Monday, 9 January 2017

Full Circle - The Rise, Demise, and Return of Dairying to Central Southland

An Ayrshire Dairy Cow and Calf at "Meadowbank",
Heddon Bush, Southland, New Zealand, circa 1914
[From my own collection]

Over the last couple of decades the change-over from sheep farming to intensive dairying for milk production in Southland New Zealand (and many other districts) has been quite dramatic. This has been driven by high dairy milk solid prices and falling, and sometimes negligible or non-existent, returns for mutton, lamb and wool. This blog charts the story of the rise then sudden demise, and quite surprising return of dairying to the highly productive pastoral plains of Central Southland in New Zealand. This is of particular interest to me in that my family were heavily involved in this initial dairy "boom". 

As I noted in my last blog about butter stamps, when my maternal Scottish born Watson family arrived at Heddon Bush in Southland New Zealand at the beginning of 1911 they brought with them two generations of dairying experience which they intended to put to good use here. Their previous experience in dairying and the setting up of a local dairy factory with the support of a family member already in New Zealand was a major drawcard in convincing them to emigrate.

My Grandfather, William Dykes, who accompanied the Watson family over from Scotland to New Zealand at the end of 1910, wrote in his memoirs:

As a Dairy Factory had been established in the district at the cross roads, Hundred Line - Ohai [at the corner of the Hundred Line and State Highway 96], it appeared that the new arrivals with their dairying experience in the old land and having the requisite labour of their own family, would be well suited for this activity, accordingly a herd of cows, a new cow bail and milking machine were obtained and milking for the factory was undertaken..."

The South Hillend Dairy Factory Building
as it appeared in 1957
[Photo by William Dykes from my own collection]

"The Southland Times" of the 1st October 1910 records that; “Farmers in the South Hillend and Heddon Bush districts, who intend supplying the new factory now nearing completion at Sheedy’s corner are busy building byres and getting ready for the opening of the factory…”

My Great Great Uncle, William Watson, of "Mayfield" Heddon Bush, who had already been resident in the district for quite a number of years, had been appointed a Director of the so named "South Hillend Dairy Factory" when the company was formed in December 1909. He gave this new enterprise his full support, both financially in terms of becoming a shareholder (and almost certainly also a guarantor), and in helping set up his own brother and his family in dairying to supply the factory when they arrived in New Zealand in 1911.

The Ground Plan of the South Hillend Dairy
Co-Operative Factory, drawn April 1910

The cost to built and equip the factory would amount to £1,300 [around NZD$213,000 in today's values), the building being constructed of "camerated concrete" (a first in Southland) by Nightcaps builder Donald Sinclair after obtaining advice from an Auckland Architect. The concrete walls were built "twice as thick as normal" and have definitely stood the test of time. The location chosen was on the Hundred Line, being right on the boundary of Heddon Bush and South Hillend. The tender of J.B. McEwan  & Co. of Dunedin was accepted for the supply and installation of the necessary equipment and machinery but no cost is given.

The factory was duly opened to receive the first delivery of 600 gallons of milk on the 29th October 1910, co-incidentally being twelve months to the day after the first meeting had been held to gauge support for a local factory. Within the first month the daily intake of milk was around 900 gallons. By the following year the intake appears to have stabilised at around 800 gallons.

The South Hillend Dairy Factory Building
as it appeared in July 1960
[Photo by William Dykes from my own collection]

The sole product of the factory was to be cheese (I assume cheddar) for the overseas market. When promoting the idea of a dairy factory at a meeting in October 1909 William Watson had made a specific point of emphasizing "that New Zealand cheese was extremely well thought of at home [i.e., in Great Britain], and could be found in ever so many farm-houses". In November 1910 the Dept. of Agriculture approved the name "Turi" as the registered brand for the company's cheese. "Turi" being an abbreviated Māori word, was the name by which the district of South Hillend ["The 'Turi"] was generally known. If anyone has an image of the "Turi" brand used for the cheese wrappers or the stencil image that would have appeared on the wooden cases I would love to see it, and if possible, reproduce it here.

An application for an extension of the telephone line from South Hillend to the factory was granted in December 1910 upon a guarantee of £9 p.a. being given by the local County Council, the new office to be known as "Turi". This would also be their telegraphic address, businesses paying for a single word address for ease of identification and to reduce telegram charges.

Amusingly (although I doubt for them), two local and un-named South Hillend based Directors of the company, and in an effort to dispose of the surplus whey from the factory, "experimented with it as a Canadian thistle exterminator as some purely 'theoretical farmers' have pronounced it". Unfortunately the grass died but the thistles "evidently enjoyed the drenching for they are looking almost at their best. Another 'theoretical' cure for the pest exploded...".

William Watson and his nephew (whom he had 'summoned' from Scotland in 1907 as he had no children of his own) now commenced to build a 16 bay corrugated iron milking shed on the family farm and the purchase of a herd of forty Ayrshire dairy cows (the same breed as they had used in Scotland), a milk waggon, a mechanical milking machine, dairy untensils, a dehorner, and a 'Babcock' milk tester for 6 bottles. This was to be a modern, labour saving, and cost effective operation commensurate with William Watson's belief in using the latest technology and methods.

The Watson Milking Shed at "The Mains", Heddon Bush
"Aristo" Studios photo, circa 1912
[Photo by EA Phillips from my own collection] 

Unfortunately, while I cannot confirm the brand of the milking machine (I do note the "Storrie's Patent Milking Plant" being advertised at this time) we actually know what the milking apparatus looked like because, quite unusually, a professional photographer took a photo of it. It is very rare to actually see the interior of a milking shed taken just over one hundred years ago, especially by a professional photographer. The photographer was Mr E.A. Phillips of the "Aristo Studio" in Esk Street, Invercargill. This was no easy task considering the low lighting and many dark shadows involved. Mr Phillips, who was active until the early 1950's, became very well known for his long panorama group photos (4 ½ or 5 inches deep and anything up to 36 inches long) taken using a novel Kodak "Cirkut" panoramic camera .

The milking machine would have been operated by a small oil engine and pump to create the necessary vacuum. It is unfortunate that I do not have a photo of this. Perhaps an enthusiast in such things can enlighten me as to the name of the milking apparatus and any other details so that I can update this blog accordingly.

My Grandfather further records that :

"Eventually it was found that the farm was not suitable for carrying dairy cows and a change was made over to sheep, a successful venture over the years since support for the Factory gradually declined and had to be closed down.”

Sale of Dairy Cattle & Utensils from
"The Mains", Heddon Bush Aug 1914
[Source : Papers Past]

We know from the above published account that the sale of the cows, all the milking apparatus, and the milk waggon took place on the 19th August 1914. From what I can gather, sheep farming was just simply found to be more profitable without the "drudgeries" inherent in dairying. I cannot confirm why the land "was not suitable for carrying dairy cows" because this is not the case today although top dressing was yet to be fully perfected (and incidentally, who would do that but the same above-named William Watson, being noted in his obituary as "Southland's most progressive farmer"!). 

And by now few farmers were prepared to make the shift from pastoral farming to dairying "as it was not more remunerative from a financial view-point". 1912 had proven to be a very poor season for dairying in the district, and in regards to my own family position, the sudden death in 1912 of the senior Mr John Watson (William's brother), and of John's son Wullie in a farm accident in April 1914, no doubt all contributed to this decision. 

By this time support for the local dairy factory had in any case virtually collapsed. As early as January 1913 the Wallace County Council (who were the guarantors for the telephone line) agreed to the decision of the G.P.O. to "hold over" the construction of the line to the factory office "as there was a possibility of the factory being closed up owing to a number of suppliers giving up dairying". "The Southland Times" for November 1914 confirms that the South Hillend Dairy Factory "has never opened this season, all the dairy herds having been sold and there is now no supply of milk to go on with and for the time being dairying is not in favour amongst the farmers here."

At a meeting of the Co-operative in June 1915 "...held for the purpose of considering the advisability of going into liquidation, it was decided to make another attempt to revive the factory, a canvass of the district is to be made to ascertain what support will be forthcoming. Considering the bright prospects for dairy produce it seems a pity if the factory should be closed for want of support".  
A commentator noted in August 1915; "It is regrettable that sufficient support was not forthcoming to re-open the South Hillend Dairy Factory. There is not a better equipped factory in Southland". Thus the factory also remained closed for the whole 1915 season.

In December 1911 the company had shipped 70 cases of cheese from the Bluff to the west of England, the first of the season. This quantity compared reasonably well with other smaller factories. For the year ended 31st May 1913 the company shipped a total of 381 cases of cheese from the Bluff for export to Britain, now actually rather low in comparison to many other factories being 50th in quantity shipped out of a total of 57. So while other factories were obviously increasing production the South Hillend Co-operative Dairy Company were quickly being left behind.

The old South Hillend Dairy Factory House
(shown around 1938-39 after being shifted over the road)
[Photo by William Dykes from my own collection]

In February 1916, with re-opening obviously deemed financially inadvisable due to lack of supply the factory building and manager's house were then offered for sale by auction; "The amount given for the factory was £50 and £100 for the house. The factory originally cost £800 and the house £200." The house was later shifted over the road, then being used by the local blacksmith. On the 4th March 1916 the Liquidator wrote to the Awarua Dairy Factory (located at the "Racecourse Corner", Winton) offering them the dairy plant comprising of the boiler, engine, pump, and cheese presses for the knock down price of £150 which, no doubt with great glee on the part of the purchaser, was accepted. On the 3rd July 1916 a tender of £47 was accepted for shifting the plant which further added to the total loss. Overall, only £253 (NZD$33,000 in current values) was able to be recouped from the sale of assets but this figure would have been further eroded by incidentals and legal costs.

More than just my own family would have had their fingers badly burnt in this short lived financial fiasco. Archives New Zealand hold a record for "The South Hillend Co-operative Dairy Factory Company Limited" under "Company Files" (Ref R1027013) from 1910 to 1920 but I have not attempted to access these documents as they will primarily be of a legal nature, This will include the registration of the company under the Company's Act 1908 and other company information including when the company was liquidated, wound up, and removed from the register. I may look at it at a later convenient date just out of curiosity.

What I find surprising is that other districts maintained their dairy factories for many more years. It is an interesting question requiring a lot more in-depth research as to why so many other rural based Southland factories with solid local support managed to continue operating for quite some years later but this one, despite it having modern industry standard processing equipment and machinery, had collapsed so very quickly with the seemingly abrupt move by the local populace, back to pastoral sheep farming - including my own family. As one writer put it, "the district did not manage to adjust to dairying, and the operations ceased".

That all had originally been so supportive and invested quite some money in equipment, dairy herds and milking sheds but bailed out after only two to three years is hard to fathom. Sheep farming also has a very seasonal return and is subject to the vagaries of fluctuating prices and good and bad growing seasons. The increasing lack of available labour after the start of World War One will have been a factor but again, why not so many other districts? The company definitely had shareholders and was registered as a "co-operative" so did pulling out as a supplier mean not only a personal loss in plant but also a loss in their shareholding in the company and share of future profits? It was certainly not a merger as with so many other rural dairy factories in the years after 1920.

Brother and Sister James and Helen Watson of "Meadowbank",
Heddon Bush with their "Ayrshire" Cows and calf.
Heddon Bush, taken circa 1912
[From my own collection]

Family members thereafter each maintained a dairy cow which they hand milked. This provided them with milk, butter and cheese with the occasional gift of a block of cheese. My Great Great Aunt, resident at "Meadowbank" in Heddon Bush, and who is shown in the above picture, milked at least a couple of Ayrshire cows. The late Mr Hugh Anderson of "Brookdale" Hokonui (a son of Sir Robert Anderson), who was a regular visitor to "Meadowbank" in his youth, recalled in 1974 that  "I can still see in Miss [Helen] Watson's large outside dairy the row of large milk basins where she used to churn the butter and also make cheese in a home made press." 

As to the old factory building at Sheedy's Corner [named after Paddy Sheedy who had set up his blacksmithing premises on the opposite corner but later known as Heenan's Corner after the latter took over the business in 1924], "The Winton Record" reported in 1917; "That the South Hillend dairy factory is as dead as a dead duck is the opinion freely expressed by many broad minded men, but it is quite evident that the thought never occured to those people that this splendid building could be used for theatrical purposes. Those who were present on a recent evening and witnessed the staging of a play 'The Rising Floods',... are quite sanguine that the good money spent on this building has not been fired in the air."

But the building would then languish for many years, lying semi-derelict but partially occupied, at least from 1951, as living quarters with the rest used for the owner's bee keeping business. It has also been used by a local transport operator, and now serves in an extended form as the premises of a pet food and abattoir business. The brick chimney is now half the original height, no doubt to alleviate earthquake risk. While much of the district has converted back to intensive dairying, tankers now carry the milk daily to considerably larger and more economical automated processing plants at Edendale (Fonterra), Blue River Dairy located south of Invercargill, and with a new plant yet to be built with Chinese investment.

But around Southland you can still see many of the earlier rural dairy factories which, over many years, slowly closed down as economies of scale eventually came into play and the need to renew dated but expensive processing equipment, machinery and boilers became necessary. Often around these buildings could also be seen old steam boilers and the rusting detritus of milk processing and cheese & butter making equipment removed to make way for internal storage. The last small cheese factory I can personally recall is Tisbury just on the outskirts of Invercargill which closed in 1978 (it was actually quite popular and even had a small cheese shop which we visited) although the Mataura factory lingered on until 1981.

Copyright of Images :

Unless otherwise stated all images are from my own family collection and may be used for non-commercial and academic use provided this site is acknowledged.

Sources :

- Papers Past [National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa]
- "Tales of the Turi : South Hillend Centenary 1884-1984", by Marjorie Cairns & Frank Plunkett
- McNab Room, Dunedin Public Library
- Watson family papers and photographs (held by the writer)
- Dykes family papers and photographs (held by the writer)

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