Historical Significance or Value
The Oamaru Woollen Factory represents the history of the woollen industry in New Zealand. With the company dating from the late 1880s, the mill’s history tells of the development of the industry based on small town capital investment. The mill played an important role during both World Wars (in the old building for the First World War), providing woollen cloth for the armed services. Its subsequent history shows the changes in the woollen industry, with alliances between mills and the role of major capital investment as the industry developed new processing technologies. Its association with the wool industry continues in 2014 where the factory now produces yarn for carpets.
Architectural Significance or Value
The Oamaru Woollen Factory represents the development over time of an extensive complex of industrial buildings built in the local vernacular material – Oamaru limestone. The factory has typical industrial buildings and the associated administration block and social club rooms.
Cultural Significance or Value
The history of the Oamaru Woollen Factory illustrates the cultural change in the mill as a workplace over its history of operation. Nineteenth century mills had a hierarchy of employment that created a particular work culture. The mill was a significant employer of women, an important theme of cultural change in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Oamaru Woollen Factory features in the writing of Oamaru author Janet Frame who recalls the mill girls on their way to work and defines her own life in opposition to their experience. In the twentieth century the replacement of individual labour with automated production also illustrates the history of change in the industry.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history
The history of the Oamaru Woollen Factory reflects the general development of the woollen industry in New Zealand. Its history spans the early establishment of small town mills built with local capital using steam technology. Its later history is typical of woollen mills in New Zealand, with the takeover by outside interests, and the eventual alliance between mills which saw a rationalisation of production.
(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history
The Oamaru Woollen Factory is associated with the development of New Zealand’s home grown wool manufacturing industry, a significant element in the economic development of Otago, and New Zealand more generally. The Oamaru Woollen Factory Company has links to some of Oamaru’s significant businessmen and politicians such as George Sumpter.
(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place
The Oamaru Woollen Factory Company and its successors have been local employers since the 1880s, and as such the factory has a significant association with the community.
(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape
The Oamaru Woollen Factory is part of Oamaru’s historical landscape. The factory takes up the large part of a city block, and is a landmark in the town, visible from the hill suburbs that look down on the coast. Built of Oamaru stone, it links to Oamaru’s well recognised ‘White Stone’ image.
Summary of Significance:
The Oamaru Woollen Factory has cultural and historical significance and meets the criteria as a Category 2 historic place. The Oamaru Woollen Factory is associated with the development of New Zealand’s home grown wool manufacturing industry, a significant element in the economic development of Otago, and New Zealand more generally. The Oamaru Woollen Factory Company has links to some of Oamaru’s significant businessmen and politicians. Though there have been changes to the buildings over time, the Oamaru Woollen Factory represents the development of an extensive complex of industrial buildings built in the local vernacular material – Oamaru limestone. The factory includes typical industrial buildings and the associated administration block and social club rooms.
The Waitaki area is traditionally associated with the Kahui-tipua, Te Rapuwai, Waitaha and Kati Mamoe peoples. The land around the Waitaki River Mouth shows evidence of extensive settlement, while Moeraki was one of the early cradles of knowledge for Waitaha and Kati Mamoe histories. Key coastal settlements were at Moeraki, Shag Point, Waikouaiti, and Huriawa (the Karitane Peninsula). Ngai Tahu’s prehistoric presence is shown through a range of archaeological sites from middens and urupa, to rock art.
Developing new industries
The land around Oamaru was included in Kemp’s 1848 Crown purchase, and the town surveyed in 1859. Oamaru’s exuberant Victorian architecture shows the town’s wealth in the 1860s and 1870s. From the grand estates in the backcountry inland of Oamaru came wool and grain – estates like Elderslie, Kuriheka, Tokarahi, Otekaieke, and Benmore. Merchants and warehouseman were busy with the grain and wool carted to Oamaru. Grain and wool stores in built in Oamaru’s Harbour/Tyne Street area show the large production. Ships called at the bustling port to transport these products to market (Oamaru Harbour Historic Area, Register No. 7536).
In Oamaru industries developed to process grain and wool. The first flourmill opened in 1864, others soon followed. The frozen meat industry began near Oamaru in the early 1880s at Totara Estate (Category 1 historic place, Register No.7066). The New Zealand Refrigerating Company were operating their freezing works by February 1886 (Category 2 historic place, Register No. 3217).
Making woollen fabric and other woollen products was another of the country’s emerging industries. New Zealand’s population grew through the 1860s and 1870s, and more people needed clothing they could afford. During these years, the wool clip (annual crop of wool) also increased. These two factors enabled New Zealand to develop its own woollen industry. Through the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s woollen mills opened in many New Zealand towns, providing a local market for the wool clip. The Joint Committee on Colonial Industry proposed that a temporary duty be imposed on importing tweed, cloth and other woollen goods, to foster local industry. Where such mills opened, they were an economic hub for their community. While some mills, such as Ross and Glendinning in Dunedin, employed more than 1,000 workers, mills in smaller towns tended to be smaller, and perhaps less economically dominant.
Mills opened in the bigger towns or cities, spurred on by political enthusiasm. In the late 1860s, for example, the Otago Provincial Government offered a bonus to the first mill to produce 5,000 yards (4572m) of woollen cloth. Arthur Burns, proprietor of the Mosgiel Woollen Factory (Category 1 Register No. 351), won the prize. The success of Burns’ mill encouraged other investors. Williamson, Ure and Booth, backed by warehousemen Ross and Glendining, opened the Kaikorai Mill in Dunedin in 1874. Ross and Glendining opened their own mill in 1879 (the Roslyn Mill, also in Kaikorai Valley). The Bruce Manufactory Company built a woollen mill at Milton in 1897.
Throughout the country, mills opened. In Canterbury, the Kaiapoi Woollen Manufacturing Company began production in 1875. Timaru’s woollen mill opened in 1885. In the North Island, the New Zealand Woollen Manufacturing Company began operations in 1885 at Te Papapa near Onehunga. The Onehunga Woollen Syndicate bought the mill in 1891 and it became the Onehunga Woollen Mills. The Wellington Woollen Mills opened at Petone in 1886 and the Napier Woollen Mills in 1902.
A woollen mill for Oamaru
In 1881, a group of businessmen, led by George Sumpter formed the Oamaru Woollen Factory Company with a view to building a woollen mill in the town. A Mr Collins offered the site just north of the town boundary, between the railway line and the coast. The Company appointed George Ballantyne as manager. Ballantyne, from the well-known Scottish family of woollen manufacturers, went to Britain and selected the plant for the factory, had the plans for the mill drawn up, and engaged key staff.
Builder A. Watson won the contract for the construction of the plant, with his £3,759 tender. The contract covered the construction of the weaving shed, teasing house, dyeing and finishing rooms. Watson won a further contract for the construction of the engine room, boiler house and the chimneystack. By June 1882, the machinery was on site. It was trialled in August, and scouring and dyeing started later that month.
The Long Depression of the 1880s stalled the mill’s progress. The business was undercapitalised and finance was precarious. Ballantyne was a poor manager and was dismissed in May 1883. His replacement, David Patterson, took up the manager’s role – a position he would hold until 1917. The Patterson family’s association with the mill lasted until 1955. David Patterson proved an able manager, the company made its first profit in 1885.
By the early 1890s, the economic climate was brighter and the company pushed ahead with additions to the factory. The company installed a new boiler plant in 1893 and in the following year built a new warehouse and office.
Business was still tough because of competition between mills, and because New Zealand’s population was now static. Cheap imported fabrics harmed local business.
Economic pressure eased in the twentieth century. As ever, war was good for production – the South African War gave production a lift and the First World War provided more steady growth. The Oamaru mill supplied tunic cloth and over-coating for the war effort. Production and profitability increased.
A new factory
Unexpected expenses coincided with the end of the war. In the 1890s, measurements had shown that waves were eroding the cliff face behind the factory. While protection works slowed the erosion, it was clear that the factory would have to move. The company purchased a four-acre site across the railway line from the factory.
Manager D.L. Patterson (David Patterson’s son, manager 1917-1947) drew up plans for the new mill. The contract for the chimneystack was awarded in December 1917. By May 1918, all the new buildings were nearly finished. Racing the sea, which by April 1918 was threatening the wool-sorting room in the old factory, the contract for the remaining buildings was let. This contract was for the winding, weaving, finishing and milling departments, offices and warehouses. Builders reused materials from the old factory where they could, and transferred the machinery from the old mill. The old mill closed on 13 April 1921. Patterson designed the new mill as a complete unit with room to expand on the generous site.
Meanwhile Macky, Logan, Caldwell Ltd (who had also acquired the South Canterbury Woollen Mill Company in Timaru in 1919) took over the Oamaru Woollen Factory Company. These Auckland warehousemen were expanding their interest into the manufacture of woollen goods. The company still traded as the Oamaru Woollen Factory Company and remained a separate entity.
Although business boomed in the 1920s, difficulties were to follow. The company extended the factory in 1932 building a new yarn store and yarn-drying shed, but their business contracted. The Great Depression saw a collapse of the industry. Macky, Logan, Caldwell Ltd went into liquidation in 1932 owing the Oamaru Woollen Factory Company a substantial sum.
Hope was restored in 1935 when W.E. Winks and T.A. Daley made an offer for the company on behalf of Winley and Company. Winley and Company had stakes in the Manawatu Knitting Mills among other concerns. They represented the ‘monopolisation of capital and the accompanying professionalism of directors’ that was developing in the New Zealand business world. It was agreed that the old company would go into liquidation and that a new company, Oamaru Worsted and Woollen Mills Ltd, would be formed.
High tariffs on textiles and import restrictions protected the woollen mills from the late 1930s. These measures meant that locally made fabric was cheaper than imported fabric. The regulated industry did have its downsides – it was hard for mills to diversify because those who held an import license could oppose local mills wanting to make a similar product. Both importers and other mills could oppose a mill’s request to import machinery to make a new product.
Once again, the climate for the woollen industry improved with war. The Second World War posed the next challenge for the new company with the huge demands for wartime production. The Government declared woollen manufacturing an ‘essential industry.’ Production for the army and the air force took over most of the capacity of the mill, although labour was hard to find. This increased production did mean the plant had to expand. A conditioning room was finished in 1950 and in 1952 two wool stores were added.
In 1956, the Company celebrated its 75th anniversary, producing a souvenir booklet and holding celebrations.
Woollen mills were very important as employers of women, particularly in small towns when there were few other employers who would take them on. Women usually only worked until they were married (or soon after). Women did the lighter factory work, particularly in the hosiery, darning and mending departments.
The conditions in the mill depended on the department. Some departments were unpleasant, such as the dyehouse with its running water and continual steam. Others were noisy and the work monotonous, and sometimes dangerous. The carding department, with machines unguarded until after the Second World War was particularly hazardous. The Oamaru mill did offer social facilities and events for employees that helped to create a sense of identity.
The woollen mill features in the fiction and autobiographical writing of Janet Frame. It kept time, the mill hooter like a fire siren each morning at eight, and the buildings were a landmark. The mill is where girls who left school early went to work. In Frame’s Owl’s Do Cry Fay Chalkin works in a woollen mill, and the ‘mill girls’ ride six abreast to the mill. For Frame’s protagonist Daphne, ‘to end up at the woollen mill’ is the pit of her despair. But for many women, the woollen mill provided a place of employment and companionship outside the four walls of the home.
Alliances between mills: a changing industry
Industry changes, however, heralded further restructuring. The new technologies developing in the textile industry needed huge capital requirements, which were beyond the capacity of small companies. Mills needed to cooperate to survive. Alliances between mills became necessary and many woollen mills merged in the 1960s. In 1960, sixteen companies operated 18 mills. They produced carpet, weaving, woven fabric, yarn, blankets and rugs.
The development of synthetic fabrics in the 1950s offered direct competition to New Zealand’s wool industry. As a result, many mills merged or closed. Petone merged with Kaiapoi. The Mosgiel and Roslyn mills merged. UEB Industries took over Ross and Glendining and the Napier Woollen Mills.
The Timaru and Oamaru mills formed Alliance Textiles, which then took over the Bruce Woollen Manufacturing Company in Milton. At Oamaru, the office building was extended to accommodate the new Alliance staff, and a new dye house, wool store and cafeteria were built. The Oamaru mill developed its woollen capacity, while Timaru specialised in worsted production. These alliances saw machinery moved from mill to mill as specialisations changed or developed. For example, the Oamaru carpet yarn section moved to Milton in 1970, and back to Oamaru again in 1976.
Even with the mergers, the woollen industry remained under threat. In 1969, a committee set up by the Department of Industries and Commerce concluded that there were still too many mills producing ‘short runs’ of products – mainly blankets, and serge and flannel fabrics. More mills closed. By 1980, there were only eight mills, and by 2000, all the major mills had closed. Textile producers did continue to make carpet yarn and spin Merino wool for clothing. The largest mills in New Zealand in 2009 were South Canterbury Textiles in Timaru, Inter-weave in Auckland and Masterweave in Masterton. A few firms continued to spin yarn, while the largest textile firm knitting fine merino were Levana Textiles in Levin and Designer Textiles in Auckland.
Oamaru’s woollen mill survived into the new century. Up until 2012 the mill was owned by Summit Wool Spinners Ltd. Summit was New Zealand’s largest independent yarn spinner. The company specialised in yarn production through both woollen and semi-worsted spun processes, producing yarns for both carpets and rugs. In early 2013, Canterbury Wool Spinners bought the mill. The company is a subsidiary of carpet manufacturer Godfrey Hirst. One hundred and ninety two people lost their jobs as a result of the sale. A skeleton staff was retained while the feasibility of the mill was reviewed.
In 2016 the mill is still operating, carrying on its close to 100 years of production.
Within Oamaru and more widely in North Otago, the former Oamaru Woollen Factory is one of several significant buildings associated with industries that processed the wool, grain, and meat. Grain stores were located in the Harbour/Tyne Street area near the wharf. Meek’s flourmill sat alongside the Oamaru Creek close to both a water supply and the warehouses by the waterfront. The Oamaru Freezing Works sat next to the railway line, close to the harbour. The Oamaru Woollen Factory, with its rail-side location, links to these places. They are all associated with the primary industries that gave the town its economic heart.
Like the mills, the grain stores and the freezing works, the former Oamaru Woollen Factory (and many other buildings) is built of limestone. The Woollen Factory is one of the largest groups of buildings constructed of limestone. Although it does not have the landmark status of the multi-storey Meek’s Grain Elevator and Meek’s Flour Mill, the scale of the Oamaru Woollen Factory is significant. The mill complex takes up a large part of a town block between Weaver and Foyle Streets. The use of limestone gives Oamaru the architectural character for which it is now recognised.
The Oamaru Woollen Factory’s main entrance is on Weaver Street. The factory is set back from the street. Across the road are some light commercial buildings, while back towards Thames Street are modest houses. On Foyle Street, the factory’s long single storey façade dominates this otherwise residential street. On the seaward side, facing the railway line, another unbroken façade that can be seen from a public walkway, shows the scale of the factory.
The Oamaru Woollen Factory, now Canterbury Wool Spinners, is a 20,000 square metre industrial site. The factory consists of a large complex of factory and store buildings, with an associated administration block and social club rooms. The plan in Appendix 3 shows the layout of the buildings.
The site has been extensively developed, altered and added to over its more than 92 years of operation. Photographs included below show the degree of change over the years of operation.
The buildings are a mix of the limestone buildings from the 1918-1920 period, concrete block additions and corrugated iron sheds from various times. A new yarn store and yarn-drying shed were built in 1932, a new wool store was constructed in 1950 and the social club, additions to the office, a new dyehouse, wool store and loom weaving shed were all built in the 1960s. In the 1970s a new boiler house was built. The chimney stack was removed in 1986. In the 2000s the timber floors were largely replaced with concrete, and there has been ongoing replacement of asbestos roofing. The latest addition is the 2005 wool store close to Weaver Street. The 2005 store is not included in the registration. All the machinery is modern.
Similarly, the interior has undergone a continual process of adaptation and change to new manufacturing and processing requirements and machinery.
In 2012 the main functional divisions within the complex were:
• Administration (in the original office block and former showroom (now meeting room);
• Wool stores
• Spinning, carding, and twisting facilities
• Maintenance: boiler house, maintenance area and workshops
1918 - 1920
New yarn store and yarn-drying shed
New wool store constructed
Alteration of what is now the semi-worsted spinning room. Cafeteria/social club rooms built. Addition to the office block. New dyehouse constructed. Wool store constructed. Loom weaving shed constructed.
New boiler house constructed. Alterations to dye house.
Chimney stack removed
Timber floors largely replaced with concrete to allow for operation of forklifts. Asbestos removal and replacement of roofing (ongoing). Acoustic tiles installed for noise control. Boilers replaced.
Limestone, corrugated iron, timber, concrete block
14th March 2016
Report Written By
Gavin McLean, Spinning yarns: a centennial history of Alliance Textiles Ltd and its predecessors, 1881-1981, Dunedin, 1981
Geoffrey G. Thornton, New Zealand's Industrial Heritage, A.H. & A.W. Reed, Wellington, 1982
A fully referenced New Zealand Heritage List report is available on request from the Otago/Southland Office of Heritage New Zealand.
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.