Geared to go on key Petone story

SIMON EDWARDS
Last updated 11:42 31/07/2012
HUTGearweb
Feeding the old country: Frozen carcasses in The Gear’s beef department. Photo: THE RAY STAAL COLLECTION

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For more than a century "The Gear" dominated Petone, stamping the borough with an industrial feel but also providing employment for hundreds.

Six years after he started collecting material for a history on the Gear Meat plant, Petone historian Warwick Johnston is ready to send it to the printers.

The Gear: A history of the Gear Meat Preserving and Freezing Company, is more than 200 pages long and features about 200 images.

Mr Johnston says as well as combing the cartons of records at the Alexander Turnbull Library, which he says if stacked end to end would stretch 30 metres, his call for recollections and memorabilia from former workers struck a rich seam.

Particularly useful was a letter he received from a Whanganui resident. While a student at Teachers' College, the man had worked part-time in the Gear Meat's freezing department in 1973 and 1974.

Mr Johnston says his heart just about skipped a beat when the man said he'd somehow been able to persuade the company to let him take a camera to work to capture his workmates in action.

The series of photos he snapped form an appendix in Mr Johnson's book, illustrating the complete process "from sheep coming in to frozen carcass going out", along with commentary by the worker.

James Gear, a butcher from Britain, followed the gold rush to Australia but found he made more money on the goldfields by returning to his original trade.

He later came to the Otago goldfields and in the mid-1860s, with a very healthy bank balance, he arrived in Wellington.

His original meat plant was in the capital but by 1874 he had acquired 30 acres of land on the Petone beachfront, stretching from today's Esplanade to the present Jackson St.

Mr Johnson said some of that was Maori land, and included the urupa in Te Puni St. A railway line that ran along the face of the harbour to bring in sheep, and cart offal to big pits on Gear Island, curved through the plant itself so that it skirted the cemetery.

The author says it is nevertheless significant that not many local Maori took jobs at The Gear. The many Maori who worked there, including a Maori liaison officer who later became MP, Steve Watene, came down from the East Coast.

The Gear plant was the biggest frozen meat operation in New Zealand, both in size of plant and output.

At the end of Petone wharf, which was built specifically for The Gear, an old hulk, The Jubilee, would provide storage for the hundreds of frozen carcasses until the export ships docked on the other side of the harbour.

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James Gear (his sons took over when he died) lived at Gear Homestead in Porirua. The Gears owned farmland in Otaki and many people Mr Johnston spoke to remembered the big cattle drives that would come down the Waikanae and Paraparaumu beaches. Other beasts and sheep came around the coast from the Wairarapa.

The plant was crucial to the growth of the meat trade and the nation's economic fortunes, Mr Johnson says.

"It's hard to imagine the quantities of meat that flowed out of that plant over the years."

James Gear (he died in 1911) and later his son John, would eat in the same canteen as his workers, and that was up to 600 staff in the Gear's heyday between the two world wars.

Mr Johnson, who last year published a book on the Griffin's biscuit factory, says it was a pleasing aspect of boss/worker relations that seems to have gone now.

"Old man Griffin would go through the factory every morning talking to his workers. He knew all of them."

The Gear plant was an ugly and dirty gateway to the borough, and plenty recollect the harbour waters would turn red with blood at times. But Mr Johnson believes that environmentally-unfriendly reputation might be over-blown. The harbour would flush away spills and The Gear went to a lot of trouble to cart offal and waste to a massive piggery that for many years ran on Gear Island.

The plant closed in 1981. Whether remembered with affection or not, thousands of people had jobs there over the years.

LIMITED EDITION

A grant of $2700 to the Petone Historical Society from Hutt City Council is only about half of what is needed to get the new history about Gear Meat printed.

So Warwick Johnson and the society have decided to have printed a limited edition, hard-cover version of the book, which will be numbered and personally inscribed by the author.

At $55 a copy, it's hoped sales will provide the cash flow to get the soft-cover version printed. Mr Johnson says already, just by word of mouth, there are orders for more than half a dozen of the hard-cover editions.

Anyone interested should sent a cheque for $55 to The Secretary, The Petone Historical Society, 143 The Esplanade, Petone.

- Hutt News

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