supplies freshly roasted coffee to the country’s cafés. In 2009 the New Zealand Coffee Roasters Association (NZCRA) had 61 members, from Kaeo in Northland to Wānaka in Otago. NZCRA runs the annual New Zealand Barista Championships to find the country’s best coffee maker, who is then eligible for the international competition.
By 1890 New Zealand had 112 different aerated-water manufacturers, employing a total of just 260 people. They typically employed only two people, making their own local brand of soft drink and bottling it in either clay jugs or glass bottles.
In the 20th century it became easier and more economical for city-based firms to deliver goods to smaller towns and urban areas. This began a process of industrial concentration, as some soft-drink makers took over or merged with others. The aerated-water workshops gave way to a small number of much larger industrial plants.
Highly skilled cabinetmakers, upholsterers, woodturners and others working in the furniture trades were among the early European immigrants to New Zealand. As the market for their work grew, and powered machinery replaced hand tools, some of these small workshops expanded to factory size. However, the small furniture-making workshop remained common well into the 20th century.
McGregor and George Wright were brothers who trained as carvers and gilders in Scotland before coming to New Zealand in the 1880s. They set up business as picture framers on Wellington’s Lambton Quay, supplying ‘a large stock of handsome mouldings specially selected for the colonial trade’.1 The firm of McGregor Wright was still operating in 2019, by then on the Kāpiti Coast.
Some of the best-known names in New Zealand manufacturing, such as Masport lawnmowers and Methven bathroom fittings, began as workshop-scale iron foundries, casting molten iron in moulds to make a huge variety of durable objects. Another noted foundry was set up by Henry Shacklock, who had trained in Britain to make the moulds into which molten iron was poured to cast individual iron parts. He migrated to New Zealand in the 1860s, and opened a small iron foundry in Dunedin. In 1873 he designed and built a coal range specially suited to the type of coal and the small houses available to his customers. It became so popular that the workshop was converted entirely to making these Orion stoves.
By 1894 Shacklock’s firm had become a full-scale factory employing some 40 workers.
The fast economic expansion of the colony gave many workshops the opportunity for growth. Brothers Alfred and George Price, who migrated from England to New Zealand in 1868 as qualified engineers, took advantage of this. They rented a small shed in Onehunga, Auckland, and designed and built their first product: a machine to strip flax. Within 12 months the Price brothers had sold 100 of these machines and employed six staff.
To take advantage of gold mining in the Coromandel, they transferred their operations to Thames in 1871 and made mining equipment, water pumps, ships’ engines and machinery for the flax and timber industries. Later they made ships and railway wagons.
In 2009 A. & G. Price was New Zealand’s largest heavy-engineering company, employing more than 100 staff.