Aramoho

Wanganui Woollen Mills

Aerial shot of Wanganui Woollen Mills circa 1990

Aerial shot of Wanganui Woollen Mills circa 1990

By Trish Nugent-Lyne, Collection Manager

The Wanganui Woollen Mills was a major feature in the Whanganui and New Zealand business landscape, being at one stage the second largest woollen mill in New Zealand.  Located in Kelvin Street, Aramoho it is now known as SaveMart, a clothing recycling company.

Spinning frame in operation circa 1960s -70s.

Spinning frame in operation circa 1960s -70s.

The Wanganui Woollen Mills started its life in the early 1920s when Whanganui was on the crest of an economic wave and many inhabitants had the drive to create new industries. Mr R D McDonald of Hawick, Scotland, was invited to Wanganui to advise on the feasibility of operating a mill here. Wanganui was thought to be an ideal location for a mill because it was central to a large wool growing area, was a growing distribution centre, and had a potential workforce.

 

A public company was formed at a meeting of business and commercial men, farmers, and investors in March 1920 with a nominal capital of £200,000 in shares raised.  Land was purchased in Aramoho in 1922 and Mr T. H. Battle was commissioned as architect. Eight tenders were received to build the woollen mill, and the award was given to Mr A.G. Bignell in June 1923 for his tender of £25,825. Bignell later became one of the directors of the company.

There was a delay between the forming of the company and the onset of construction which caused some anxiety among shareholders, and some called for the company to go into liquidation before it had even started.  However, by the time machinery was actually purchased from the United Kingdom the costs had subsided and a substantial saving was made. The directors naturally took the credit for delaying the purchase until the market showed such favourable signs.

Official opening of the Wanganui Woollen Mills 12 September 1924

Official opening of the Wanganui Woollen Mills 12 September 1924

The first manager to be appointed, Mr J B Porteous, was from Scotland, as was much of the machinery and several employees. Wanganui Woollen Mills was officially opened by the Governor-General Lord Jellico, Mayor Mr Hope Gibbons, and Chairman of Directors Mr W. J. Polson on 12 September 1924, with a large crowd of locals and other dignitaries gathered to mark the occasion.  It was the twelfth woollen mill to be built in New Zealand  but as it was the first to be driven by electricity it was certainly the most advanced.

Display of Wanganui Woollen Mills products in the D.I.C. windows for the Wanganui Industries Week, 25 February to 2 March 1946.

Display of Wanganui Woollen Mills products in the D.I.C. windows for the Wanganui Industries Week, 25 February to 2 March 1946.

Herbert Holroyd came to manage Wanganui Woollen Mills in the mid-1920s, from his previous position as manager of the Napier Woollen Mills. During the hardship of the early depression years the Mills almost went out of business but in 1931 it was purchased by National Woollen Mills, of which Holroyd was a major shareholder, and became a private company. The Holroyd family was to have a leading role in the Mills with three generations of the Holroyd family managing it.

As well as the familiar blankets, the Mills also produced fabrics for men’s and women’s fashion clothing, including Scottish tweeds with very distinct Whanganui names such as Aramoho, Putiki, and Virginia.  In the mid-1930s the Mills bought out Haydens, a Wellington based clothing company, and moved its operation to the Wanganui plant, adding sports coats, work trousers, skirts and school wear to the production range.

Advertising photographs of the Mills line of Sportswear, samples of which were taken to the U.S.A. in September 1979 by the Managing Director David Holroyd.

Advertising photographs of the Mills line of Sportswear, samples of which were taken to the U.S.A. in September 1979 by the Managing Director David Holroyd.

The Mills continued to expand their range and popularity.  During World War II the Mills went into 24 hour operation producing fabric for uniforms, blankets and other essentials for the war effort.  By the end of the 1950s the Mills started moving away from fashion wear and began to focus more on work garments and sportswear. In the 1980s upholstery fabrics were added to the repertoire and became its leading export product. By 1984 Wanganui Woollen Mills was producing 1,000,000 square metres of cloth making it the second largest woollen mill in New Zealand.

However that economic high was not to last and the effect of aged plant, skyrocketing wool prices, the opening up of the domestic market to cheap foreign goods, as well as the competition provided by the improvement of synthetic fabrics all led to its demise in 1995 when it went into liquidation and was sold with the loss of 110 jobs.

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Plastics from Milk – Wanganui was First!

Pincushions made of casein with velvet padding (1983.10.8)

Pincushions made of casein with velvet padding (1983.10.8)

These days, plastics are most commonly manufactured from petrochemical derivatives, but the earliest plastics were developed using natural products, as early as the 1850s. The first man-made plastic was Parkesine, developed by Alexander Parkes and patented in the United Kingdom in 1856. Parkesine is made from cellulose (a plant starch) and nitric acid, which is then dissolved in alcohol and hardened.

Some sixty years later, it was a Whanganui-based company that led development of the plastics industry in both New Zealand and Australia, based on casein, a protein found in milk. Whole milk contains around 12% solids, of which some 3% is casein.

The New Zealand Casein Company was entirely new so far as Australasia was concerned when company owner and entrepreneur F W Vickerman established the first experimental casein production plant at Whangaehu in 1911. During the first year of operation the company produced 60 tonnes of casein.

Blake's Dairy Factory, Waverley, one of the main suppliers of milk to the Wanganui Casein Factory (B-F-026)

Blake’s Dairy Factory, Waverley, one of the main suppliers of milk to the Wanganui Casein Factory (B-F-026)

By January 1912, two further plants were in progress in addition to the initial one at Whangaehu, and the company had also begun building a large central drying factory in Kelvin Street, Aramoho, with capacity for six tonnes of casein to be produced each day. The company had an arrangement to dry milk supplied by the Cooperative Dairy Factory at Bunnythorpe, and negotiations were also well-advanced to process milk from several Taranaki dairy factories.

The Aramoho factory was designed by W R Mayes, built by W James and cost £5,000 to construct. Chairman of Directors was H E Good and Vickerman was manager.

At the Aramoho plant an extraction shed housed vats, strainers, presses, and troughs. The main building contained a coal store with capacity for 100 tonnes of coal, a boiler room equipped with a Babcock boiler of the latest type, an engine room with a twelve horsepower engine to drive the machinery, and a dynamo for electric lighting.

This 1915 Brunsviga calculating machine was used at the Wanganui Casein Factory in Aramoho (1959.82.1)

This 1915 Brunsviga calculating machine was used at the Wanganui Casein Factory in Aramoho (1959.82.1)

As a result of the success of the Wanganui operations, Vickerman made an application to patent attorneys Baldwin and Raynard of Wellington for a casein drying apparatus in October 1912.

Casein has a multitude of uses, including as a cold-water paint, and making imitation ivory and bone for knife handles, buttons, combs, telegraph insulators, billiard balls and piano keys. Casein was favoured by plywood manufacturers and cabinetmakers as a superior waterproof and hard-setting glue. It was also an additive in biscuit manufacture. And by 1916, casein was used in the manufacture of aeroplane wings. By 1917, casein was mainly used to produce a fine white surface on high quality writing paper.

Before World War I, German manufacturers were the principal purchasers of casein from Whanganui. Casein products were then on-sold to Britain, and as a result, Britain believed the product was German. The casein market suffered a significant slump following the outbreak of the war. During 1914 Mr Vickerman became convinced that if British manufacturers could only be induced to trial his casein, there would be no difficulty securing repeat orders. He arranged a ten-tonne shipment to Britain to be given away for experimental purposes, and as expected, this led to new orders and increasing demand. By 1915, 200 tonnes of casein were shipped abroad and demand was considerably in excess of supplies. In 1917 it was reported that the factory at Aramoho was unable to meet demand and casein was selling for around £70 a tonne (three times higher than the price in 1912).

This digitorium, or dumb piano, consists of a four-octave keyboard in a small wooden case with a hinged lid. The keys are made of casein. The keyboard was used by pianists for exercising and practice. It is sometimes called a dumb piano because the piano is silent (1974.93)

This digitorium, or dumb piano, consists of a four-octave keyboard in a small wooden case with a hinged lid. The keys are made of casein. The keyboard was used by pianists for exercising and practice. It is sometimes called a dumb piano because the piano is silent (1974.93)

It is difficult to determine when the Wanganui Casein Factory closed down through lack of available records or archives, although it is thought to have still been in operation in 1930. A search for photographs of the factory has also proved fruitless as has information about the main players such as Vickerman. If anyone can help with images or information, please contact the Curator on 06 349 1110 or info@wrm.org.nz.

Casein is still produced today, mainly for bodybuilding products, and as a food additive to, for example, stiffen cream from aerosol dispensers.

To make casein

Whole milk is initially separated to produce skim milk, which is then poured into a vat and mixed with a precipitating agent (usually sulphuric or acetic acid).This separates the milk into curds (semi-solid) and whey (a watery compound).There was some concern that calves fed on the remaining skimmed milk might suffer nutritionally, and so phosphate of lime was added to remedy this problem. The casein curds are then pressed to produce hard, dry cheese-like blocks. These blocks are crushed and spread on screens which are run through drying tunnels. After baking, the granulated casein is graded according to quality and bagged for shipment. Formalin is later added to re-liquefy the casein crystals for moulding.

Karen Wrigglesworth is a Whanganui engineer, writer and a research volunteer at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

One Fish, Two fish … Five Fish, New Fish!

Five whitebait may not seem like much of a catch, but the Museum was very pleased to get them.

Horizons Regional Council looking for fishes in the Tutaeika. Photo: Damien Wood.

Horizons Regional Council looking for fishes in the Tutaeika. Photo: Damien Wood.

Perhaps a proper whitebait net would have helped, instead of two aquarium dip nets, but we were trying to catch adult whitebait, or īnanga, for the Museum’s new aquarium. The word “whitebait” actually refers to the juveniles of not one but five different species of native fish; young īnanga are the most common of those five. Adult īnanga are attractive little fishes about the size of your finger. Their scientific name Galaxias maculatus (maculatus means spotted) describes their leopard-like spots, and they have an iridescent greenish stripe. In the aquarium they hover in the filter current in a tidy shoal.

Native fishes are mostly nocturnal, so at 11 pm on Saturday night the Curator of Natural History was wading up the muddy Tutaeika Stream in Aramoho, being eaten by mosquitoes, peering into the water with a powerful head lamp. The Tutaeika has a history with local hapu as a food-gathering site, but in the daytime it doesn’t look like much: it emerges from a culvert, flows like a drainage ditch through open fields with no shelter, and runs for a short distance behind backyards and Aramoho School, fringed with weeds, before emptying into the Whanganui River. But at night I counted at least four species of fish—īnanga, a middle-sized eel, banded kokopu, and common bully. A recent fish survey by Horizons found koura (freshwater crayfish) there too, and the introduced pest fish Gambusia—impressive diversity for a neglected suburban stream.

Adult īnanga ('Galaxias maculatus') Credit: Whanganui Regional Museum

Adult īnanga (‘Galaxias maculatus’) Credit: Whanganui Regional Museum

Each year, the whitebait that escape the nets head upriver to sheltered streams to feed and grow over summer. By autumn, after eating voraciously, īnanga are the size of the adults in our aquarium, and head downriver to spawn. They lay eggs around the base of grass and reeds in the estuary, and most then die. The young īnanga head out to sea for the winter after they hatch, and return in spring as whitebait. So most īnanga live for only a year—the ones in our aquarium won’t be spawning, so will live for two or three years.

The Whanganui Regional Museum’s new native fish aquarium. Credit: Whanganui Regional Museum

The Whanganui Regional Museum’s new native fish aquarium. Credit: Whanganui Regional Museum

We set up our aquarium to mimic the streams around suburban Whanganui: the fish are natives, but the lush greenery is all invasive weeds, plants originally imported by fishkeeping hobbyists and now choking our waterways. It’s sitting in the museum atrium, and seems popular—green swaying plants and darting fish are almost hypnotic.

Part of the job of a museum is to document and preserve the natural history of its area, so in 100 years locals and scientists can see what’s been lost or gained. Our job is also to raise awareness of treasures that would otherwise be overlooked; treasures that might be in your backyard, especially if you live in Aramoho.

Mike Dickison is the Curator of Natural History at Whanganui Regional Museum.