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.
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.
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.
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.
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.