Newspaper Article 1988 – Between the Rivers

Between the Rivers

The Mail continues Between the Rivers, the story of the settlement of Central and Northern Hawke’s Bay written by Flaxmere author Mrs Elizabeth Hill.

This is the 23rd instalment of the book which is to be published in the future.


An M.A. thesis on meat and wool by the late Trevor Fallwell has been my inspiration for this section, and what a pity it is that such works as his do not see the light of bookstores or public libraries. The educational trust founded in his memory may encourage other students to carry out their own research.

According to Mr Fallwell, the European population of New Zealand numbered 172,150 in 1984 [crossed out], while sheep tallied 4,937,273, and by 1871 the gap was even wider.

The country was overrun by scabby, half-starved and diseased sheep to such an extent that neither meat nor wool could be absorbed to any profit either domestically or overseas; both had been reduced to such shockingly poor quality that it was impossible to save a bob by culling from a flock of aged or inferior animals.

The legend of uncommercial thousands being driven over cliffs to inhumane deaths is unsubstantiated. Shepherds all carried knives and doubtless despatched dying culls and rolled them into gullies where possible, but the other?

Has anyone reading this ever tried to induce or coerce a sheep, revived probably by its sense of danger, into a suicide plunge? (Even if an abyss should be available.)

Hamilton Russell wrote from Redcliffe in 1867 ‘. . . bad times, wool very low’, and by 1869 the land between the rivers and in the whole of New Zealand presented a deep recession through bad farm management.

To most sheep farmers, in spite of this predicament, each sheep, no matter how inferior, represented some return in wool. The far-seeing, enlightened few failed to convince others that a better-managed flock reduced by 20 to 30 per cent would produce a higher clip. Overstocking with its attendant evils therefore continued.

A farmer had only to cross the Tasman to see where Australia was facing up to similar problems and pioneering new-look markets – soap, canned meats and fertiliser.

In 1867 Sidney Johnston from Takapau chaired a meeting in Napier to form a company to follow their example and the H.B. Boiling Down Company was formed, a site being chosen on the banks of the Tutaekuri at Meeanee.

Profits came from tallow, fertiliser and hides, with a sideline of pickled and smoked legs and tongues.

Small groups of farmers began to form their own boiling-down co-operatives, and one used an old whaling try-pot and killed and stewed his own. His returns in tallow and hides were well worth the smelly effort.

By 1870 tallow was flowing between the rivers as the fore-runner of the meat and fertiliser trade, and the scene was set for new industry. It was a period of comparative prosperity from severe doldrums, and not before time farmers were beginning to look towards better pasture management, and improved sheep breeding.

Canterbury and Otago were leading the field, but John Chambers of Havelock North was experimenting with shipments of pickled legs to Auckland, while others between the rivers entered the trials.

These early attempts failed, however, through various reasons, and the province had to wait another decade before William Nelson entered the meat trade in 1872.


William Nelson took active steps to found the meat preserving business between the rivers in 1872.

Although the Hawke’s Bay province had been the first in New Zealand to adopt boiling-down on a commercial basis, in canned meats it lagged behind the South Island, who would also precede it in exporting refrigerated carcases.

Nelson travelled to England to research the meat industry through the family firm of Nelson, Dale and Company, then back in New Zealand in 1880 he went into partnership with brother Fred and friend (later brother-in-law) James Nelson Williams.

They established a meat preserving and boiling-down factory two miles from Hastings beside the railway line.

The name Tomoana was given to commemorate the generosity of Henare Tomoana, Waipatu, who donated land for a half-chain road running from Karamu Road to a point adjoining the works.

Tomoana was an enormously versatile concern handling every by-product of the sheep. Only the bleats and baas escaped!

The firm advanced into fell-mongery and manufacture of cans and boxes for the business. Some of the latest in engineering and labour-saving devices were developed by Nelson himself, and the works were supposed to be one of the most modern in Australasia.

Mrs Constance Horne, aged 93 in 1988, William Nelson’s oldest granddaughter, who remembers as a small child watching Lindauer paint in his Auckland studio, says of her grandfather: ‘He was a born engineer, and was always making or mending. In the early days it wasn’t easy for farmers, he went bankrupt three times.

‘l remember the first time when a plague of locusts destroyed his farm at Arlington. It was as bare as a ploughed field, and he just put his wife and two children into the buggy with a few belongings and drove away to start again.’

In February 1882, New Zealand’s first famed shipment of frozen meat left Port Chalmers in the refrigerated sailing ship ‘Dunedin’ and arrived in London in perfect condition. Before the third cargo left the south, Hawke’s Bay sheep-farmers were getting their heads together, and Nelson Brothers was approached to make Tomoana capable of producing frozen sheep meats.

There followed much opposition, urgent demands being made for extreme caution, and lobbying, conniving, wheeling and dealing from critics and contenders made the scheme a red-hot topic.

The objective for the new company was that it should be farmer-owned with William Nelson as manager.

A rival appeared in John Chambers, promoting his own refrigeration invention through a London-based company. A proposal that the two should amalgamate appeared to be going ahead when the brave young company collapsed through the withdrawal of London Nelson Brothers’ backing.

Thirty years were to elapse before farmers between the rivers made another such concerted effort to own their own works.

There was still faith and trust for William Nelson however, and it was finally resolved that Nelson Brothers New Zealand should ‘have a go’at establishing the freezing industry at existing Tomoana, to be appropriate with current conditions. ‘Wait and see’ was the watch word before committing anyone to a radical new works.

Photo captions –

Chief Tomoana
Trevor Fallwell

Chris White, recently returned from two years overseas experience
FREE pick-up and delivery within 8km radius of Waipukurau
Competitive rates
Central Hawke’s Bay Dealers

Original digital file


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Extract from “Between the Rivers” by Elizabeth Hill, published in 1989

Format of the original

Newspaper article

Date published

5 July 1988


The Mail


  • John Chambers
  • Trevor Fallwell
  • Mrs Elizabeth Hill
  • Mrs Constance Horne
  • Sidney Johnston
  • William Nelson
  • Hamilton Russell
  • Henare Tomoana
  • James Nelson Williams

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