Pair take stock of glory days at saleyards

PEN TO PAPER: Robin Leech, left, and Bruce Johnston look over the draft copy of Leech's new book on the Addington Sale Yards and their stock agents.
PEN TO PAPER: Robin Leech, left, and Bruce Johnston look over the draft copy of Leech's new book on the Addington Sale Yards and their stock agents.

A camaraderie in the old days at the Addington saleyards extended beyond company lines, writes TIM CRONSHAW.

There was a time when the clamour from livestock agents from six companies would vie with the baying from tens of thousands of stock at the old Addington saleyards site.

With the rap of a notebook or whatever else was at hand, they would close the deal as the next pen awaited bidding.

From 1874, the saleyards at the footstep of Christchurch's inner city, overlooking Hagley Park, were the hub of livestock trading and a financial cornerstone.

Before Blenheim Rd had a name, it was a track for "fat stock" to be driven down to meet their end at the former Islington abattoir. Much of the store stock went down Papanui Rd or Moorhouse Ave in the 1950s when the roads had less traffic.

Only the memories remain. Decades of town encroachment forced the saleyards to close after 123 years at one site.

Their days were numbered as early as 1910 when the Riccarton Borough Council fielded complaints about driving stock into the city and the resulting noise. These were overlooked and the saleyards lasted until 1997.

Today it is overgrown, its pens dismantled and the entranceway bearing the wording of The Canterbury Canterbury Sale Yards Co Ltd is decaying. Little remains of a fine meeting point between town and country.

However, the memories are alive in many of the men who worked there, including those to join the stock-and-station industry immediately after World War II. Among them is Walter Bell, 97, who is still farming at Kirwee.

As a boy he saw the friesian steer weighing 1182 kilograms which tipped the world record standing for 100 years for the heaviest bullock. The steer was owned by A J Keith, who barely came up to its backline, and it sold at the saleyards for £90.

A regular attendee of the sales, Bell witnessed the hardship of the Depression years. His father, Bob, kept his head above water by trading stock, mostly finishing store lambs, and he carried on the family tie, initially working with Dalgety & Co Ltd.

As far as he is aware, Dick Masefield, 93, is the only farmer to drive prime cattle from the family's Banks Peninsula farm in Goughs Bay for eventual sale at the saleyards. His father worked out the economics stacked up better than driving them over the hill and sending them by rail from Little River.

Masefield set out in the late 1930s on a Monday with a line of 3-year-old steers and aided only by two dogs. Over four days he took them to Tai Tapu, where they were handed over to go to a small farm in Halswell before being sold on the Wednesday. Masefield returned by horseback over two days.

During these trips, farming hospitality came to the fore and people would come out with a flask of hot soup on a cold southerly day. Eventually they were dispatched by road.

Both farmers were among the oldest to be tracked down by Robin Leech, a former journalist who in the late 70s fronted A Dog's Show on television. With former stock and station agent Bruce Johnston, he has penned a new book on the saleyards and its people.

No less than two years of interviews went into the writing of the book, The Addington Sale Yards and those who made it work.

Among the great stories to emerge was the advertising slip in The Press. Each week H Matson & Co had a sale of draught and farm horses at Tattersall's horse bazaar in Christchurch. An advertisement for 50 broken and unbroken horses to be made available for inspection at 11am before the sale was not well received by fuming Matson owners handling countless inquiries when the first 's' in horses was left out.

Johnston did most of the interviewing and recorded the careers of about 60 stock agents from the thousands who would have worked in the industry from World War II as well as the odd farmer and butcher. Many of the older agents were returned servicemen and joined the stock and station companies in the 1940s and 1950s.

"The Addington saleyards has a huge history and was a busy place with six stock firms and 60 to 70 agents alone running the show without the butchers and the freezing works buyers and it was a hellishly busy place," he says.

"There were yardings of 40 to 50,000 stock in the 1970s."

He managed to talk to the late Aalt Verkerk, a regular buyer for his butchery and meat company and found most days at the saleyards.

"I was pleased to get hold of Aalt Verkerk before he passed away. He was one of New Zealand's most successful butchers and he saw his salami recipe exported to the Asian countries and the Pacific Basin."

Others wrote down their saleyard memories, their words polished by Leech.

Before radio phones came into vogue in agent vehicles, Johnston in the 60s had to communicate with farmers and buyers the old way. This often meant they were on the home phone until 11pm after a long day on the road.

Calculators were unknown and a big "fancy adding machine" was the equivalent of today's computers with agents writing up the company ledger by hand.

"I started when I was 16 in 1957 and I always remember it as a big thing to join a stock firm. In those days there were some wonderful guys and the camaraderie among the firms was wonderful."

Leech agrees with an enthusiastic nod.

"Listening to these fellas, they had some warts, but they were pretty loyal as everyone was in those days ... By today's standards, they were quite lowly paid, but fiercely loyal.

"The other thing to come through was although there were six stock and station companies they were supportive of each other and the camaraderie had to be seen to be believed and certainly wasn't the dog-eat-dog existence we see today."

Perhaps this was a legacy from the servicemen who fought together in the war.

Many were still around when Leech started work as a "stamp licker" for Dalgety Company Ltd in Cathedral Square in 1959. Stock and station agents were expected to wear a jacket and tie.

"When we were office boys, the manager rang the buzzer and we put on our sports jacket to see him but, at the same time, the training was first class. We never questioned what we were told. Everyone had respect for their elders."

The head office was in no less than Leadenhall St in London. Leech was in the grain and seed division and working with a staff of 50 on the site where the Millennium Hotel now stands and where the old pie cart used to reside.

"The Addington saleyards were a big-ticket item in the Canterbury economy and it was important not only to the farmers, but the people of Christchurch.

"Ballantynes put on more staff on saleyards days because the wives would come in. In those days a lot of farming people, and I was one of them, would come in for the day at the saleyards and the wife might go shopping and then they would go to the accountant or the lawyer in the afternoon.

"It was a leader in its time for livestock values and the butchery industry used to hang its hat on its findings. It was held up as the yardstick of national livestock values."

A small group served the industry for 50-plus years, including Newton Brown and John Reid, and Fred Fowler and John Honeybone who are still in the trade.

Leech went farming on the banks of the Waimakariri Gorge at Oxford in 1962 and Johnston left "Dalgetys" to become a lamb drafter for the New Zealand Refrigeration Company in 1964 before he too bought land to go farming, at Aylesbury then Banks Peninsula.

He now runs a free-range egg business on a small block at West Melton.

Johnston said he left when the stock firms first began merging and lost their identity. Matson was the first to go, swallowed up by National Mortgage in the 50s.

"We all thought Dalgety & Co was an institution and would be there forever like the heavens, but Dalgety merged with New Zealand Loan and Mercantile to become Dalgety and NZ Loan and then Wrightson gobbled them up," says Leech.

They still look back on their stints in the industry with fondness.

The saleyards were replaced by the new grounds at Canterbury Agricultural Park in Wigram.

Most agents will admit to pangs of regret that the old yards were bypassed, but it made sense to place the facility at the periphery of the city and next to main arterials for easy transport of stock.

In a perfect world, maybe part of the site should have been saved in a memorial to those who once worked there.

Johnston says the vandalised site would be better made into a car park now for users of Hagley Park.

The book has been long talked about by stock agents before the stories were lost forever and was made possible with the assistance of Honeybone and Fowler.

The story grew from being just about the saleyards to the people - agents, staff, farmers and buyers - and will provide a history of a time that has passed.

The Press