Castlecliff company J B Gilberd and Sons Soapworks was a much-loved household name for nearly 100 years – more if you count Gilberd’s earlier enterprises in Auckland and Napier. Opened on 6 February 1893, the first day’s work at the Heads Road business produced 130 boxes of ‘ordinary household’ soap. By 1897 the firm had increased its opening day output fourfold, and was trading to New Plymouth, Palmerston North and the West Coast. The following year, Gilberd’s employed 15 men to produce a wide range of soaps for home and industrial uses.
Born in Auckland in 1848, James Gilberd lived on goldfields in California and Australia as a child. He was fourteen when his parents returned to New Zealand, originally to Thames, then Auckland. James began making soap in his twenties using a 20-gallon copper. By 1877, he had established Saunders and Gilberd Soap and Candle Makers with his brother-in-law the Reverend James Saunders. The business started in Freeman’s Bay before relocating to Victoria Street in the central city.
By 1880 Saunders and Gilberd had doubled in size, with thirteen cooling sets in operation (up from an original three) and a further seven planned. A new vat provided capacity for eight tonnes of boiling soap. The Auckland premises soon needed to expand to meet demand, but this was not practicable for safety reasons as the area was now predominantly residential. Additional problems were caused by a shortage of tallow. The partners decided to sell up.
By 1884 Gilberd and Saunders had established a new business near Napier, where tallow from Hawkes Bay sheep farms was plentiful. Initially the company only made ordinary household soaps, but they soon diversified into carbolic, glycerine and transparent soaps as well.
At Napier Gilberd made innovative use of steam as the only heating power throughout the entire facility, from hoisting tallow casks to cooling soap moulds. Steam was conducted by pipes from the boiler to all parts of the establishment. Gilberd discovered that steam was cleaner, more reliable, and more economical than fire, and he used steam exclusively at his Napier and Wanganui facilities.
A 10-horsepower horizontal engine was supplied with steam from a 15-horsepower multi-tubular boiler of the latest design. Factory floors were concrete for enhanced cleanliness, and the firm used a steam saw to make its own packing boxes, using nearly one kilometre of timber each month.
Common soap took five hours to make, from tallow to stamped and wrapped bars. Finer soaps required two to three days to boil, cool and set
The Napier business continued until Gilberd’s’ cousin Robert Sweetapple joined the firm, when it was sold to the New Zealand Soap and Candle Company.
Gilberd next moved to Wanganui, starting a boarding establishment in Guyton Street, followed by a large private hotel in Ridgway Street. He was still making soap, initially ‘back to basics’ with a 20-gallon copper. By 1893 Gilberd had a new soap factory at Castlecliff on an eight hectare site. Reverend Saunders rejoined the firm and in 1898, when James’ son Edward turned 21, the firm became J B Gilberd and Sons.
A key factor in Gilberd’s move to Castlecliff was an issue with the railways. Despite a siding being directly adjacent to their Hawkes Bay facility, the railways would not allow trucks to stand for loading. The cost of carting from the nearest station back to the factory was the same as the cost of rail freight from the original terminal in Napier, and so carting was preferred.
By comparison, Castlecliff Railway Company readily allowed Gilberd’s to load soap directly from a staging onto trucks on a siding off the main line. Castlecliff also had a port and was close to markets in Palmerston North, Wellington, Napier and New Plymouth, as well as the West Coast by coastal steamer.
Gilberd’s soaps won 20 first prize certificates for excellence of manufacture. Products included Waxine, Stag Brand pumice, Waxine sand, liberty carbolic, liberty sand and pure soft soaps and Waxine soap powder. Soap ingredients included caustic soda, tallow, silicate of soda, rosin, salt, and borax extract.
By 1901 the company had diversified into bannister, hair, flue, dairy, horse, stove, shoe, bottle, flesh, and cobweb brushware. James’ son William was the company’s travelling salesman.
In 1904 a storm blew the top off the soapwork’s chimney, and in 1910 and 1913 the factory was destroyed by fire. Both were national news. The only water supply was a nearby creek, and it took the fire brigade almost an hour to reach the blaze.
James Gilberd died in 1922, and William became Managing Director. William’s son Harvey succeeded William on his retirement. By 1969, Gilberd’s was Wanganui’s longest-running manufacturing operation. At its peak, the company exported to Australia, the Pacific, Britain and South Africa. But times change, and Gilberd’s closed in the early 1980s.
Gilberd’s soaps were made by combining soda-ash or quicklime with tallow (purified by boiling with lye), grease, palm oil, olive oil or coconut oil for hard soaps, or linseed or hempseed oils for soft soaps. Lye is soap leftover from previous boils. The fat and alkali were boiled together in a large vat to saponify (turn soapy) before chemicals were added and the liquid poured into moulds to cool. A secret method enabled Gilberd’s to turn out marketable soap more quickly than their competitors.
Gilberd’s manufactured a superior tallow themselves from butchers’ off-cuts, reserved for the finer soaps.
Once cooled, the soap was cut into bars and stored to season it before being stamped and sent to market.
About that pillbox …
Pam McDonald from Larsen’s Tanks got in touch after spotting the cylindrical pillbox in the coastal defence article. Pam says she could tell straight away this was a modified Larsen tank. “We used to sell tanks for killing sheds and garden sheds as well as for water tanks. But I didn’t know we had made pillboxes as well!”
And a correction …
SS Port Bowen ran aground at Castlecliff in 1939 (not 1929).
Written by Karen Wrigglesworth