Wanganui Woollen Mills

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.

Advertisements

Whanganui in the Seventies

1. Wanganui City BridgeThe decade got off to a good start with the new Wanganui City Bridge nearing completion. For years the old Town Bridge had served the city well but by the end of the sixties increasing traffic flows made it hazardous. During the opening ceremony on 14 December 1970, an RNZAF fly-over enthralled the crowd of 5,000, all standing on the bridge for the first time. Messages of congratulations came from around the world, and 19 traffic officers, aided by police and Legion of Frontiersmen, kept everything under control.

2. Jerusalem CommuneIt is March 1971 and in a commune at Hiruhārama, or Jerusalem, by the Whanganui River, are followers of the famous poet and guru James K Baxter, on the porch of one of the settlement’s old houses.

3. BaxterThe iconic image of Baxter could well have been one of the last ever taken. He died in Auckland less than a year later on 25 October 1972. His body was returned to the place he loved and his grave can be found today on a hill above the church at Jerusalem.

4. Rob Muldoon1972 was election year and the Deputy Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon, came to Wanganui to campaign. He was met with strong local support and a thin line of protesters. A bomb hoax caused some alarm but was largely ignored. Later a youth was arrested and charged with misuse of a telephone. Here Mr Muldoon and the local national candidate, W G Tolhurst, are surrounded by police and well-wishers on the stairs of the Concert Chamber in the War Memorial Hall. In spite of Wanganui’s enthusiasm, success was not to go National’s way in 1972. After the election the Kirk Labour Government took the reins of power.

5. Gillian WeirIn September 1973 world-famous organist Gillian Weir was back in Wanganui to give a concert as part of a New Zealand tour. The Wanganui Chronicle wrote, “Miss Weir took up organ playing in 1957 when Christ Church needed an organist. She won a scholarship to study piano and organ at the Royal College of Music in London, and since then her rise has been meteoric …  Miss Weir said that it was nice to be back in town.”

6. Durie Hill TowerLater that year, the Durie Hill Memorial Tower was fitted with a $3,000 aluminium safety cage as a deterrent to dare-devil youngsters who got their kicks from walking around the parapet. It was also deemed an anti-suicide measure.

7. Castlecliff MoleStormy weather! In this image of 28 January 1976 a local contractor unloads hundred of tonnes of rock to hold back the sea at the mouth of the Whanganui River. The sand spit was under threat and a breach would have meant disaster for the Castlecliff port.

8. Flood in StreetsThe same storm caused flooding throughout the region. For some, though, it was business as usual. Here an Anzac Parade resident waves goodbye to his wife and children as he sets off for just another day at the office.

9. Holly LodgeAlthough unemployment was on the rise in 1976, Norman Garrett and his wife Alza were optimistic. They spent about $250,000 on expanding Holly Lodge and winery. “Imagine this as a wedding reception room”, Mr Garrett told one Chronicle reporter, pointing to the glass house. “Sparkling glass, varnished wooden crates and purple grapes and green leaves overhead.” Here Mr Garrett tests the acidity of a Holly Lodge red wine.

10. Woollen MillsIn November 1977 the Wanganui Woollen Mills installed a compact new gas boiler, seen here on the right. It replaced the old coal-fed units that dated back to the 1920s. The boiler provided steam for the dye house and the piece washing plant.  It was also used for heating and drying. By the following year national unemployment was at a peak of 23,000. But the Woollen Mills managed to keep producing.

11. Peter SnellIn August 1978 Peter Snell returned to Wanganui and the scene of his triumphal race sixteen years earlier. That historic race had attracted a crowd of 15,000, and Peter Snell did not disappoint. He broke the world record for the four minute mile, and beat the other six competitors by 5.6 seconds. This event gave Cooks Gardens and Wanganui a special place in sporting history.

12. Wanganui Stadium MuralThis magnificent mural was hoisted into place in the Wanganui Sports Stadium In August 1979. It was designed by James Kirkwood and six art students from Wanganui High helped him paint it. It provided a colourful backdrop for Wanganui’s athletes and was a reminder of the diversity of the city, with its excellence in sport, the arts and culture and heritage. 12