22 May 2007
Frozen Shipment Reaches Lands End
On May 24, 125 years ago, the sailing ship, S.S. Dunedin docked in London. This was the end of an historic journey that is still creating waves on New Zealand's export landscape.
The ship was carrying the first cargo of frozen New Zealand sheep - 5000 carcasses. It was a milestone in the development of an export market that now contributes $5 billion annually to the New Zealand economy.
The far-sighted entrepreneurs William Davidson and Thomas Brydone saw the potential for meat exports from New Zealand and found a way to make it happen. They are credited with the birth of New Zealand's meat export industry, but they could never have done it alone.
The 98 day journey from Port Chalmers to London was an enormous adventure for all those involved - from the people who bred the sheep, to those who drove them to the docks, to those who loaded and transported them and those who on the cargo's arrival in Great Britain, marketed them.
The 125th anniversary has been evocative for many of the descendants of the people who contributed hands-on, and by association, to the success of the venture. The exploits of their forebears have in many cases become family folklore.
A range of these stories have surfaced as a result of publicity generated by Meat & Wool New Zealand to mark the anniversary this year. These chronicles are proudly told by people who have grown up in the knowledge that New Zealand's present was at least in part, shaped by their past.
Dr Rosy Fenwicke of Wellington, for example, recalls growing up with tales of her great, great uncle Andrew Thompson who built the freezing chambers for the S. S. Dunedin.
"A broken crank shaft stalled the initial scheduled departure of the first shipment. But a new crank shaft, recommended and installed by my great-great uncle, contributed to the successful completion of the venture," Dr Fenwicke says.
Another with family folklore to relate is Colleen Howard who tells of her great grandfather Christian Ludvig Hansen who came to New Zealand at the age of 14 from Denmark. The family believes he was the First Mate on the S.S. Dunedin on that first shipment of frozen meat.
"He sailed all over the world and left the seafaring life to farm the land in mid-Canterbury where he raised a family of 10 children and lived until he was 94," she reports.
Romance was a recurrent theme in the stories that poured into Meat & Wool New Zealand - such as that from Mrs Elma Baker from Alicetown near Wellington, who recalls her grandfather sailed with the first shipment of frozen meat.
"He was from the Isle of Aaron, then met and married my grandmother in Dunedin and ended up harbourmaster in Fiji."
Brothers Ken and Stewart Murray from Christchurch have exciting mariner tales to tell of their grandfather, Alex Innes Murray, who was Chief Officer on the S.S. Dunedin for two years. He made two voyages on her and left her in 1890.
"On Murray's second voyage," his descendants relate, "the ship encountered a huge storm near Cape Horn. The topsail was carried away. Heavy seas crashed over the ship, smashing the wheel and throwing the helmsman across one deck and one crew member was washed overboard, but by chance, managed to grab a rope and was unbelievably lucky to be washed back on board with the next wave.
"Cabins were flooded, repairs to the wheel were made using oars from one of the ship's boats. All these repairs occupied the crew for four days before the S.S. Dunedin was on course for England."
It wasn't just the sailors who ensured the ongoing success of the venture.
John and Henry Cameron, brothers from Oamaru, recall the association of their grandfather, Henry James Cameron who was connected with the New Zealand frozen meat industry from around 1897 as New Zealand Produce Commissioner in London.
He came to New Zealand in 1874 at the age of 17 and lived in New Zealand until 1893 when he was appointed New Zealand Produce Commissioner, involved with the promotion, selling and branding of New Zealand meat.
Not all those who have an association with the S.S. Dunedin's historic accomplishment grew up with that knowledge. Neville Martin, for many years the voice of the New Zealand Dairy Board, says it wasn't until he was reading a history of the South Canterbury region that he discovered his great grandfather Edward Howsell, played a role - albeit an indirect one.
"My great-grandfather was manager of a level station from Southland to Otago in the 1850s. William Davidson was sent to him as a cadet. He was obviously a young man of great ability and cut out for stardom as it wasn't many years later he was issuing my great grandfather with the orders!"
Meat & Wool New Zealand Chairman, Mike Petersen says the organisation was delighted to hear from the many people who can be proud of the role their forebears played in the momentous milestone in New Zealand's history.
"It's great to know that these stories are passed on from generation to generation. New Zealand's meat export industry wouldn't exist today if it weren't for the courage, resilience and innovation of those early, far-sighted settlers."