A Nelson brewing family


The story of the Duncans and the Founders Brewery

Breweries were among the earliest businesses established after the settlement of Nelson began in 1842. Poalo and Pelham were the first, in October 1843, quickly followed by Hooper & Co. on the corner of Hardy and Tasman Streets. Poalo and Pelham lasted only a few months and their Nelson Brewery trading name was later taken by Hooper & Co.. It was in this company that the seeds for Founders Brewery were sown.1

familybrewingtree.jpgFamily Brewing Tree
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Mayor-Dodson.jpgJ R Dodson, Mayor The Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection: 32005
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Joseph Dodson was a clever English businessman who, within days of arriving in Nelson in 1854, bought into Hooper & Co.. A year later he helped set up the Raglan Brewery and then leased the Bridge Street Brewery from Charles Harley.2 Could he have imagined the family tradition that he was beginning?

Maitai hop gardens of Hooper Dodson the brewers

J.C. Hoyte (Circa 1833-1912). The Maitai hop gardens of Hooper & Dodson the brewers, circa 1870. Nelson Provincial Museum, Bett Loan Collection: AC835

Joseph had an eye for opportunities though and, after just four years, sold his shares in the breweries to return to England and buy farm equipment. Bringing this back to Nelson, he established a warehouse in Hardy Street and began selling to the settlers who were carving a life out of the Nelson countryside. With his warehouse established, he bought back into the Hooper & Co brewery.2

Dodson beer bottle

Dodson brewery beer bottle, retrieved from a Marlborough Sounds dive 2019. Wayne Stronach

Thirsty settlers from the beer drinking countries of England and Germany were joined in the mid 1850s by gold miners - providing a steady demand for beer. Hooper & Co. grew rapidly, refining their techniques and winning many awards in local and colonial exhibitions. Joseph Dodson also found time to become the first mayor of Nelson in 1874.3

Henry Dodson joined his father in brewing in 1879 and after George Hooper's death they changed the company name to J.R. Dodson and Son. By now the company had grown to include malting, hop growing, bottling and coke burning (producing coke from coal to fire the kilns during the malting process).

Henry Duncan, son of Joseph Dodson's daughter Mary-Ann, joined his uncle and grandfather in 1888. He subsequently studied brewing in Great Britain, Denmark and Germany. When Joseph Dodson died in 1890, Henry Duncan and Henry Dodson continued to run the firm until Henry Dodson's early death in 1894.

The last years of the 19th century were difficult ones for breweries, with many going to the wall. J.R. Dodson & Son though was well established, with a large hop garden along Nile Street East and their own kiln, thereby controlling most of their processes.2

Henry Duncan had inherited his grandfather's business sense, and in 1901 bought the entire company and began an extensive upgrade. He also took on his cousin Harry Dodson, and expanded into aerated waters and cordials. Not content, he also purchased an orchard at Tasman and a farm on D'Urville Island and found time to participate in several sports and become chairman, patron or president of a number of organisations.4 Then in 1910 he bought the Lukins' limeworks on Rocks Road, where Guard's Sea Services now stands (237 Haven Road).5

Henry's sons, Richard (Dick) Duncan and Sholto Duncan became partners in 1937, along with Harry Dodson. The family began to focus on the malting process and were soon supplying malt to breweries around New Zealand. Dick and Sholto were both on military service in Europe when their father died in 1942. By then, the company owned nine hotels: Customhouse, Pier, Central, Royal, Tasman, Prince Albert, Commercial, Brightwater and Star & Garter.4 In 1944, with the equipment ageing, the beer was sent to Harley & Sons for bottling. Rising costs after the war saw the brewery close to bankruptcy so the Duncan family's Nelson Brewery was merged with the Harley family's Raglan Brewery on Trafalgar Square. The new business was renamed Nelson Breweries Ltd.6

Brewery2.jpgBrewery early 1900s and today
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Dick and Sholto Duncan married Beatrice and Sheila Lucas respectively - descendants of Robert Lucas who had founded the Nelson Evening Mail in 1866. Sholto Duncan died tragically in an air crash in 1953, after which Dick Duncan continued to run the business with J.A. (Auty) Harley.6

Sholto's sons Nick Duncan and John Duncan both worked in the brewery with their uncle after school and during holidays. Nick completed a food technology degree on leaving school, before returning to the family business. After studying microbiology, John joined Penfolds Wines as a technician.6 Meanwhile, as the last remaining brewery in Nelson, Nelson Breweries was faced with the prospect of massive capital investment to modernise. The outlay was deemed unviable, and the business was sold to Dominion Breweries in 1969.2 D.B. promptly closed the brewery and the Rutherford Hotel now stands on the site.

With the sale, Nick Duncan transferred to Dominion Breweries and trained as a brewer, working first in Auckland, then Mangatainoka, Greymouth and Timaru.

Meanwhile, John had left Penfolds and worked a number of jobs, always visiting Nick at his postings around the country. Beer was always part of family conversations during these visits and it was a fateful coincidence that McCashin's Brewery was looking for a maltster and brewer when John decided to move with his family back to Nelson in 1986. It was to prove a homecoming in more ways than one. During the ensuing twelve years a desire grew in John to rekindle the family tradition, so with his wife Carol he set out to establish a new Duncan family brewery.

DuncanHouse2.jpgDuncan House in 1941 and today at Founders Park
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Nelson City Council had recently taken control of Founders Heritage Park and was looking for small businesses that fitted the theme. With his grandfather Henry Duncan's house already on site, and his mother's family represented by the Nelson Mail building, the location for the new brewery materialised. Founders Organic Brewery was established in 1999.6

Like their father before them, Matt Duncan and Callum Duncan worked in the brewery after school and during holidays. On leaving school Callum began working full-time in the brewery and Matt completed a history degree before returning to join John and Callum. Collaboration between John Duncan and Crop & Food Research in Christchurch saw the introduction of a modern brewing apprenticeship scheme, with Matt and Callum Duncan becoming the first graduates and the sixth generation of family brewers in Nelson.6

While society and technology have changed greatly since Matt and Callum's great-great-great grandfather began brewing beer, the process has not. Beer is still made by soaking malt (barley that has been sprouted and kiln dried) in water, boiling the strained liquid with hops to add bitterness and flavour, then adding yeast and leaving to ferment.

In 2011, John and Carol Duncan decided to sell the Brewery and Cafe, after 11 years of working 7 days a week. The cafe has found new owners and continues to run, but the Brewery is now closed.7

2010 (updated August 2020)

Sources used in this story

  1. Packer, R. (1996) The history of Nelson's early manufacturers, their wares and containers. [Nelson, N.Z.] : R.V. Packer
  2. Dodson, A. (1979) A history of J R Dodson & Son & other brewers of Nelson - essay, typescript copy
  3. Ex -Mayors. In The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Nelson, Marlborough & Westland Provincial Districts] 
  4. H R Duncan Obituary, supplied by John Duncan
  5. Slack, S. (2009) James Lukin and the Lime-kiln on Haven Road. Nelson Historical Society Journal, 7(1), pp.53-54
  6. Duncan, John (2010) - personal comments
  7. Kidson, S (2011, June 13) Award-winning organic beer brewery on market. Nelson Mail on Stuff: 

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  • I notice the picture of J R Dodson as Mayor of Nelson at the top of the page gives his name as "Dobson".I came to this page to research the "J. R. Dodson" bottle I found in the mud of an access track in Pelorus Sound today. It is the same as that pictured on this site. Ed. Thank you corrected.

    Posted by James KingTurner , 14/08/2020 3:22pm (4 years ago)

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