Anchor Foundry


The Anchor Shipping and Foundry Company
Port Nelson. Nelson Provincial Museum, F N Jones Collection: 309919Port Nelson. Nelson Provincial Museum, F N Jones Collection: 309919 [with Anchor Foundry buildings]
Click image to enlarge

The Anchor Foundry operated from 1866 to 1986. During this time it was the mainstay of Nelson’s heavy industry and its main source of engineering trades skills. The Anchor Foundry was established by Nathaniel Edwards1 who arrived in Nelson in 1845. After a failed attempt to establish a flax dressing mill Edwards joined, in 1856, the mercantile firm of Fell & Seymour as a clerk. In 1857 an agreement was signed for Edwards and George Bennett to take over the company and John Symons joined the partnership. The business was known as N. Edwards & Co. and operated as general merchants, importers and commission and shipping agents. To further its mercantile interests, the company established, in 1866, a shipping branch, and established a workshop near N. Edwards & Co bulk store at Matangi Awhio/Auckland Point.

In 1866 Edwards sold his shares in the mercantile firm to his partners. He retained the shipping department but, by 1870, John Symons had become the sole owner of both the mercantile company and its shipping department and in August of 1870 he changed the name of the shipping division to the Anchor Line of Steam Packets and used a new pennant, designed by the artist William Cock, featuring an anchor. A large new workshop on Wakefield Quay, named “The Anchor Foundry” was in use by 1873. By 1873 the Anchor Foundry was big business. Much of its work was heavy engineering. The foundry maintained and repaired the Anchor Line steamers as well as taking on outside work such as building other steamers, making gold sluicing equipment, cast iron stoves, a locomotive for the Takaka Tramway Company etc..2 The Foundry also serviced Nelson’s largest industries such as Griffin’s confectionery and biscuit factory, S. Kirkpatrick & Company’s jam and canning factory and Baigent Timber Mills, offering fitting and turning, blacksmithing, moulding and casting, boiler making, electric and acetone welding, pattern making, and electrical wiring and installation.

In 1883  the 'Anchor Steam Shipping Co.' was formed, consisting of the Anchor Line proper, a foundry, and a shipyard. The firm grew despite adverse circumstances and was renewed again, as 'Anchor Shipping & Foundry Co.' in 1901. From 1921 on, there was friendly co-operation with the famous Union Steam Ship Co. which had quietly taken over half of the shares in 1908. By 1930 the fleet consisted of sixteen ships.  After World War II trade declined, partly because of competition from ferries and the declining use of coal.

Dorman Engineering. Nelson PhotonewsDorman Engineering. Nelson Photonews Jun 24 1967
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A key figure in the Anchor Foundry was Alexander Brown3 who was its Chief Engineer and subsequent owner. Alexander Brown was born in Rutherglen, near Glasgow, Scotland in 1830. He was Chief Engineer on the Paddle Steamer Lyttlelton which was purchased by N. Edwards & Co in 1862 and he subsequently became the Company’s Chief Engineer. He worked on their vessels until 1866 when he came ashore to establish and supervise the ship repair yard. In 1880 Alexander Brown became a major shareholder in the Anchor Steam Shipping Co, which purchased the shipping and foundry assets from the estate of John Symonds. Brown continued as the Anchor Foundry Manager and in 1901 was appointed a Director and Consulting Engineer to the Anchor Shipping & Foundry Company. He retired as Foundry Manager but retained an active interest until his death in 1913, aged 82.

The sons of Alexander Brown and then grandsons served their engineering apprentices at the Anchor Foundry before going to sea and qualifying as chief engineers. The eldest son, Thomas, was Foundry Manager from 1901 until retirement in 1921 and remained a company director until his death on 26 May 1943. John (Jack) Brown was a seagoing engineer and Assistant Foundry Manager from 1912 until 1915 when he retired for health reasons. Alexander Irvine Brown was a seagoing engineer and Superintending Engineer from 1915 until 1944. He remained a Director until his death in 1962. Thomas Alexander (Alex) Brown, the eldest son of Alexander Brown, like his father and uncles was an engineering apprentice at the Foundry, and was a seagoing engineer until his appointment as Assistant Superintending Engineer in 1938. He remained in this position until his death in 1963. In 1969 the Anchor Shipping and Foundry Company bought the firm of T. Dorman Engineering.

Late in 1973 the Anchor Shipping and Foundry Co was wound up by its owner, the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand. This company, previously holding 88 percent of the Anchor Company shares, bought all the remaining shares (held by the Brown families of the Anchor Company). A new company Anchor Dorman was constituted which took over the administration of the Union Company’s interest in Nelson. Then in 1984 Anchor Dorman was sold to Perry Dines Corporation of New Plymouth. Within two years this company was forced into liquidation. Their buildings were sold to the Nelson Harbour Board and the plant disposed of to buyers from many parts of New Zealand. Such was the financial state of the company that employees who had served Anchor-Dorman for over 30 years received no redundancy payments. Thus came to a very sad end a fine record of over 120 years of marine and heavy engineering services in Nelson and New Zealand”.5 The extensive buildings of the Anchor Foundry along Wakefield Quay were demolished in 2005 and luxury apartments subsequently built. All that remains now are the traditions and skills carried by tradesman into the new marine and heavy industry businesses of the city and the few artefacts which exist in the old buildings and structures of the city. The steps at 15 Richardson Street are one example of these artefacts.

Russell Dicksons's Anchor Foundry Memories

In 1959 I was accepted for a Fitting & Turning Apprenticeship with the Anchor Shipping & Foundry Co. at Port Nelson, a five year or 10,000 hour engagement.

Anchor Foundry building todayGeneral Printing Services Building [once one of the Anchor Shipping & Foundry buildings], built 1927.  A Cat II heritage building. It has been a distillery and stood vacant for many years. Now owned by Nelson City Council. Click image to enlarge

The apprenticeship was to be undertaken at the Anchor Foundry at Port Nelson, which was the base workshop for servicing of the Anchor Company’s six vessel fleet, together with general work for numerous companies in the district. The building was erected in 1907, and was a long narrow building with an exterior cladding of grey corrugated iron. It extended along the waterfront from the power house building to the then Pier Hotel, and was demolished in 2003. Numerous up-market apartments have now been built on the site. Memories of my time spent as an apprentice and the numerous colourful personalities, with whom I was involved, and the incidents that occurred formed a lasting impression on me:

 Jimmy McClaren

One of those personalities was Jimmy McClaren, who worked for the Company all of his life until his death in 1965, aged 79 years. Before attending school Jimmy would light the boiler at the Anchor Foundry to raise steam for the engine which drove the overhead drive shaft to power the large number of machines that were installed. When the 1907 building was opened, the overhead drive shaft extended the full length of the building, and was reputed to be the longest single overhead drive shaft in the southern hemisphere.

Jimmy was the Ship Repair & Survey Foreman, having responsibility for arranging any repairs that were required to the rigging, winches, deck and some of the engine room equipment on the company's vessels. His small workshop base was located opposite the Anchor Foundry on the old Albion Wharf, adjacent to where the company’s Providor store was.

On the foreshore, opposite where the Anchor Foundry was located, could be found the concrete skids (gridiron) where, in earlier years, the vessels requiring a propeller change, or repairs to the hull, would be slipped on the incoming tide and repairs affected when the tide dropped. Jimmy was known to frequently work in water up to his neck during all seasons making these repairs.

During the time that I was at the Anchor Foundry, Jimmy would arrive at work at 7.30am from his Russell Street residence in a taxi and return home at 5.00pm, this at 78 years of age. He would always be seen wearing his trademark distinctive black beret.

port nelson 2Wharves, Port Nelson. Nelson Provincial Museum, F N Jones Collection: 311098. Image shows the Anchor Foundry building.
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I can distinctly remember the wrinkled skin on his forearm and legs, the tattoo’s on his arms being unrecognisable due to age and fading. He usually had an apprentice assisting him when working on the vessels and, if he wanted a certain sized piece of metal for a job that he was on, the conversation would go like this: ‘ What size do you require Jimmy? ‘ his reply would be given in ‘matchbox sizes’ never in conventional measurements! – ‘ Make it around six matchboxes long by two matchboxes wide’ would be the reply, it was usually pretty accurate!

Electric welding requires the use of a specialist welding helmet if your eyes are to be protected from ‘arc-eye,' which can cause temporary blindness and be very painful, but not in Jimmy’s case! He would just line up the welding rod, strike it, squint his eyes and carry on welding with no ill effects!!

Jimmy retired in 1965 due to ill health and was presented with a silver tea service from the company, something that he always wanted. The presentation was made at his home by two long time employee’s B.T. Redditt and R. Millard.  Jimmy died a short time after this presentation, bringing to an end a colourful chapter in the company’s history.

Apprentice Initiations 

All apprentices were subjected to an initiation ceremony called ‘Tubbing’ which involved them being dunked in a large cast iron trough filled with dirty water and covered in black plumbago from the moulding shop. The trough was around two feet high and approx one and a half yards in diameter and was to be found in the company’s rigging yard, which was located on the seaward side of the road opposite the Anchor Foundry. The site is where the Sea Rescue Headquarters are now located.

The apprentice would be grabbed and ‘coerced‘ to accompany the rest of the apprentices and marched to the yard after work on the selected day. He would then be dunked in the tub, clothes and all and grease and plumbago rubbed all over him. This was the initiation ceremony, following which all of the participants retired to the Pier Hotel to continue festivities.

These are just a few of my memories of a most enjoyable period of my younger days when employed by the Anchor Shipping & Foundry Co Ltd. We were given a very good grounding in trade skills, learnt about life in general and met some personalities who would make a lasting impression on a young mind.

March 2014 (updated 2022)

Sources used in this story

  1. Lash, M. D. (1992). Nelson Notables 1840 – 1940: A dictionary of regional biography. Nelson, New Zealand: Nelson Historical Society, p.53
  2. Win, P. W. (2009). The Anchor Foundry, a history: And the maritime structures of colonial Nelson; the early steamers; ships of the anchor line; the Thomson Brothers, marine engineers. Nelson [N.Z.]: P. Win, pp.11-18
  3. Lash, p.29
  4. Win, p.34
  5. Win, p.34

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  • Do you have a copy of Alexander Brown birth certificate born in Rutherglen,
    Lanarkshire, Scotland. Ed - we don't. I will contact you re likely sources

    Posted by Margaret Brown, 24/04/2017 4:50pm (7 years ago)

  • I was "Sales Manager, Under Bill Butters for approx. 5 years..During that period the company designed and sold several "Conporter" trailers...
    I have in my possession, the Manufacturers name plate (PR/1001),that I was able to "rescue" from that particular trailer, here in Australia, where I have resided for many years... If you are interested, I would be happy to post the aluminium name plate back to N.Z. if I was given the appropriate address. I would carry the cost of same myself.Please advise as to where to forward this "historic" article.. Sincerely, Bob Buckeridge...Queensland, Australia..Ed. I will forward your post to the Nelson Provincial Museum

    Posted by Robert Buckeridge, 18/08/2016 7:15pm (8 years ago)

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