business

The Wilson Pill Company

In the early 20th century, Mr Samuel Wilson held a secret. His ancestors lived in a small village in England where a local doctor was not available at short notice so it was up to the residents to keep themselves and others healthy. They developed a medicine which proved to be useful in preventing a number of ailments.

Mr Wilson inherited the recipe and brought it with him when his family came to New Zealand. He made it for his family, and their health and strength generated interest amongst friends and associates, so he started making it for them as well. Several locals were so impressed with the panacea that they implored Mr Wilson to sell it, but he refused, insisting on making it himself and providing it free of charge.

After living for about two years in the Whanganui district, Mr Wilson finally agreed to put his pills on the market. A syndicate was put together, and James Alfred Young began the process of sourcing quotes to have the pills manufactured and packaged ready for the market.

While in town on 10 July 1907, Mr Wilson was thrown into a lamppost on Victoria Avenue when his horse shied. He died the next day, but his wife Lavinia took on the project and worked with Mr Young to continue marketing the pills.

Mr Young was sure the pills would bring great riches. His sales pitch was so effective that he raised too many investors, and the syndicate was legally required to become a registered company.

1 Benoni White ad

The advertisement designed by Benoni White, as appeared in the Wanganui Chronicle on 16 January 1908, p7

While waiting for official registration, Mr Young ordered the first batch of pills from the Dunedin branch of Kempthorne Prosser and developed a marketing plan. He commissioned artist Benoni White to design an advertisement and was in contact with 40 newspapers about advertising.

Another tactic offered a more personal approach, outlined in a letter dated 16 July 1907. “It has occurred to me that a good idea to work Wilson’s Pills would be to get a really smart girl, who could talk, to interview each store, chemist etc … It seems to me that a ‘taking’ young woman could do this work better than a man and what is of very great importance she would not cost so much.”

The Wilson Pill Company finally began business on 18 November 1907 with 70 shareholders, £5,000 of investments and no debt. The pills were distributed to shops and pharmacies throughout the North Island, accompanied by an intense advertising campaign.

The pills claimed a myriad of cures: biliousness, constipation, boils, carbuncles, eczema, backache, indigestion, liver troubles, headache, dyspepsia, lumbago, rheumatism, as well as curing blood and stomach disorders and stimulating the liver and kidneys. The original recipe no longer exists, so testing these claims is not possible.

2 Medicine ad

An advertisement for Wilson’s Pills ‘backed by high modern medical testimony’, Wanganui Chronicle 6 January 1908, p2

In January 1908 Mrs Ramsay became the Company’s Lady Canvasser and distributed the pills to throughout the North Island, earning £2 per week (around $330 today).

By the end of 1908 the Company was chasing debts. Mrs Lavinia Wilson had moved to Perth to live with family there, and received a letter from the Company stating there was little demand on the market for her family’s pills and they had not sold enough to cover marketing expenses.

Things went from bad to worse. In June 1910 the Wilson Pill Company was summonsed to a legal hearing over incomplete registration of their annual list and summary with the Joint Stock Companies. The matter was eventually resolved but some expenses were incurred.

The Company encountered problems with employees claiming for advertising work they had not completed, and then had to write off over £19 ($3,000) of bad debt for goods dispatched to their canvasser who then disappeared. Shareholder meetings were not meeting quorum and the Company was only gaining 6p per box of pills sold, with their total income at the end of 1913 sitting at a little over £17.

The Directors were loath to spend any more shareholders investments. The Wilson Pill Company was formally wound up on 26 May 1914 with £214 in the account which, after paying legal fees, was returned to shareholders at around 10s per £1 invested. The remaining stock and the rights to the formula were sold to the Manager of the Wanganui Chronicle for £17/2-.

 

Written by Sandi Black, Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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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.