Stoke Freezing Works


The first shipment of frozen meat left New Zealand for the United Kingdom on the ‘Dunedin' in 1882, with the first works established at Burnside, Dunedin. The Nelson Freezing Company was registered in March 1908 and Stoke was chosen as the most suitable site, as it was near a main road and railway, had a water supply and sufficient land for the buildings and holding paddocks for the stock.1

The official opening took place on Monday 1st March, 1909 and the first shipment of meat (14,000 sheep carcasses) was dispatched from Port Nelson by the ‘Rakaia' on 19th April. The Rakaia was the first ocean liner to enter Nelson Harbour via the newly made Cut between Haulashore Island and the Boulder Bank. The Nelson Evening Mail reported that ‘the advent into Nelson harbour of the ‘Rakaia' marks an important stage in the progress of the city and district towards breaking through the isolation that has been their greatest hindrance'.2

Up until 1915 only sheep and lambs were killed but, in 1916, cattle began to be processed and an enlargement to the Works was carried out. This meant an increase in butchers and cold storage areas.3

Stoke Freezing Works, Nelson Photo News, 1964. Click image to enlarge

Processing of pigs began in 1923 and, from 1925, calves. By 1937 the Company required more land than the 25 acres it had started out with and they purchased another 17 acres adjacent to the property and a further 20 acres in 1944. By the late 1950s the Stoke Freezing Works comprised 64 acres on which stood the works, offices, storehouses and four dwellings.

Water supply had always been inadequate. Attempts had been made to supply water by boring but were unsuccessful and, with increased production, it became vital. In 1945 the works were connected to the Roding Scheme which meant that skins could be treated at the Works instead of being sent to Wellington, saving a lot of time and expense.

During World War 2 the Company struggled with a shortage of manpower and wartime controls, however meat plants were classified as essential industries which enabled them to keep butchers under "manpower" provisions.

The Nelson Freezing Company was one of the first companies in New Zealand to introduce the quick-freeze method of dealing with meat carcasses. Introduced in 1951 it sped up production time and was very successful for handling export lamb.4

The availability of Cobb power in 1944 allowed the Works to be electrified.

On 13th December, 1955 a fire broke out in the boiler room doing considerable damage, however a ship was already in Port Nelson half loaded with a consignment of export lamb. By working through the night, another 10,500 carcasses were transported to the Port. Repairs to the buildings began immediately and in the end the Works lost only 7-8 killing days.

In addition to meat processing the Stoke plant handled fruit for the Apple and Pear Board, as it had facilities to accommodate a large number of cases of fruit, which were accommodated in the cold storage areas.

By-products of the Works also became an asset to the Company. Bales of wool, tallow for soap manufacture, and sheep and lamb pelts for further processing by tanners for leather goods are some examples. Blood and bone was also produced for fertilisers.

The livestock were supplied from a wide area at the top of the South Island - from Collingwood to Murchison and the Whangamoa. Until the railway was closed in Nelson in 1955, stock was transported by train to Stoke from Glenhope (the end of the line). At the Stoke end, draught horses pulled wagons the final few hundred metres from the sidings into the yards. After 1955 the Nelson Freezing Company was the only one in New Zealand that transported all of its products by road.

Meat processing workers 1965Meat processing workers 1965. Nelson Photo News. Click image to enlarge

The Stoke Freezing Works provided year round employment and it had a good reputation as a place to work. Workers would play cricket in the sheep paddocks and catch herrings and flounders out the back of the plant during the lunch hours.In the mid 1980s the plant even had a heated swimming pool installed when a tank became redundant. There were occupational risks for butchers, however with exposure to leptospirosis but only one worker developed tuberculosis in the 1950s.

Major fire averted 1967. Nelson Photo News
Click image to enlarge

In 1967 another fire broke out in a temporary storeroom at the Nelson Freezing Company's works. The fire burned out a changing room and caused moderate damage to the interior.

By the 1970s there were major changes to hygiene standards. Smoking was banned and ear muffs, white clothing and gumboots were introduced. Knives had to be kept clean in hot water and a hand washing machine was installed. In 1974 Waitaki Industries Ltd took over the Nelson Freezing Company and more diversification took place. Berry fruit was stored in the cool stores as well as hops, cheese, fish and pine seedlings. The supervising veterinarian from 1965 to 1984, Rien van der Wouden introduced the production of garden compost, using the animal droppings from the yards mixed with sawdust, and this was very popular.

The Stoke works were the first to use a pelting machine invented in New Zealand which was installed in 1981. Previously butchers had had to remove pelts manually, so it made a big impact on productivity.

In 1985 the Company name changed to Waitaki International Ltd and, in 1990, Alliance Group took over the South Island operations.  Commercial fish meal began to be processed on behalf of Sealord Products Ltd from hoki offal in 1991. This lead to smell complaints from the public6 and the installation of a biofilter to control the odour in 1998.

By the 1990s the Nelson plant was nearing the end of its life. Although it had achieved a 500,000 sheep kill in 1992, the buildings were old and expensive to run and maintain. In April 2000 construction began on a new plant at Stoke at a cost of $9 million. By October the new high-tech sheep and lamb plant was in operation. Shift work was introduced allowing for two shifts and more sheep processing. The ‘freezing works' changed into a food factory producing selected portion-sized chilled lamb cuts to the specific orders of customers.7 With the closure of the rendering plant and fellmongery  there was an end to the frequent ‘pong' that reached the nostrils of anyone near the plant.8 

The Nelson meat plant at Stoke is one of the oldest and largest continuous employers in Nelson and a major contributor to the economy. During peak production the works carries 220 staff. In former times there were up to 400 staff processing beef and pigs at the site, but today the plant processes mainly sheep and lambs and bobby calves in winter from Ashburton north and sometimes animals from north of Wellington. The meat is then shipped to North America, Europe and Scandinavia. 


Sources used in this story

  1. Parrott, A. (1959) The first fifty years : a history of the Nelson Freezing Company Limited, Nelson, N.Z .: Nelson Freezing Co, p.16
  2. Parrot, p.24
  3. Capacity enlarged (1916, January 19) Colonist
  4. Parrot, p.33
  5. Moffet, G. (2009) Meat & mateship :100 years of the Nelson works, Invercargill, N.Z.: Alliance Group Ltd, p.30
  6. Smell angers residents (1997, August 7) Nelson Mail , p.3
  7. Parrot, p.57
  8. Neal, T (2009, March 14) A century of men and meat. Nelson Mail, p.11

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