Brown Barrett's Cannery in Picton


With the outbreak of War in 1939, there was an urgent need for all primary produce and to introduce more products for home consumption and export. The Auckland-based Brown Barrett Company established a cannery in Picton to take advantage of the plentiful supply of pilchards in Queen Charlotte Sound and adjacent waters, the same small fish which brought the Perano family to the area many years earlier.

Brown Barretts Cannery in Picton 7815 1

Brown Barretts Cannery in Picton. Marlborough Historical Society Inc.

The cannery was set up in the shed and grounds adjacent to the Holy Trinity Church in Devon Street. The equipment was very basic, an assembly of whatever could be located or made in the country. The cans were produced in Wellington, packed in boxes in which the canned product was eventually shipped from the works, and delivered to Picton by the Tamahine.

Once a canning line is established, the equipment can be used to can many products, and Brown Barretts encouraged farmers in the Wairau Valley to grow vegetables or fruit to supply the cannery, but only tomatoes were available at first. It is not certain when the cannery started; it is unlikely to have been earlier than the beginning of 1942. When there was a fall in the volume of the pilchard catches, other fish were tried, including eels from Lake Ellesmere (marketed as Kai Tuna) and shoal barracouta, sold as deep sea pike. All manner of New Zealand fish, including oysters and paua, were tried, and permission was obtained to trial both salmon and trout.

Fish pie using local cod, potato and various spices was canned but never got past the first ‘tasting.’ About 1946 the sale of frozen crayfish tails to America became wildly successful. Trial runs of canned whale meat for human consumption was made about 1948: a 45-ton humpback whale produced 5 tons of relatively light-coloured meat. At the cannery the meat was processed into suitable pieces for hand filling into cans, which were then topped up with brine producing a corned meat product. An alternative product was created by adding a small amount of onion oil to the can which then sold as corned whale steak and onion.

Brown Barretts Cannery in Picton 7817

Brown Barretts Cannery in Picton. Marlborough Historical Society Inc.

The factory was losing up to 10% at the works, but the loss of product was a staggering 40% of the whale meat on inspection at arrival in the UK. The overall loss was catastrophic, but not picked up until the consignment arrived in the UK. By the time the factory commenced the 1950 whale meat run, production losses were well within acceptable limits, but the whale meat market had been lost. In the end the only profitable line was the frozen crayfish tails and that did not warrant retaining the factory, particularly as Nelson Fisheries had established a factory in Picton.

About 1954, the old canning works property was taken over by the J. A. Perano Company who, in conjunction with Crown Chemicals of Sydney, set up a works to produce whale oil products.


This story was originally published in the Seaport News (Picton). Updated August 2020

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  • 1954 sounds about right as far as teeing with when Brown Barrett decided to wind down the business in entirety, which I'd guessed was around 1955-1956. The issues with the canning, combined with successive fires at the Auckland premises, and laws around banking being modified at the time, meant the end of a very long tenure as a foodstuffs producer. Quite likely if one or two of the other things hadn't happened during that period, they would have survived the seafood canning disaster and gone on for another decade or two.

    Posted by Darian Zam , 19/05/2019 10:11pm (5 years ago)

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