Guinness comes to the Top of the South


The renowned Irish Guinness family and their equally famous stout have a strong connection to the Nelson, Tasman, and Golden Bay regions, dating back to the 1850s. The links were discovered by Tauranga historian Rod Smith during the research for his book published 2018 – “Guinness Down Under: the famous brew and the family come to Australia and New Zealand”.

Frank Guiness - Provincial Councillor earned "quarrelsome" reputation. 

Frank Guinness, a grandson of the famous Dublin brewer, had a brief time on the Nelson Provincial Council, but it was long enough to earn himself an unenviable reputation. 

1 Frank Guinness Nelson Provincial Councillor and Resident Magistrate Collingwood
Frank Guinness. Image supplied by Campbell Ford, NSW.

Frank Guinness – his full name was Francis Hart Vicesimus Guinness - left Ireland for India when he was eighteen. He worked for indigo manufacturers, eventually marrying Catherine Richardson whose father ran an indigo business in east Bengal.  Frank, Catherine and family came to New Zealand in 1852 and lived in Canterbury and the West Coast. He moved to New Zealand at the suggestion of his cousin Michael John Burke, an early Canterbury pastoralist and the first European to find Burke’s Pass through to the McKenzie country. Burke also gave employment to Frank, having him work as a cadet on his station at Halswell near Christchurch.

 Michael Burke jnr in Dublin later to farm in Upper Moutere
Michael Burke. Image supplied by Susan Freund, Tasmania.

Frank had a varied working life – unsuccessful farmer, horse trader, policeman, and court official, ending up in Ahaura in 1871 where he developed a business as an auctioneer, land agent and stock dealer.  Guinness was involved in local body affairs and in 1872 when the Grey Valley representative on the Nelson Provincial Council retired, he won the by-election.  The following year he was re-elected and in 1874 he came to Nelson as a man on a mission.

The provincial superintendent Oswald Curtis had promised that the new executive committee would have some fresh progressive thinking and some new members.  Guinness had let it be known that he would be willing to serve on the executive but whilst there were new members elevated, he was passed over. Whether that rejection was the motivation for his next move is not known, but his first action in the new sitting was to try (unsuccessfully) to introduce a measure to curtail the power of the executive, a move noted in the Nelson Evening Mail as the work of one who had already shown a “quarrelsome disposition”. 

Barely a fortnight later fate took a hand and gave Curtis an opportunity to remove Guinness in the nicest possible way, and with a good measure of prestige. The resident magistrate at Collingwood, Dr. H W Turnell, drowned whilst riding his horse across the flooded Tākaka River and Curtis offered the post to Guinness, which he accepted. After seven eventful years on the West Coast he was on the move again to a region that had an even longer history of gold mining – since 1856 – and was even touted at one stage as a possible capital for New Zealand.  

Being the resident magistrate in an isolated area of the country in those times was only one part of the post. Guinness was also the warden for mining matters, the registrar of electors and returning officer, coast-watcher, shipping officer, postmaster, and the registrar of births, deaths, and marriages with the fees forming part of his pay. Later on he was appointed public vaccinator as part of a government programme to combat smallpox, judge of the rates assessment court, an authorised collector for the Indian Famine Relief fund, and a person licensed to kill hare, pheasants, and quails under the Protection of Animals Act.  So how much of a workload did all this add up to? The bustling days of the goldrush in the 1850s were well gone. Collingwood itself had about 30 residents, with more scattered in the surrounding region, and mail came once a week by boat from Nelson. 

Within three months of taking office Guinness prepared an assessment of his position at Collingwood for the Provincial Government.  He praised the resources of the district and echoed his regular plea from the West Coast that greater effort be made to improve the roads which would greatly increase development, asked for assistance to help him with his workload, and gave a scathing attack on the Collingwood Police constable who was “useless” and had turned the lock-up into accommodation for his married daughter.2

As warden of the mining court Guinness was in a privileged position dealing with applications from gold mining companies, and at the same time he was keen to join the quest for the elusive ore himself.  His solution was to install family members as principals of mining companies in which he had holdings  – Excelsior Quartz and Shamrock -  hopefully to show he was managing carefully his potentially conflicting interests.  His efforts, sadly, came to nothing. Both companies folded without ever striking it rich.3

Frank Guinness was transferred to be the magistrate at Ashburton in 1879 and then the following year was transferred back to Collingwood.  In 1881 he resigned and moved back to Greymouth to stand for election to Parliament, a move which he lost.  Unemployed, he returned to Christchurch where he took up his old work of commission agent, stock dealer, and auctioneer. Politically, however, Guinness was about to make his mark.  No longer under the restraints of being a public servant, or accountable to his electors, and apparently with an adequate income, Frank was able to give free rein to his ideals, and in his final ten years he would become an activist for the working class and unemployed, the elderly white-bearded radical of Christchurch. He died in 1891 aged 72.

The Guinness' eldest son, Sir Arthur Guinness, followed his father into politics, serving as the MP for Greymouth for 29 years from 1884-1913, and for ten years as Speaker of the House from 1903-13.

The Burkes come to Nelson

Frank Guinness’ cousin Michael John Burke (see above) became a prosperous Canterbury sheep farmer, but died young aged 57 in 1869, leaving a widow Maria 27 years his junior and a young family of two sons and one daughter.   The elder son Jack eventually farmed in north Canterbury but moved to Upper Moutere in the early 1900s and broke in a block with a rather unconventional approach.  He planted gorse on the slopes, burned the bushes, and fattened sheep on the regrowing gorse.  One observer couldn’t abide the sooty sheep, but Burke explained he was growing them for their meat not wool so wasn’t worried about their appearance.4

Maria Burke her house in Nelson and her family line have both disappeared
Maria Burke. Image supplied by Susan Freund, Tasmania.

After her family grew up, Maria Burke travelled overseas and eventually returned to live the last 15 years of her life in a small cottage in Ngatiawa Street, Nelson.  The cottage is long gone and the section merged with one of its neighbours.  Her house and the Burke family line have disappeared.  Michael and Maria’s ten grandchildren all died without marrying, five boys killed or crippled in war. Their youngest grand-daughter Marguerite spent her later years in a Nelson rest home.  She made a name for herself at one point embarking on a sea voyage to England – without a ticket it seems, effectively a stowaway.  When the vessel arrived she had no idea what she was going to do and was kept in a rest home in England until she could be taken back to New Zealand. 

Nelson - the first NZ settlement for Guinness imports

The famous Irish brewer Arthur Guinness started his Dublin brewery in 1759 but high tariffs meant it was over 40 years before he could establish a presence in England. Then in the early 1800s occasional shipments reached the Caribbean, Africa, and the United States of America.  The earliest recorded shipment for Australia is 1836.   The brewery arranged exports itself for a time, but then in the mid-1800s sold bulk product to newly-established bottling companies which developed the overseas markets.  The largest of those was the business of Edward and John Burke, grandsons of Arthur Guinness, who eventually had over 200 agencies world-wide, including Australia and New Zealand.  They prospered for many years but in 1950 Guinness absorbed bottling and export back into its own organisation. 

Edward and John Burke of Dublin exported to all parts of the British Empire
Guinness Stout. Image supplied by Margaret Jamieson, Masterton.

The first advertised availability of Guinness in New Zealand was through Nelson importer William Beit at his Auckland Point store, in April 1851.5  William was a son of John Beit, leader of the German adventurers who came to Nelson on the St. Pauli in 1843.  John fell out with the New Zealand Company and his fellow settlers in Nelson and moved with his family to Sydney. Son William eventually owned a cattle station in Queensland, continuing the family trait of arguing, this time with the land registration authorities.  He eventually became a wealthy man and died at sea on a voyage returning to Australia, in 1872, just before the arrival of his unborn son who inherited a considerable estate.6

According to newspaper records ten years were to elapse after that first shipment of Guinness. In the 1860s further imports were organised by merchants Henry Baly, James Bentley, and J Levien.  Another Guinness historian (David Hughes, author of “A Bottle of Guinness Please”) describes the export trade of Bass and Guinness in the 1800s as a great success, those two beers far outstripping all others in the market at the time.

A political deal with satisfaction all round - happy times for Motueka hop growers

One of the all-time political juggling acts which benefited Motueka hop growers  occurred in 1934. Prime Minister Gordon Coates wanted to help the region’s hop growers by encouraging the famous Dublin brewery Guinness to buy more of the New Zealand crop, a surplus which the growers could plan for and not risk going to waste.  Guinness told the government they would only buy the hops if duty on their stout imports to New Zealand was decreased.  To do that the government risked the wrath of local brewers, so proposed a decrease of duty on their product too.  The decrease was so small it would be miniscule when built into the price of a glass of beer – so small a new coin would have been needed – but significant enough to improve the brewers’ annual bottom line. 

The Labour Opposition was outraged at these moves on behalf of brewers, saying they would only give their support if the Government restored a cut in pensions they had imposed earlier in the year.7

Hops being loaded in Nelson
Hops bring loaded in Nelson. Image supplied by William Harvey, Dublin.

The government agreed and set off a chain of goodwill which modern day politicians would envy. Pensioners were happy. Local brewers had a windfall.  Guinness sold stout into the New Zealand market pleasing their devoted customers, and Tasman hop growers were happy to have a buyer for their crop. The only people to miss out were the drinkers of local beer who saw nothing of the reduction in duty imposed on local brewers.

A similar hops-for-imports arrangement was negotiated in 1959 when the outgoing Labour government and then the newly elected Prime Minister Keith Holyoake negotiated hops purchases by Guinness in return for import access for the famous stout. 8

2019 (updated 2022)

Sources used in this story

  1. Nelson Evening Mail, Nelson, 28 January 1874
  2. Nelson Evening Mail, Nelson,  12 May 1874
  3. Nelson Colonist, Nelson, 2 February 1878
  4. “Minchin Notes”, Matilda Minchin, Canada, 1928
  5. Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle, Nelson, 12 April 1851
  6. Australian Dictionary of Biography:  2965
  7. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 14 September 1934
  8. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 18 September 1959

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Further sources - Guinness comes to the Top of the South


  • Acland, L G D, The Early Canterbury Runs, 4th edition, revised by W H Scotter, Whitcoulls, Christchurch 1975
  •  Hughes, David, A Bottle of Guinness Please: The Colourful History of Guinness, Phimboy, Berkshire,  2006 
  • Lynch, Patrick, and John Vaizey, Guinness’s Brewery in the Irish Economy 1759-1876, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1960
  • Macdonald, G R, Dictionary of Canterbury Biographies, Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, 1964
  • Minchin, Matilda, “Minchin Notes”, Brantford, Ontario, Canada, 1928
  • Smith, R. (2018) Guinness Down Under: the famous brew and the family come to Australia and New Zealand. Tauranga, New Zealand : Eyeglass Press Ltd



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