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Following the call of New Zealand's abandoned freezing works

The Mataura Freezing Works, on the Mataura River near Gore, photographed in 2009. Opened in 1893, the works are still in operation.

John Summers wonders if his abiding interest in New Zealand’s abandoned freezing works is actually a long farewell to his grandfather.

One summer, we drove north-east, beyond Gisborne to the quiet bays on that coast: Tolaga Bay, Tokomaru Bay. Towns where sand settles between the stones in the asphalt and, walking down the street, you’re as likely to be passed by a kid on a horse as by a car.

There was a campground we planned to stay at, but it was a treeless field. No toilets, no kitchen. “We’re pretty relaxed around here,” the owner said, but we weren’t, so drove on to another. After pitching the tent, we walked to the end of the bay and onto a dilapidated wharf to look out at the empty sea – no ship had docked here for decades.

We inspected a brick and concrete building, caved in at one side and crumbling. Grass grew in and around it. Close by were more of the same. The sea air had rendered them dull and chalky, turning them into part of the landscape, unremarkable to the locals. These buildings were the old freezing works, and all that remained of an outpost of an enormous meat trade that once meant there were works like these in every corner of the country.

Like any empire, the meat trade had its own creation myth. Its Romulus and Remus were two Scots entrepreneurs, Thomas Brydone and William Soltau Davidson, who sent the first shipment of refrigerated meat to England. The frozen lambs stowed aboard the Dunedin would sell there for twice what they’d have fetched back home. They received favourable mention in The Times and the House of Lords, and a trajectory of plenty was born. By 1900, we were exporting more than three million sheep a year. When the chairman of the Meat Board retired in 1980, he was given a necklace of chop bones as a goodbye gift.

The other thing we know of empires is they fall. There are still freezing works left, of course, but it’s not the industry it was, not the one that once had us striking a deal where England bought all the meat we had to sell. Historian James Belich writes of a complacency that came with that ready demand. For a long time, we made little effort to pursue other markets; our first trade envoy to Japan didn’t speak the language, could barely order a cab. So when the English began looking to Europe for their meat, taking the first steps in the experiment they are now attempting to undo, we were left with no ready replacement.

England joined the European Economic Community in 1973, and still the freezing works rattled on, propped up by subsidies. The plaster was ripped off in the next decade, when the Lange government abruptly ended agricultural assistance. From 1980 to 1995, there was a roll-call of freezing works closures: Southdown, Picton, Petone, Pātea, Shortland, Whakatū, Islington, Burnside, Westfield, Waingawa, Tōmoana, Fielding, Aotearoa, Whangārei and Kaiti. When people talk about the freezing works now, they’re mostly talking about things that are gone.

Overlooking the Tokomaru Sheepfarmers’ Freezing Company Ltd works at Waima, photographed in the early 1900s. Photo/Supplied.

Who mourns that old business of slaughter? You’ll find those Tokomaru Bay buildings on the website of Heritage New Zealand, listed as a category two historic place. When the Pātea freezing works closed in Taranaki – an event akin to a natural disaster, warned a government report at the time – the local historical society pushed to have the chimney preserved. It would be a monument, said society president Jacq Dwyer, but their plans were foiled when the council demolished it. Instead, Dwyer and her society created a small museum to the freezing works. Two old refrigeration compressors, a mannequin dressed as a butcher, a collection of old photos and half a dozen fibreglass sheep in what used to be the town’s ANZ bank. One closed business within another.

From this distance, it seems an odd thing to commemorate. Don’t freezing works float on a puddle of blood, sit atop a hill of bones? Arguably, one of our most memorable music videos is “AFFCO” by post-punk group the Skeptics, which was filmed at Auckland’s Westfield works. It shows sheep being stunned and slaughtered as mechanically as lids are fastened to jars. Front man David D’Ath sang while smeared with blood (actually food colouring and baby oil) and bound in cling-wrap. It was enough to turn people to vegetarianism, although director Stuart Page said later they were simply trying to document a part of New Zealand life, the killing chain. TVNZ recognised this, noting the video’s “everyday scenes at freezing works” before refusing to broadcast it. On YouTube, it still carries a warning: “This video may be inappropriate for some users.”

The Finegand Meat Works near Balclutha. Silver Fern Farms now employs about 1200 people at the Finegand plant, and at the height of the season it buses in extra workers each day from Dunedin.

I asked Dwyer about the impulse to preserve and commemorate an industry too gruesome for TV. She spoke about the need to do something with those compressors – how valuable they were – then, when I pressed her again, how out-of-towners wanted to see something that represented the old freezing works.

I was being unfair, really, looking for her to articulate the things I wondered about, to do the job I should be doing myself. For a long time, I’d toyed with the idea of writing a brief history of the freezing works in this country. It seemed strange no one had done so already. There’s a history of kitchens in New Zealand, and of comparatively young industries such as wine, but there’s no single book on the freezing works, a place where so many New Zealanders spent their days. I collected what books there were. Meat Acts, a 1999 volume commissioned by the NZ Meat Producers Board to commemorate its 75th anniversary in 1997. The book that came closest to what I wanted to achieve, but that focused only on the East Coast, was Sheridan Gundry’s Making a Killing. (These titles! There’s also Peter Norman’s freezing-works memoir called The Meat in the Sandwich.)

I decided on some of the points I would include – the voyage of the Dunedin, but also the next ship that sailed from Port Chalmers and its bizarre cargo of dead things: sheep, beef and pork, of course, but also barracuda, pūkeko and a cask of penguin skins. Another list that also seems to encapsulate the aspirations and appetites of an era was the meal we dished up to the Shah of Iran in 1974 as part of those patchy efforts to woo new markets. The menu comprised roast baby lamb garni, crown roast lamb in aspic, lamb medallions madelon and roast leg of lamb, as well as beef, turkey and chicken. But despite my list-making, I never got much further, rewriting the same three paragraphs every few months. I’m not a historian and had no real interest in putting in the hours that would be needed among the archives and microfiche readers.

The writer’s grandfather, Henry Donaghey, on his last day at the Islington Freezing Works. Around his neck is one of the cloth mutton bags his department made. Photo/Supplied.
Within my family, the freezing works were both long gone and never far away. We dried ourselves on blue towels embroidered with “New Zealand Refrigerating Co”; I still have, in my kitchen drawer, a mean, wooden-handled butcher knife that holds a good edge. To spend any time with my uncle or grandfather was to hear the works mentioned, and just like that: “the works”. It was assumed you knew they were referring to the Islington freezing works, just beyond Hornby where they lived. My grandfather started there following a joinery apprenticeship, which he spent building state houses. Three government-issue saws hung in his shed. Once he got to the works, he stayed until the day my grandmother brought in a cake for his retirement. The works had paid for his home in Hornby, the trip he took to Sydney for his son’s wedding, and the superannuation scheme that would let him prune roses and potter in his garage during his last years.

Often, on the weekend or after school, I’d prop my bike against the tin walls of that garage and wander in, inhaling the scents of turned wood, and blood-and-bone fertiliser. He was a genial if not effusive man; a smile and a nod told you he was pleased to see you. I usually turned up with some idea about building something: a CD stand, a toolbox, maybe. What a pain I was, I now realise. But he never said so, just wandered out to his timber stack to see what might be suitable.

Building the thing would be his job too, but for the most basic tasks. That state-house apprenticeship had given him a wizardry with hand tools. Some things reveal their magic – it’s clear what a power saw does – but look at a plane as if you’ve never seen one before. Could you guess that in the right hands, my grandfather’s thick hands, it could make a rough, wide old board perfectly flat on every edge? I hung about, in theory to learn some of these skills. In truth, it was his presence I’d come seeking. His company was a balm and in that shed, crowded with oiled tools and old things, the anxieties of School Certificate maths, schoolyard hierarchies and a looming, uncertain future all shrank and went still.

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He and I worked, for the most part, in silence. Our soundtrack was the slick-slick of the plane. Now and again, I’d break it to ramble on about something I’d seen in a book on carpentry. He’d listen, seemingly interested, although it must have been like Stephen Hawking having someone tell him there are these things called black holes. But while he wasn’t a big talker, occasionally he told me some story of his own. “There was a fella at the works…” is how these yarns all started; they usually contained a description of a job done well and, although he never extracted it, a lesson of some kind.

In one, I remember the “fella” was his first foreman. My grandfather designed and made a wheelbarrow that would be better suited to the freezing works than the ones they were using, but the foreman told him it was useless, and cast it aside. Later, a man from another department would find it and ask for four more. 

Because this story highlighted his own abilities, I wouldn’t say it was typical of his work-shed genre, and it’s telling that he tried to present it as about the foreman rather than himself. Maybe that’s the reason I remember it, when so much else of our time together has faded, and I find myself 10 years after his death mourning again, this time for memories as well as the man himself.

To write about the freezing works, I also needed to talk to my Uncle Dale. My conversation with him was a reminder of how they both spoke. “The works had its own lingo,” Dale told me, explaining that the expression “the gun’s gone off” meant the killing chain had closed and the men who staffed it would need to look for another job until the next season. But I suspected that while you might trace this lingo to the works, you couldn’t say it stayed there. It was of them and their world more generally. “All hair-cream and no socks” was an expression I’d heard Dale use. “He’d done a stretch in the chokey” was another, describing a man they worked with who was either a thief, or at least knew how to get his hands on things.

Inside Horotiu Freezing Works, 1955. It's still operating today. Photo/Getty.

Within these stories, the man in question almost always had some nickname. A laundryman was “Willy Shrinkem”, and a small man who liked to pick fights became “the Dehydrated Giant”. There was “Hot Foot”, “Biggie Rat”, “Sleepy Fox”, also “Death”, which sounds like a bizarre thing to call someone, but probably makes sense in a slaughterhouse.

It would make sense, too, in a Ronald Hugh Morrieson novel. The freezing works lurk in his Pallet on the Floor as a source of gothic horror, a place that leaves a psychic stain. “So you were in Belsen, huh?” reads the graffiti on the freezing works walls. Viewed now, they operate in his book as a symbol of all that was wrong with that old, macho New Zealand, the violence that ran beneath the puritan society. The bad old, good old days, where toughness and mateship left little room for difference or sensitivity.

And yet, both my uncle and my grandfather spoke of the works, if not fondly, with nostalgia. It helped perhaps that neither had been in the business of killing animals directly. My grandfather began in the carpenters’ shop, making wooden chutes and the boards on which men scraped out intestines for sausage skins, as well as those barrows and even, on occasion, wooden salad bowls gifted to visiting executives. From there, he moved to the bag room, where they made and printed the cloth bags used to wrap frozen meat. My uncle joined him there later; he had done an apprenticeship, as a mechanic. But with a young family, he wanted something better paying, and for a long time for a lot of men, nothing paid better than the works.

Uncle Dale started in the yard driving forklifts and doing odd jobs. He worked as a butcher’s labourer in the beef house for a while; sawed brisket with a handsaw; “Jesus, sweat!” he said of that job. “Because of the heat of the beast.” Eventually he joined his father in the bag room. Dale repaired sewing machines and printing presses; he cut stencils and type for printing bags, learning to cut it backwards, a mirror image. It got so that signing a cheque, he had to think which way to write.

Hearing about these jobs and the others they described left me with the impression of the works as a city within a city. Everything it needed to function was on site. As well as the bag room and killing floor, there were chemists, shipping clerks, tinsmiths, plumbers, engineers, vets and accountants. There was a fire truck and a steam train. Online, I found a couple of aerial pictures taken in the 1920s. In them, Islington spilled out onto the land around it, building after building, rows of chimneys. Something out of an L.S. Lowry painting, a satanic mill. “It was a big affair, a monstrous affair,” said Uncle Dale. “There were tunnels and Christ knows what.” But an industrial landscape is still a landscape; as well as its killing sheds and freezing rooms, this one even had a man-made lake – the water used to cool ammonia condensers.

It’s gone now, of course. Islington was on that roll-call of closures. They’re building a business park where it used to be, uncovering pits of buried carcasses in the process. My grandfather retired not long before it closed, but Mum told me he’d been shocked by the news. My uncle managed to stay working for a while longer as the bag room remained open, supplying those works that remained. He would later go into business himself, using some of the same skills. He worked out of his garage, repairing the chain-link gloves worn by butchers in the freezing works that still operated.

Both men were lucky, escaping early or finding a late-career lifeboat. For others, the end of the local freezing works meant the dole. Sometimes it meant despair. In Pātea, the churches held weekly prayer meetings after the works closed. Jaq Dwyer told me the town took a generation to recover. There are still empty sections where houses were jacked up and shifted away.

New Zealand’s first freezing works were built at Burnside, Dunedin, in 1882. The works closed in 2008.

But I needn’t look so far for my examples. There was once a freezing works down the road from where I now live in the Wairarapa: Waingawa. When it closed in 1989, it had been the biggest employer in the region, hiring 700 people during the killing season.

Marshall Coley was the union president at the time, and was part of a welfare group that tried to soften the blow of closure. They’d had a community, he told me. They had sports teams. In fact, there was a national games, a sort of freezing workers’ Olympics that ran from the early 70s to the late 80s.

After the closure, Coley helped relocate people to places where they might find work. Although not everyone had somewhere to go. Five years after the works closed, he learnt of one former worker who had been leaving his house at six o’clock every morning, driving out into the country where he could sit in his car and read a book. He didn’t want his neighbours to know he’d been made redundant, Coley said.

Their old workplace sat abandoned for years. But by the time I moved here, it had been demolished. A row of oaks on a side road is all that remains. The trees had been planted by the managers on what was once the road to the works. I’d driven past them many times, admiring the glade their sturdy frames made. Now to see them is to think of a car parked on a lonely road, the tick of a dashboard clock, a man reading a book.

The former Burnside freezing works.

You might say we’re better off with fewer freezing works. This was brutal, unpleasant work. I know I’d last a solid two minutes – I get woozy at the sight of blood. But I’ve always been drawn to the past, never been able to think clearly about the future. My neck is cricked, looking back. Almost 20 years into a new century, and here I am still wondering about that old New Zealand of “full employment” and six-o’clock swills. It was a place that was busily being dismantled in the years I learnt my times tables. Unknowable then for me, except as the setting for my grandfather’s stories. And yet in many ways, he never belonged either. He didn’t socialise at “The Swamp” – the pub where freezing workers congregated, and I know when he was conscripted into the army (he missed combat due to an untreatable set of bunions), he preferred to spend his evenings at needlepoint by numbers rather than boozing with his fellow soldiers. Mine is the definition of misplaced nostalgia. It was him I missed.

All I really knew of the works was that he’d been there. In the memories I hold, he is spooling out his tape measure, leaning toward a piece of wood with the stub of a carpenter’s pencil, moving slowly but without coming to a stop. When he did finally wind up in a rest home, without tools to hold or a garden beneath his feet, it was clear from the start he wouldn’t be there long. He sat in his room, like that man in his car, waiting.

My grandfather was important to me. “The works” was a place important to him. Some part of me can’t help but feel those words like a sunset still.

This article was first published in the April 2019 issue of North & South.

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