Oamaru Freezing Works (Former)

Esplanade Road, Oamaru

  • Oamaru Freezing Works (Former).
    Copyright: North Otago Museum.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 3217 Date Entered 7th April 1983 Date of Effect 7th April 1983


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Lots 5-8 DP 285 (RT OT15B/743), Otago Land District and the building known as the Oamaru Freezing Works (Former), thereon.

City/District Council

Waitaki District


Otago Region

Legal description

Lots 5-8 DP 285 (RT OT15B/743), Otago Land District


The Oamaru Freezing Works (Former), opened in February 1886, are thought to be New Zealand’s oldest surviving freezing works. They provide a link to the early years of one of the country’s most important industries. The relatively unaltered state of the Oamaru Freezing Works (Former) makes them an important example of an early freezing works complex.

The first shipment of frozen meat to Britain in 1882 marked the beginning of New Zealand’s frozen meat industry. The meat for that first shipment was frozen on-board ship by a freezing plant. The industry needed land-based meat works and the New Zealand Refrigerating Company built the country’s first freezing works at Burnside near Dunedin in 1882. Three freezing works opened in 1883 – in Wellington, Belfast (near Christchurch) and in Tomoana (in the Hawke’s Bay).

In 1885, the New Zealand Refrigerating Company built a freezer and store in Oamaru on a site close to the railway line and the port. Prominent Oamaru architect Thomas Forrester designed the works. The freezing works began processing meat on 2 February 1886. Sheep for the works were slaughtered at the company’s Eveline Refrigerating Works, five kilometres north by rail. The North Otago Times recognised that the freezing works were the ‘centre of an extensive industry.’ The freezing works started with one Bell-Coleman refrigerator driven by a water motor connected to council water mains. The company installed a steam engine and boiler in case the water supply failed. The works could process three hundred sheep daily and store 12,000 frozen carcases.

Very soon, the works needed to process more carcases and the company added to the buildings and the refrigeration system. In 1889, the North Otago Times described the limestone buildings and their recent alterations. They are, the paper wrote, ‘rectangular in shape, one storey high, and measure 160ft by 50ft [49 by 15m]; and the engine room, stokehole, offices, etc., are placed on the east side of the premises, while the siding and loading platform extend along the whole west side.’ The original buildings had two storerooms and two freezing rooms. An extension to the larger store meant there was enough room for 20,000 carcases. The stokehole was also extended, giving enough space for the new boilers, and an additional ten feet [3m] were added to the height of the chimneystack. The company built a residence for the engineer at the rear of the works.

The North Otago Times told readers about insulation of the freezing chambers walls, giving an interesting insight into the technology: the three-foot thick walls were made up of two walls of stone with a sealed air cavity between them. There was another ‘hermetically sealed space between the timber and the stone, then a solid wall of charcoal 10 inches thick all around, above and below, the whole of the building, the charcoal being increased to about 16 inches above. There is also a layer of asphalt in the ceiling and floor, while the whole building is scrimmed and papered throughout to prevent leakage of air, and covered with galvanised sheet iron in the inside to prevent any possibility of fire.’

Even with the alterations, the works could not meet the needs of this rapidly growing industry. The number of freezing works built in less than twenty years shows the growth of the frozen meat industry – in 1900, there were twenty-five works, fourteen in the North Island and eleven in the South Island. Company structures changed with the growth – the New Zealand Refrigerating Company amalgamated with the Christchurch Meat Company in 1905. The Christchurch Meat Company acquired the Burnside and Oamaru freezing works.

In 1906 general manager William Murray recommended that the Oamaru works close and that North Otago stock be railed to Burnside or Smithfield, in Timaru. Historian Cyril Loach writes that by this time the ‘Oamaru plant was antiquated and inefficient.’ Another five years passed before the company decided to rebuild at Pukeuri, north of Oamaru. The new Pukeuri Freezing Works opened on 5 March 1914 – with 90,000ft [8361m²] of floor space and the capacity to process 3,000 lambs a day.

In 2013, the former Oamaru Freezing Works stand as a reminder of the beginnings of New Zealand’s frozen meat industry.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Forrester, Thomas

Born in Glasgow and educated at the Glasgow School of Art, Thomas Forrester (1838-1907) emigrated to New Zealand in 1861 with some experience in building construction, particularly plasterwork.

Settling in Dunedin he worked under William Mason (1810-97) and William Henry Clayton (1823-77) and later Robert Arthur Lawson (1833-1902). In 1865 he superintended the Dunedin Exhibition and in 1870 was employed by the Otago Provincial Government to supervise borings for the Waitaki road and rail bridge.

In 1872 Forrester entered partnership with John Lemon (1828-90) in Oamaru. Forrester was responsible for most of the design work while Lemon administered the practice. Among their many designs were St Paul's Church (1875-76), the Harbour Board Offices (1876), Queen's (later Brydone) Hotel (1881), Waitaki Boys' High School (1883), The Courthouse (1883) and the Post Office (1883-84). They contributed greatly to Oamaru's nineteenth century character. On Lemon's death in 1890 the practice was taken over by Forrester's son, John Megget Forrester (1865-1965).

From 1870 Forrester became involved with the supervision of harbour works and some time after 1885 he became Engineer to the Oamaru Harbour Board. In this capacity he designed the repairs to the breakwater following storm damage in 1886 and later the Holmes Wharf. On his death in 1907 he was still in the employ of the Harbour Board.

Forrester is also believed to have prepared the first geological maps of New Zealand under the direction of Sir James Hector (1834-1907).

Additional informationopen/close

Construction Dates

1886 -
2 Feb 1886: Oamaru Freezing Works operating

1886 - 1889
Store and stoke hole extended

Additional building added to site
1889 -
Engineer's residence built

1914 -
Freezing Works plant shifted to Pukeuri

Demolished - additional building on site
Engineer's residence demolished

Two-storey gable portion of works demolished

Completion Date

11th September 2013

Report Written By

Heather Bauchop

Information Sources

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

Loach, 1969

Cyril Loach, A History of The New Zealand Refrigeration Company, Caxton Press, Christchurch, 1969.

McCarthy, 2002

Conal McCarthy, Forrester and Lemon of Oamaru, architects, Oamaru, 2002

Smith, 2001

Nigel Smith, Heritage of Industry: Discovering New Zealand's Industrial History, Auckland, 2001

Thornton, 1982

Geoffrey G. Thornton, New Zealand's Industrial Heritage, A.H. & A.W. Reed, Wellington, 1982

Other Information

A fully referenced upgrade report is available on request from the Otago/Southland Office of the NZHPT

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.