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Backbone of New Zealand’s history preserved in the Waikato

Backbone of New Zealand’s history preserved in the Waikato V2

A Waikato family is preserving New Zealand’s history with their passion for a historical site in Matangi.

The Matangi factory has bred multiple successful companies and revolutionary inventions in the dairy industry since the site was established in 1885.

That history has been unveiled by Harry Mowbray and his son Andrew since the family first purchased the site in 2003.

When they first bought the nine-acre site, now extended to 12 acres, a demolition company offered to have one of the buildings - the Glaxo factory - demolished and another brand-new building of a near similar size built at nearly no cost, all for the value of the native Kauri and heart Rimu timber contained in the building. However, demolishing the site was never the Mowbray’s intention.

“I don’t think you ever look at buying a place like this to try and make money out of,” Andrew said.

“It’s more a case of having to have some sort of desire to actually preserve an incredibly important part of the Waikato’s history, and also New Zealand’s.”

After purchasing the Matangi Dairy Factory, one of the first things they found were the original drawings of the site stuffed inside a bunch of old rubbish bags. They were drawn on handmade paper with Indian ink and coloured in with watercolour, as well as silk paper overlay drawings which were drawn by some of New Zealand’s influential period architects including Frederick Daniels, Ewen Christie and Philip King.

The original factory building built on the site was a creamery in 1885. It supplied cream to the Waikato’s first butter factory run by Henry Reynolds a British colonist who sported an anchor tattoo on his upper arm, this tattoo was to become the image used in his brand Anchor butter and still remains today. Reynolds then sold his interests in dairying to the New Zealand Dairy Association (NZDA) including the anchor brand in 1896.

Andrew said the fifth factory built on the Matangi site was a collaboration between the NZDA and a company from Bunnythorpe called Glaxo. The Glaxo building as it was known, was the largest and most technologically advanced dairy factory in the world, and it had quite the fanfare when it opened in 1919, with people coming from all over New Zealand and even travelling by boat from the United Kingdom for the opening by then Prime Minister William Massey.

Joseph Nathan, the founder of Glaxo, revolutionised drying milk powder. Originally milk was dried by directly heating a drum, but this lead to hot spots which would burn the milk and the yield was very low. So instead, Nathan designed a process that used steam and rollers which completely transformed the way that dried milk powder was created, and yield was massively increased as were process efficiencies. Nathan wanted to move to the heart of the dairying country in the Waikato and the collaboration at Matangi with the NZDA was the first purpose-built Glaxo Dairy Factory.  

Andrew said Nathan was a pioneer of direct marketing as he wanted to sell Glaxo baby formula. Staff would search through birth notices in the newspaper and then send out cans of the formula to new mothers telling them about the product and providing a sample of the supplement often advising that it was better than breast milk. The Glaxo slogan ‘Glaxo Builds Bonnie Babies’ and ‘Glaxo Babies’ was well-known by New Zealanders at the time.

“Glaxo is now GlaxoSmithKline, the sixth largest pharmaceutical company in the world as of 2015, and the NZDA is now Fonterra, the largest dairy consortium in the world,” Andrew said.

“Two of the biggest companies in their industry in the world, which are the two of the largest companies to ever come out of New Zealand, and this is where they started.”

Another invention linked to Matangi Factory was when William Sim, an engineer in the W.T. Murray & Co. Ltd Underwood plant invented an “automatic contrivance” machine used for capping cans without the use of solder at an impressive rate exceeding 60 cans per minute. By 1913, the “Sims capping machine” was capable of capping over 17,000 cans per day and it’s still the same process used today.

Sim decided that instead of sealing the top of tins with lead, he used a dye and as the dye came in, it rolled the top of the can over the lid, so they stabbed the lids out and left the lip on which rolled the edge of the can over on top of the lid. As a result, the can crushed in and sealed itself, so you never had to use lead again.

The Matangi factory site was also the first dairy factory in the world to use milk tankers – a move that would introduce huge efficiencies into milk transport and allow for the development of today’s giant dairy plants. This was a major turning point for the New Zealand dairy industry. The research facility at Matangi was the first site to dry goat’s milk, make flavoured milk products and was instrumental in the development of technical rennet casein.

“New Zealand is a country that is built on agriculture and the backbone of agriculture in New Zealand is the dairying industry. We have always been a global leader and at the very forefront of global dairying,” Andrew said.

Historical inventions and discoveries aside, the buildings themselves are a huge part of New Zealand history right here in the mighty Waikato with one being one of the first poured concrete buildings in the country and the rest of the buildings still have their original construction, full of native Kauri and Rimu timber.

So far, the Mowbray’s have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars repairing the buildings, restoring power and telecommunications and bringing them up to a tenantable level.

Part of the reasoning behind tirelessly researching the site’s extensive history and writing an 80-page document about it, was to try and get funding from the Historical Places Trust.

Some of the building’s windows had been cinder blocked up, so the windows were built back to pane windows with the same layout of the original architectural drawings. Roofs had collapsed, many building leaked and had trees growing inside them, walls of buildings had been significantly damaged by heavy machinery and the site was in a very poor state. Since the Mowbray’s purchased the site it has been developed significantly and is nearly at full occupancy by tenants.

Andrew says it felt as though there were many expensive obstacles and requirements to overcome, but the passion to restore the site keeps driving it forward.

“It’s hard to own an old building in New Zealand. The extra costs involved in owning a historical site is staggering. The money that we’ve put in to this place would build the buildings that we’ve got onsite three times over. But that’s not what we wanted to do; we wanted to preserve it rather than demolish and rebuild,” Andrew said.

“At the end of the day it is what it is, and you do what you do because you’ve got a passion for it.”

The Matangi site is a family-run business, with everyone pitching in and working together – everyone plays their part.

Andrew said the family has a real drive to head towards getting the site to become a boutique commercial hub.

They’ve just had drawings done to convert one of the towers into offices. alongside the other 21 tenancies already operating on site such as a boat building company, high-end builders, education centre, furniture builders and soon, a brewery. As well as Andrew’s own business AWOP, a cashless payment system solution via wristbands for events and festivals such as Rhythm and Vines.

Andrew is also considering turning one of the building spaces into a restaurant and bar.

The Mowbray’s have tried to bring back some additional historical elements to the site by purchasing one of the original milk tanker trailers and an old S-Bedford, which was one of the first tankers that delivered milk to the Matangi factory.

Currently, they’re trying to procure an old railway station because there was originally an old railway station at the Matangi site. They already have one of the site’s original railway cottages, which has been fully restored and tenanted.

Andrew said it is important to the Mowbray family to ensure the Waikato has that history preserved so it’s there for future generations to learn about and appreciate.

“The reality is this factory building is highly significant to New Zealand’s history for aesthetic, architectural, cultural, scientific, technological, and economic reasons. Nevertheless, it is going to be a very costly project and from a historical point of view it is clearly justified.

“We need to ensure national treasures such as this are not destroyed for short-term gain.” 

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