Ancient stories tell the origins of southern Maori, with the waka of Aoraki becoming Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island), and its sternpost, Te Taurapa a Te Waka o Aoraki becoming Bluff Hill (also known as Motupohue). The Maui traditions are also told in the south, with Maui arriving in his waka Maahunui, and throwing out the anchor Te Puka o Te Waka a Maui (Rakiura). Maui's achievements are recognised in place names in the south, including Omaui near Bluff, and Te Tapuwae o Maui and Te Rereka o Maui in Fiordland (Maui's footstep and Maui's leap).
Stories of the original explorers of the south are also told. Rakaihautu and his son Rokohouia explored both coastal and inland areas of the south, with place names recalling their journey. After Rakaihautu came the Takitimu waka with Tamatea Pokai Whenua. The Takitimu waka became beached in a storm and became the Takitimu Ranges.
The early generations learnt about the land and its resources: stone sources were found, and stone (especially pounamu) became an important trading item. Whanau moved throughout the southern area to take advantage of seasonal resources and trade, and also for reasons of intermarriage and war. Kaika were established close to resources. Rights and resources and places were established, and traditions established which protected the manawhenua.
When traditions were written down Kati Mamoe and Kai Tahu dominate the history after Waitaha, with stories of war and peace, and intermarriage that spread through the south. In the early 1820s there was further fighting, with muskets first being used at this time, with major sieges in the more northern area of the South Island leading a retreat to the south. Ruapuke Island became the centre of leadership in the south, its isolation giving a measure of security. The final fight with the northern taua of Te Puoho and his followers at Tuturau in 1835-1836, where Te Puoho was defeated, saw the end of warfare in the region.
According to the Ngai Tahu Statutory acknowledgments in the settlement important villages along the south coast included: 'Te Wae Wae (Waiau), Taunoa (Orepuki), Kawakaputaputa (Wakapatu), Oraka (Colac bay), Aparima (Riverton named Aparima after the daughter of the noted southern rangatira Hekeia, to whom he bequeathed all of the land which his eye could see as he stood on a spot at Otaitai, just north of Riverton), Turangiteuaru, Awarua (Bluff), Te Whera, Toe Toe (mouth of the Mataura River) and Waikawa.'
In the 1830s shore based whaling was established, including a station at Aparima (Riverton). Tuhawaiki established his own whaling station. Strategic intermarriage of Maori women to whalers strengthened relationships. Flax and timber as well as other commodities were traded.
1853 saw the Murihiku purchase which left Maori south of the Waitaki (excluding the Otakou Block) with only 4,630 acres, the start of a long quest by southern Maori for justice questioning the legality of the purchase as well as the inadequacy of the land reserved. The major settlements on the southern coast near modern day Riverton in the mid nineteenth century included Pahia, Ngawhakaputaputa, Oraka and Aparima (established probably in the 1820s), although the largest settlement was on Ruapuke Island.
A reserve was set aside at Aparima (Riverton) but was inadequate. A 200 acre reserve promised at Waimatuku was not allocated. The Aparima reserve was the site of the main kaika and included an urupa and a tauranga waka. The majority of the reserve was later taken by the Public Works Act for a secondary school, with only the tauranga waka remaining as reserve, a source of continued grievance. The area of North Beach from Otaitai to the mouth of the Aparima River, inland and back to Otaitaia Stream is considered a traditional strong hold of Ngai Tahu as a site of the kaika and urupa.
Flax: Maori Use and Early Trade
New Zealand Flax (harakeke/Phormium Tenax or Swamp Flax) is unique to New Zealand and Norfolk Island and grows in lowland swamps throughout New Zealand, though only small remnants remain as much land has been drained and cleared.
Flax was an important cultural resource for Maori particularly in the low swampy areas like that which characterises much of coastal Southland. According to Nancy Swarbrick writes that in Maori sayings and songs flax is a metaphor for human, and particularly family, relationships. Flax weaving was (and is) a specialised art and a way of passing down cultural values. Judith Jones writes that 'Harakeke and its uses were so important to all aspects of Maori lifestyle that traditions and rituals of care and protection grew up in each hapu or iwi around the plants, the process, the weaver and the finished work.' Plantations of special flax plants (pa harakeke) were tended.
Harakeke was probably New Zealand's first export crop, with Judith Jones identifying that Maori sold hand dressed flax and fibre made into ropes as early as 1793. Maori were active in the early flax trade with Europeans. Flax fibre was initially exported to British and Australian rope makers. Trading stations were set up in coastal areas around the country, including Northland, Waikato, Taranaki, Coromandel, the Bay of Plenty, the East Coast of the North Island, Southland, Cook Strait and on Banks Peninsula. By 1840 a small local industry had developed making rope and twine.
Flax in Southland was a resource which attracted European attention in Southland sporadically from 1813 onward. Sydney merchants mounted an expedition to examine the flax in the south, led by Robert Williams who reported on the trip in September 1813 to Port Macquarie (as they called Bluff at the time). Hemp, as the flax fibre was called at that time, was recognised as ‘an object of attention from the most early knowledge of that Island [New Zealand]', recognising that the hemp required a different method of working than that found elsewhere in the world, and that traditional Maori ways of working the fibre could not produce the quantity required for rope making.
Robert Williams, involved in the manufacture of hemp and flax as a flax dresser and ropemaker, arranged the expedition to try and establish an industry in New Zealand, and to scope out the potential scale of that industry.
In the early 1820s Edwardson (of the Snapper) attempted to start a flax industry. He noted flax was widely used, and bought prepared flax in exchange for iron tools and weapons at Pahia, and on Ruapuke traded flax for fish-hooks, nails, knives, beads and other goods. In June 1823 Edwardson returned on another expedition to gather flax with Captain Kent on the Mermaid. Edwardson wished to persuade a woman to return to Sydney to work the flax, but the women refused to travel without their husbands, and he had to take the chief Te Wera and his wife and child, Te Pai, Joseph Caddell and his wife Tokitoki. In some Maori communities large numbers of people moved to swampy areas to prepare the flax, with a decline in health the result. Despite these efforts, the flax trade never got off the ground in the first half of the nineteenth century and declined in importance as shore-based whaling became important.
The Flax Industry in New Zealand
Cutting flax was a dangerous backbreaking job. Cutters, bent low with their ferocious hooked knives, grabbed as much standing flax as possible and cutting as close to the ground as possible. Cuts from the knife work and from the flax itself were common. In the winter, in Southland and Otago at least, cutters worked in the swampy ground with ice falling from the flax fans. Flax leaves were hand cut, tied in bundles and carted to the mill.
Flax mills were located on the edge of flax swamps and were identifiable by the noise of the stripper and by the rows of fibre drying on the ground and over fences. The worker who fed the flax into the stripper was crucial to the quality of the fibre; if the margins of the flax were astray then some ribs were not stripped, or the fibre was cut up and useless. Another very wet worker sat in the ‘glory hole' catching the fibre, bunching it and washing it in running water. Each stripper required about 20 acres of flat drying space. Each stripper (most mills only had one or two) provided work for 20-25 men. The leaves were fed through the stripper, then washed, dried and bleached in the open air. The dry fibre was cleaned in a ‘scutcher' (a revolving wooden drum with attached beaters). The fibre was then pressed into bales for transport to market. The country's largest mills were in the Manawatu, though there were flax milling areas in many provinces, including Otago and Southland.
In the late 1860s the flax trade changed from a Maori dominated industry based on hand processing, to one based on production through mechanical means. From the late 1860s onwards production was possible on a larger scale with the invention of a machine which beat the green leaf between a revolving metal drum and a fixed metal bar (what became known as a ‘stripper'), exposing the white fibre. The stripper made possible an output of 250 kilograms a day (compared with the kilogram produced by a Maori flax dresser dressing the flax with a mussel shell, which was slower but produced a finer fibre), and by 1910 this potential output was up to 1.27 tonnes of fibre daily. By 1870 there were 161 flax mills in the country with 1,766 workers.
The stripper led to the development of ‘flax milling' as an industry, which played a notable part in New Zealand's economy from the 1860s until the 1970s. This was a boom and bust industry: in 1873 there were 300 mills, the boom stimulated by the shortage of manilla during the American Civil War, and the subsequent depression meant there were only thirty mills in production in 1886. The demand for binder twine stimulated the market again in the 1890s, with 177 mills working, declining again to fifty two mills in the latter part of that decade. The Manawatu was one of the most important areas for flax milling, and saw some of the largest mills in the country (such as Miranui) with a whole complex of buildings including bunk houses and a dining room seating 130) operating in the twentieth century. The fibre was used in rope and twine making, and the by product, tow, the shorter fibres resulting from cleaning the leaf for rope, was used for a number of purposes including carpet underlay and fibrous plaster.
In 1906 there were 74 flax mills operating in Southland alone, this was the peak of the industry. Typically flax mills were built of corrugated iron, enlarged as required, with one wall set for shelter from the prevailing wind. Buildings and machinery were often shifted to another area of flax when an area had been cut out. Sometimes a mill would move back to an earlier site if the flax had regrown. The buildings were often insubstantial and few survived. A good supply of fresh water was required and sometimes a stream was diverted with a channel or fluming, or a dam built for storing water.
The markets fluctuated as a result of price changes internationally leading to a boom and bust cycle which affected the local industries. Boom periods were seen in the early 1870s (where the peak of 300 mills were in operation), the early 1890s, the early twentieth century and during World War One. The market collapsed in the 1930s depression, but the local industry was saved by the local market for flax woolpacks, protected by Government restrictions on imported jute woolpacks. The Second World War saw the industry further protected and supported by the Government, particularly in the Manawatu. There were 45 mills in New Zealand in 1939, with six of those in Southland. The Government protection continued through the 1950s into the 1970s, allowing some 15-20 flax mills to survive. Protection was removed in the 1970s when manufacturers replaced flax fibre with cheaper synthetics. The last flax mill in New Zealand cased operation in 1985.
The Templeton's Flax Mill
The land on which the Templeton Flax Mill stands was vested in The Riverton Athenaeum in trust in April 1883. The land was leased to various tenants for short periods until William Templeton took up the lease in December 1911.
The history of the Templeton Flax Mill is outlined in Margaret Trotter's publication Flaxmill's of the South, and in Hugh Templeton's family history The Problematical Journey.
William Templeton, the founder of the Templeton Flax Mill had seen first hand the resources of phormium tenax in Southland. He had worked as a boundary rider for Captain William Stevens, half brother to Captain Howell of Riverton, giving him a chance to look over the land in central and northern Southland. Elder brother Andrew had bought land in Dipton in 1882, and in 1889 William set up and managed a new flax mill on Andrew's Riverside property. All did not go well with this venture, however, as the mill burned down within the first year with the loss of the whole factory and plant.
William and wife Jessie shifted to Thornbury near Riverton and leased land there, as well as setting up two stores and a contracting business near Waiau in the 1890s. With a family of ten to support flax milling may have been considered a good choice as workers could be found from within the family.
There were a number of flax mills in operation in the swampy area to the east of Riverton around Waimatuku from around the 1880s onwards. The Western Star records a call for tenders for the removal of engine and flax mill plant from Waimatuku Bridge to Riverton Beach in 1890. A 1903 article records that the Challis Bros. had sold their flax milling plant at the mouth of the Waimatuku Stream to another mill owner Mr R. Bennett of Pahia. Bennett installed a new plant in the Waimatuku mill, which began operation under his ownership in August 1903. These operations would have been close to transport networks as the road from Riverton to Invercargill ran along Waimatuku Beach.
The Bennett's Waimatuku mill (located near Taunamau Creek) operated till around 1907 when the partnership was dissolved. William Templeton purchased the Bennett Bros. Flax Mill and shifted it to the site at Otaitai Bush.
Desmond Templeton recalls that his grandfather William shifted from Thornbury to the beach at Otaitai Bush in 1911. William Templeton purchased the Bennett Brothers Flax Mill. from the Bennett mill at Pahia, further to the west. He leased a 2,000 acre property was made up of Harbour Board Endowment land and 800 acres of Athenaeum Reserve (used for drying the flax) extending from Otagitai Bush east to the Waimatuku River mouth. The mill from Waimatuku was shifted to Otaitai Beach (close to large stands of flax and the nearby Riverton workforce), and to its current site in 1945, further from the sea where salt contaminated fresh water turned the flax fibre a dark black (quite the opposite of the bleached white required), and the mill operated from this third site until 1972.
The Templeton's large family needed to be housed at the site, so a joss house (elsewhere reported to be the old hotel from Round Hill) was shifted from the Chinese settlement at Round Hill, and verandas were added to the house, and a ‘cookshop' and ‘eatinghouse' for the employees, along with other outbuildings including some sleeping huts, were built. Other accommodation was added as the family expanded.
Running a flax mill required a good water supply and a large area of flat land for drying and bleaching the fibre. The manpower required was considerable with each mill needing 5-6 cutters, five mill hands, five in the bleaching paddocks, and a further three scotching and binding the fibre into bales. Templeton's mill supplied Donaghy's rope plant in Dunedin.
The onset of World War One saw flax milling declared an essential industry. Rope and hemp were used in shipping and for making bags. During these years the Templeton family members worked the mill to increase its production capacity. The youngest Andrew (1897-1983) kept the boiler stoked (at 4.30am for a 7.30 start), a routine that was part of his life for the next 18 years until electricity was installed in 1933.
Andrew Templeton took over the management of the mill in the late 1920s on the retirement of his father, a move encouraged by financial backer T.H. Watson of Riverton. The mill ran through the 1930s, supported by the diversification of the property into cattle and sheep. At various times in his milling career Andrew Templeton also operated and managed several other flax mills. Until 1940 the mill depended on hand scutching to finish the hemp, but Andrew and Muir Templeton with builder Alf Campbell developed the first automatic scutcher in the area. Another setback came when the scutcher caught fire, razing the scutching shed.
In 1943-44 a new stripper shed and scutching shed were built on the current site. This location was away from the sea so as to avoid the salt contamination at particularly high tides which saw the flax fibre turn black. This included Otanomomo Flax Mill near Balclutha in South Otago, assisted by his son Desmond, who managed the Otaitai Bush Mill. The fibre was sent to Donaghy's Rope and Twine works at Waikuku outside Christchurch, where it was made into baling twine. Andrew Templeton was active in the local community, an elder of the Riverton Presbyterian Church, a member of the Lodge Aparima, and a member of the Flaxmillers Association. Andrew's son Desmond Templeton joined the family business when he left school in 1950.
With the removal of price control in 1969 the end of the business came quickly. Hugh Templeton (MP for Awarua and Andrew Templeton's nephew) fought the National government for the retention of the flax industry. The losses to the Templeton Flax Mill were immediate - $120,000 in output. Within months nearly all the flax mills in New Zealand closed. The last three Southland mills to close were Johnston's at Redan, Niederer's at Gorge Road, and Templeton's at Otaitai Bush.
The Templeton Flax Mill closed in late 1971, with the loss of 14 jobs, the mill, like others, unable to compete against cheap imported fibre such as sisal and jute. The land was converted to running stock. But the historic value of the mill as representing what had been ones of New Zealand's major industry, remained important. Hugh Templeton saw the historic site of the Templeton Flax Mill as a reminder of the significance of the industry and the importance of flax in New Zealand.
The Templeton Flax Mill Museum
In December 2000 the Templeton Flax Milling Heritage Trust was set up with the purpose of promoting, restoring and preserving the Templeton family flax milling buildings, structures and machinery at Otaitai Bush, and to preserve and display flax milling relics and memorabilia relating to the history of flax milling in Southland and Otago. Flax milling machinery, notably the scutcher, from the Otanomomo Mill was donated by Ray Girven to be used to interpret the heritage of the industry in the south.
In 2001 the Templeton Flax Mill was turned into a museum, formally opened in November 2004, with the buildings restored and memorabilia on display and a new office and store constructed on site, with financial support from the Templeton family, the Community Trust of Southland and the Lotteries Commission.
Southland MP Bill English opened the museum and in his speech said that the museum represented the hard work done by people in the past, and particularly as an example of a family business handed down through the generations. The museum was identified as the only flax mill in New Zealand still operating on its original site.
Trust Chair, Des Templeton, hoped that the restoration would ‘help preserve information from a dying industry' for future generations, as there were ‘only a few flax mills similar to Otaitai Bush mill left in New Zealand.
Other Surviving Flax Mills
Flax Mill complexes tended to be hastily erected structures located close to the where flax was being cut. They were often constructed of corrugated iron, and were often moved to new locations as areas of flax were cut out, and the machinery (the stripper and the scutcher) were often moved to other operations. For these reasons very few have survived with buildings and machinery. Geoffrey Thornton writes that very few flax mills survived, mentioning Marshlands and the mill at Otaitai Bush as rare survivors.
Journalist Nigel Smith in his account of industrial heritage in New Zealand writes that little remains of the once common mills, with sites like that at Miranui in the Manawatu (the largest operation in the country) hardly visible. Miranui closed down in 1933, and when Geoffrey Thornton was writing in 1982 only the derelict scutching shed remained.
In Foxton there is a flax stripper museum, which has the original machinery from Bonded Felts Ltd, installed in a purpose built building. The Foxton Flax Stripper Museum claims to house the only working stripper and scutcher in the country (and possibly this was true before the Templeton Flax Mill Museum opened.
Another surviving mill can be found at Marshlands in Marlborough. This was a large mill which operated alongside a large farming estate associated with the Chaytor family. This Flax Mill, including the weighbridge, is registered as a Category II historic place (Record No. 1475). Geoffrey Thornton describes the flax mill at Marshlands as ‘probably the most complete of the very few remaining examples in New Zealand', missing only its boiler. There was a mill on the site in the 1860s, rebuilt in 1888 with a variety of additions and rebuilding since that time. A saw mill was built alongside in the 1920s. The Marshlands mill ceased operation in 1963. In 1982 the mill retained its scutcher, retting tank and bale press, with the shafts and drives in reasonable condition. The mill is larger than Templeton's Flax Mill, but like Templeton's it is a timber framed structure, clad with corrugated iron, typical of the rather makeshift construction of flax mills.
Ruins of Flax Mills at Blenheim and at Opiki are also recognised by NZHPT (Record No.'s 5470 (Category II) and 5254 respectively). The Vercoe Flax Mill Ruins in Blenheim were considered at the time of their registration in 1993, to provide physical evidence of only of the many flax mills in Marlborough, but that there were other more intact complexes (such as Marshlands, which it was suggested, should be considered for Category I registration).
The Opiki remains are associated with the Tane Hemp Company Ltd which operated from 1916-1921. It was one of the larger mills in the Manawatu, cutting flax from the Makerua swamp, the largest commercial flax swamp in New Zealand. Archivist and historian the late Ian Matheson writes that the remaining concrete chimney and foundations was the most substantial structure erected for flax milling in the Manawatu, and that it, along with the remains of the adjoining toll bridge provide insight into milling in the region. Like Thornton, Matheson writes that there are few substantial remains as most structures were timber or corrugated iron and were ‘insubstantial and undistinguished in appearance.'
From the available evidence, it would appear that there are only two mills with their machinery surviving on their original sites. This makes the Templeton Flax Mill Complex of special significance as a remnant of the once thriving industry providing insight into the history and operation of flax milling in the landscape in which the mill operated.
The Templeton Flax Mill Complex is located at Otaitai Bush in Southland. The buildings are located on the low coastal plains behind the dunes of Otaitai Beach. The surrounding land is now used for dairying; the flat paddocks were used for flax drying when the mill was in operation. The Complex is located immediately to the south of the coastal lagoon, which was an important source of fresh water for the flax mill operation.
There are three buildings in the Templeton Flax Mill Complex: The Stripper Shed (which houses the Templeton Flax Mill Museum), the Weigh Bridge Shed, and the former Scutching Shed. Both the Weigh Bridge Shed and the Scutching Shed are used to store farm implements. These last two buildings represent the structures which were needed to run the flax milling operation. There is a modern Versatile Garage, which is used for storing machinery and as an office, located close to the Stripper Shed.
The buildings are laid out in a west to east direction. The most westerly of the group is the Stripper Shed. This is a single gable structure with a shallow pitched roof and lean-to additions to the south elevation. The building is utilitarian: timber framing with corrugated iron cladding painted the red oxide typical of rural outbuildings. On the west elevation is a water wheel which sits in the race which runs along the side of the building, providing a channel for the water required for the stripper. The east elevation has the main entrance to the flax mill museum, a single timber door, with large garage door to the north. Some of the iron has been replaced with clear corrugated plastic provide natural light for the displays inside. The north elevation has a single window and a water tank mounted alongside.
The interior of the Stripper Shed is divided into three main areas: the working floor (which has the stripper and the scutcher), a workshop, and a smoko room. A store room has been opened up and is used for a display area for historic photographs. Along the west wall of the shed the stripper is installed and its associated service areas. The stripper is in its original working position and takes up the length of the wall. Grading bins sat on the north wall. The water supply runs through the shed, with overhead pipes, pumps, spray washers and other associated features.
In the scutcher is installed in the centre of the Stripper Shed. This is a large piece of machinery taking up about a third of the floor area. The bale press is located alongside the scutcher.
The Weigh Bridge Building is a small rectangular shed with a lean-to on the south elevation. It has a timber-framed casement window on the west elevation. There is a large opening on the east elevation to allow access for trucks. It is timber framed with corrugated iron cladding, and a concrete floor.
The former Scutching Shed is of a similar form and construction to the Stripper Shed. It has a small lean-to on the north elevation. It has two large openings on the east elevation (the size to allow large vehicles access, and a sunken loading bay in one of these entrances.
William Templeton buys Flax Mill at Waimatuku and shifts it to Otaitai Bush site. Plant purchased from Bennett Bros Flax Mill at Orepuki.
Flax Mill converted from steam power to electricity.
Andrew and Muir Templeton build first automatic scutcher in the Southland area.
1943 - 1944
Scutching Shed razed by fire. New stripper and scutching sheds built on current site.
Templeton Flax Mill ceased operation in December.
Restoration of the Templeton Flax Mill and associated machinery and preparation of interpretation. Scutcher from the Otanomomo Mill installed in the Stripper Shed.
Templeton Flax Mill Museum opened in November 2004. A Versatile garage is erected adjacent to the Stripper Building to be used for machinery storage, and as an office.
Timber framing, corrugated iron and colour steel cladding.
Public NZAA Number
7th December 2009
Report Written By
Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1905
Cyclopedia Company, Industrial, descriptive, historical, biographical facts, figures, illustrations, Wellington, N.Z, 1897-1908, Vol. 4 Otago and Southland, Cyclopedia Company, Christchurch, 1905
P. Sorrell, (ed) Murihiku: The Southland Story, Southland to 2006 Book Project Committee, Invercargill, 2006
Jane Thomson, (ed)., Southern People: A Dictionary of Otago Southland Biography, Dunedin: Longacre Press/Dunedin City Council, 1998.
Geoffrey G. Thornton, New Zealand's Industrial Heritage, A.H. & A.W. Reed, Wellington, 1982
Hugh Templeton, The Problematical Journey, The Story of a New Zealand Family: The Templetons of Southland 1862-1997, Templar Press for the Templeton Reunion Committee, Riverton, 1997
Margaret Trotter, Flax Mills of the South, Margaret Trotter, Invercargill, 2005
A fully referenced copy of the registration report is available from the NZHPT Otago/Southland Area Office.
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.