On October 10, 1986, the Hawke’s Bay Farmers Meat Company’s Whakatu plant closed with the loss of more than 2000 jobs. It was one of the largest redundancy deals in New Zealand history. Now, 17 years later, the works’ landmark building, the mutton slaughterhouse, is to be demolished. PETER GASTON talks to the new owners of the site and some of the old workers.
End of the line for Whakatu landmark
One of Hawke’s Bay’s oldest industrial landmarks, the mutton slaughterhouse at Whakatu, is to be demolished.
Whakatu Coldstores property manager Mark Jenkinson said the demolition was likely to take six months and cost $1.5 million to pull down the brick, reinforced concrete and steel-beamed building. Virtually all materials will be recycled.
The building has not been used since the Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Meat Company closed in 1986 with the loss of more than 2000 jobs.
At its peak the six-chain Whakatu works was one of the largest and most modern in the country.
Mr Jenkinson said the building had limited use and there was growing pressure for industrial land in Whakatu. Safety of the three and four-storey building, which covered almost half a hectare, was also an issue.
Whakatu Coldstores was aware of the historical nature of the building and that over the years thousands of Hawke’s Bay people had been employed at the works, he said.
Before demolition began, the company had taken photographic and other records of the building for posterity. Part of the building dated back to the early 1900s and the last additions were made in the 1960s and 1970s.
It is the fourth stage of the demolition of the works. In 1995 the fellmongery was pulled down, four years later the beef house and race were removed and in 2001 the mutton amenities block on the top floor was cleared.
The latest phase will involve most of the building fronting Anderson Road and includes the MAF area, slaughter floor, mutton-boning room and boiler house. The huge “tunnel” across Anderson Road, which had linked the slaughter facilities to the freezers, will also be demolished.
The contract also includes the cost of relocating services to the site.
Some of the old works buildings have found new uses. The cattle and sheep yards are now a wool storage area, the rendering plant has been converted into a fellmongery for Progressive Leathers and Mt Erin Pacific use the old beef-boning room for a cannery.
A new $100,000 bread distribution centre for Tip Top will open on the site before the end of the month and the site is also used by an electrical contractor, sheet metal plant and for tallow storage. The old HBFMC’s freezers are also extensively used.
In 2001, Timaru-based Polarcold, a subsidiary of the Scales Corporation, took ownership of the site. It also took control of the region’s largest apple produces, Grocorp and Eastern Equities Horticulture, under the Mr Apple banner.
Walmsley Contractors will demolish the building and plans to grind up the bricks and concrete for farm tracks, driveways and underfloor fill.
Photo caption – COMING DOWN: Whakatu Coldstores property manager Mark Jenkinson checks progress on the demolition of the old mutton slaughterhouse at the former Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Meat Company’s Whakatu works. HB TODAY PICTURE: SAM RYAN
Photo caption – PAPERS left just as they were in 1986.
Fond memories of working in ‘a big lump’ of a building.
When Hawke’s Bay Farmers Meat Company’s Whakatu plant closed, managing director Ian Cameron made a commitment to his family never to go past his office again.
Seventeen years later he has still not driven down Anderson Road past that old office and declined to make an exception for a picture for Hawke’s Bay Today.
While three former staff members, Paddy Cassin, Tama Tomoana and Doug Hearn, are sorry that the mutton slaughterhouse, the dominant building on the site, is to be torn down, Mr Cameron, who worked for the company for more than 40 years, said he could not imagine it being used for anything else.
He said it was a sad day on October 10, 1986, when it closed.
He recalled how he was surprised at a mass meeting of staff three days later when no one made any critical comments about the closure or why it was done.
“There were 1300 people there and no one was critical,” he said.
But the building was old, purpose-built and would cost a fortune to alter to give it new life. It was “a big lump of a building” and he could see no point in leaving it there for sentimental reasons.
But, he said, there was a lot of history there and thousands of people would have worked there over the years.
The original Whakatu works was built on the site in 1912 but Mr Cameron, who started work with the company as an office junior, said only a small part of it would remain. Over the years it would have been built around and over.
He believed it would take a great deal of hard work to knock it down.
“Over the years the company spent a lot of money strengthening it. It’s interesting that it’s finally coming down. Whakatu residents must be overjoyed by the decision. It’s a monstrous thing to have sitting idle in their neighbourhood.”
Paddy Cassin, of Hastings, spent his working life at Whakatu – apart from four years war service – most of it in the bag-making department. All sheep carcases were put in stockinette bags before they were frozen for export.
One of nine children, he started at the works at age 14 and retired in February 1985, a year before the plant closed.
“I’m sorry to see the works go. I spent a lot of time there,” he said.
For most of the year his department consisted of four people but at the peak of the season it grew to eight.
Each of the bags was printed with the company logo in green.
He recalls how parts of consignments of lamb and mutton to Britain were rejected after the green ink on the logo on the stockinette marked the carcases. In Britain green was the colour for rejection
Doug Hearn, of Taradale, is also disappointed that the old works’ building was being demolished.
He spent nearly 25 years at the works and finished in the bag room.
“When the plant closed more than 2000 people – about 70 percent from Hastings and 30 percent from Napier – lost their jobs in one hit,” he said.
At the height of the season Whakatu pumped $2 million a week into the Napier and Hastings economy.
“It’s a shame it’s going but the works, with six chains, was one of the largest in the country and was becoming a dinosaur,” he said.
The emphasis in the industry had shifted to the construction of smaller plants nearer the source of stock.
Tama Tomoana, a carpenter with Faulkner Construction, went to Whakatu for three weeks to do an emergency job and ended up staying 17 1/2 years. After his three-week stint he was asked if he would like to do another 10 weeks and was eventually approached by the works’ head carpenter and offered permanent work.
Getting a job at the works was almost impossible because of a closed-door policy.
One of his early assignments was to help fit fly screens over all the windows up to the top storey so the plant could meet export hygiene standards.
“When we had finished we knew the names of all the flies left by name,” he said.
Photo captions –
NO RETURN: Ian Cameron pictured when he managed the Whakatu freezing works. He has not driven past his old office in 17 years.
WHAKATU workers leaving a mass meeting on October 13, 1986.
ABOVE: The Whakatu mutton slaughter board, stripped of all useful equipment, was once the workplace of near 500 men at the peak of the killing season.
RIGHT: What looks like a dining room in a turn-of-the-century prison was once a smoko room at Whakatu.
A SIGN reminding workers to wash their hands still hangs over a grime-streaked hand basin.