Big Business, history,Taranaki


'We soon discovered our new acquaintances (the Maoris) were good hands at a bargain and excellent judges of a blanket. A pig could be procured at first for a large blanket; but the prices rapidly rose to two or more, according to quality, of which the Natives were generally better judges than the Europeans. They sold their fish well, also, generally getting a shilling (lOc) for a schnapper. A man would come to your window and hold up a fish which, after a little bargaining, he would sell for a shilling; he would then produce from under his blanket a much finer one which you obtained for another shilling; when, 10, another is produced finer than both. But a little experience made me feel them round carefully before I commenced fish dealing.'
When Dr Henry Weekes, surgeon-general of the William Bryan, wrote this in his journal of events in New Plymouth between 1840 and 1845, he may have been excused for thinking the Maoris were cunning, even deceitful, in their approach to trading. But they had learnt the business the hard way-from the Europeans.
The skill of the Maori flax-dressers was known to early European traders. This native plant, Phormium lenox! called harekeke by the Maoris, grew in profusion in swampy areas and near beaches. From its fibres the Maoris made 'all their common apparel strings, lines, cordage and baskets, mats and fishing nets",In 1874, at Thames, Maoris made flax ropes to replace the running-rigging on the brig Fancy,
thus establishing a trade which flourished for more than 160 years. In 1815, the Active, with the Rev. Samuel Marsden aboard, returned to Sydney with New Zealand phormium fibre in its cargo and in little more than 10 years regular trading in the fibre began between New Zealand, Sydney and England.
Prices were high and profits large. In the beginning a box of nails, an axe and an old musket was enough payment to fill the hold of a small ship with fibre. In 1830 840 tonnes exported from various ports in New Zealand at $34 a tonne, was re-exported to England for $90 a tonne. The trade soared over the years, as did the price. In 191832,000 tonnes were exported at $104 a tonne, but by the 1950s, when artificial fibres took over, the annual export trade (64 tonnes at $8 a tonne) had almost vanished.
In Taranaki, Dicky Barrett joined the growing flax trade in the 1830s, exporting several cargoes of fibre and whale oil to Sydney before he sought refuge in the south following the great battle against the Waikato Maoris. He encouraged Taranaki tribes to cultivate the flax in several areas near New Plymouth. Following the 1860-65 fighting a number of flax mills were established in which machines replaced the handdressing system used by the Maoris. The last flax mill in North Taranaki went out of business in the 1920s.
Although Barrett established his whaling station at Ngamotu in the mid-1830s, it was not a particularly profitable venture, probably because the North Taranaki coast is far from hospitable, and because Barrett was a little late in the queue-the bonanza was almost over.
Early mariners had noticed the presence of the mammals in New Zealand waters and as early as 1791 the whaling ship William and Ann under Captain William Bunker called at Doubtless Bay during a whaling expedition.3 It was the forerunner of a large number of American, Australian, French and British vessels which either whaled in New Zealand waters or called at ports for provisioning.
The first bay-whaling, or shore-based stations, in this country were established in the Marlborough Sounds and Cook Strait areas in 1829, which were soon followed by others in the south of the South Island, at Paremata, Mana and Kapiti Islands, and on the east coasts of both islands. Barrett's of Ngamotu was the only station on the west coast of the North Island, apart from those in the Cook Strait area.
Business was seasonal. The bay-whalers' busy time was during the migration north of the southern right whale in winter and spring, many of which travelled close to shore, and an occasional humpback. In contrast, the huge sperm whales were usually found in deep water and were thus largely out of reach of shore-based small boats.
Oil was obtainable from most species, but the right whale yielded balleen, or whalebone, which for many years was in great demand for

use in corsets, umbrellas and packing materials. Three 15-metre-long right whales could yield a tonne of balleen, which was frequently more valuable than their oil, both of which Barrett sold to Sydney merchants. Compared with sperm whaling, which sometimes required voyages of several years, bay-whaling was an unsophisticated affair, though it was accompanied by great risk, as Barrett's last encounter with a whale demonstrated in 1847. It required only a small capital outlay for relatively simple equipment: trypots, windlasses, flensing knives and barrels, with two or three longboats equipped with lances, harpoons and lines for the actual catching. The Taranaki Museum possesses several examples of such equipment used by Barrett and his main business rival and friend, Richard Brown, who also established a station at Ngamotu in the early 1840s.
During the 'season' there was always someone on watch from the summit of Paritutu, and when a whale was sighted there would be a frenzied rush for the boats. When the whale had been caught, its carcase, stripped of its balleen and oil, was left to rot on the beach at Ngamotu, much to the disgust and discomfort of the early European settlers. But by that time business was slack. Right whales-bulls, cows and their calves-had been slaughtered indiscriminately by the many whalers to the south, and by 1845 were rarely seen off New Plymouth. Their numbers have never built up, and in spite of strict protection during most of the present century, the right whale is still a very rare animal. Local fishermen occasionally report sighting a humpback, but the last reported processing of a whale was when one was washed up off Bayly Road in 1930.
Several attempts have been made to exploit the iron sands which abound on Taranaki beaches. The first smelting operation was by John Perry, who produced limited quantities of iron which was forged into small items in 1848. Other experiments were made by C. Sutton, but the fineness of the sand choked the furnaces.
In 1869 Henochberg and Co. erected a furnace on the banks of the Mangaotuku Stream near the site of the present Devon Intermediate School. This later became the Pioneer Steel Company and the New Zealand Titanic Steel and Iron Co. Ltd. E. M. Smith, later to be a Member of the House of Representatives, was the driving force behind this and other ventures. He invented a method by which the ironsand was moulded with clay into bricks which prevented the choking problem. This brought wide acclaim from British steel-makers, but the enterprise collapsed for want of funds.
Smith persevered, and 10 years later succeeded in floating a company in Wellington which founded the Taranaki Foundry and Engineering Co. Ltd at Te Henui. On September 23, 1879, nearly four tonnes of pig iron was obtained, tested in England and found to be 'of best quality"." But it was not good enough for investment. Smith made further abortive attempts to raise finance and in 1889 the Bank of New Zealand acquired the plant and transferred it to Onehunga, where it produced 45 tonnes of pig iron.
In 1896 and again in 1901 Smith visited Britain, but was unable to interest the money market in the New Zealand steel-making industry. The only reward for his years of effort and faith seems to have been in his sobriquet, 'Ironsand' Smith. The Taranaki Museum possesses several items made from Taranaki ironsand, and a testimonial to the man who moulded the first pair of railway wheels in the country, John O'Hara. Food, and a house, were among the first requirements of the European settlers at New Plymouth. The fertile soil provided both. Most families were soon self-sufficient in fresh vegetables, potatoes and wheat, and as the land was cleared the newly-felled timber provided the basic material for houses to replace the tents and a few prefabricated houses they had brought with them, or had bought from the New Plymouth Company store. Primitive shelters they were; one-roomed shacks for the most part; beams, joists, rafters and planks laboriously pit-sawn where the fallen trees lay; hauled to the home-site by lumbering ox-carts, where the man of the house, together with his wife and perhaps a neighbour, gave the family their first roof (usually made from flax; wooden shingles and iron came later) over their heads. Additional rooms were added as families grew.
For 20 years New Plymouth grew thus: little do-it-yourself houses lining the barely-formed streets in the town; 'home-steads' on the farms as they were developed. Then came the fighting and the precious homes were abandoned to the marauding Maoris while their owners sought refuge behind the palisades of the town.
Young Henry Brown, a son of the Rev. Henry Handley Brown, had served his apprenticeship in the hard school of the bush, and in the late 1850s he opened a one-man building business in the town. Barely had he started than he was required, as were all able-bodied men, to join the military forces. He served in the Volunteer Rifles under Captain (later Sir) Harry Atkinson, and took part in many skirmishes and forays against the Maoris, including the Battle of Waireka at Ornata (his father's parish). When the peace came he founded the first-and subsequently the largest-timber-milling firm in the province, on his father's property in Carrington Road in 1863. For 12 years he and his small team cut into the massive bush. When most of the millable timber had been cleared he opened another mill to Inglewood in 1873, where he set up his home. He became a founder member of the Moa Dairy Company, chairman of the Inglewood Town Board, a county councillor for 14 years, and a Member of the House of Representatives from 1896 to 1899.

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