Sunday, August 23, 2009

The New Lynn Poudrette Factory

The first time I came across references to the New Lynn poudrette factory was while I was gathering information for the book Heart of the Whau, back in 2001. The minutes of the Avondale Road Board document the rising disquiet in Avondale, early in 1889, when the setting up of the factory looked like it was going to go ahead – and the factory’s smelly supply was to pass through Avondale along its roads …

What was poudrette, anyway?

Poudrette, as an end result of a means of processing raw human sewage, seems to have originated as early as the 1840s in France.

“ … a sum of money was voted by the municipality for the execution of trial works for the application of liquefied town manure to the cultivation of various species of plants. The manure was taken from the " depotoir," a general receptacle of the contents of cess-pools brought by carts, and from that receptacle the greater part is conveyed to an establishment in the Forest of Bondy, where it is chiefly desiccated, and made into " poudrette," for sale in the solid form as manure.”
(Southern Cross, 2 October 1857)


Initially, the French factory at Montfaucon processed only the solid part of the nightsoil, draining the liquid bi-products directly into the River Seine – until it was realised that urine was just as valuable as a source of sulphate of ammonia, increasing the value of the factory’s production. ("A Muck Manual for Farmers", Samuel L. Dana, New York, 1856, from Google Books)

By the 1870s, the French idea of nightsoil disposal was seen here in the Australasian colonies as an ideal way around the difficulties of coping with what everyone produced, but no one wanted anywhere near them.

“The City Council may learn something to their financial advantage in the recent proceedings of the Municipal Council of Paris, where money is scarce, and local ingenuity is exercised to derive additional revenue from all local force. For a long period the French Poudrette Company held the right of utilising all the nightsoil of Paris for a payment of half a million francs annually. The contract of the company has just expired, and an English association has stepped forward and concluded an arrangement with the Paris Council for the same privilege for three million francs annually. This company considers that at this price it has made a fine speculation, and promises its shareholders a net annual profit of one million francs. The modus operandi is to convey the nightsoil of the French metropolis in hermetically sealed receptacles to the forest of Bondy, where it is mixed with charcoal, dried peat and thus converted into poudrette, or manure powder. In this state it fetches two francs per bushel; converted into sulphate of ammonia, the compound, with 21 percentage of azote guaranteed, is sold for thirty francs per cwt. It is sold also in a liquid state, realising from one to two francs per cubic yard, according to the distance it is conveyed. Here are solid advantages from municipal government. The burgesses of Pans save three million francs per year in taxation, and the agricultural lands of the country are nourished at a minimum cost.”
(Southern Cross, 11 October 1872)

The Australians took on the idea in the 1870s.

“The Melbourne Age gives the following account of a recent invention patented in Victoria for utilizing the refuse of the city, which deserves the attention of our own City Council. Our worthy Mayor is a man of energy and business experience, and we invite his attention to the statements in the following paragraph, and trust that not only will he immediately cause further information respecting the patent to be obtained, but that, if the statements made are reliable, he will at once take steps to utilize Auckland's refuse in a like manner: — "The patented process of Messrs. Hesse and Rimmel for the disposal and utilization of excreta has this week been shown in actual operation on a commercial scale at the works of the Collingwood Poudrette Company, on the Merri Creek. Yesterday a number of visitors, including the city health committee, the city health officer and surveyor, and the acting Town Clerk, spent some time in the examination of the process and its results, with which they expressed much satisfaction. There is not the least unpleasantness in the process, and the products are very valuable. The latter consist of a guano which is eagerly sought after by gardeners ; and salts of ammonia, which is in large demand on sugar plantations. At present the company can only work with one retort for want of sufficient condensing power. In consequence of the guano produced is not sufficient to supply the demand, and the income from this item alone is nearly enough to pay all expenses Apparently the patentees may look forward to a very successful future.''
(Southern Cross, 25 May 1876)

But, by 1876, this factory was in financial trouble, the works sold by the sheriff and bought up by the local council. (Christchurch Star , 1 July 1876) This set-back didn’t put off those eyeing the process as a solution in New Zealand, however. The Tauranga Chemical Manure Company was set up in 1883, proposing to mix nightsoil with gypsum to produce the poudrette. (Bay Of Plenty Times, 29 November 1883) Back across the Tasman, Sydney looked like it was going to follow Collingwood’s lead in 1886. (Evening Post, 21 August 1886) In Otago, a poudrette factory was set up at Wingatui that year as well, and appears to have been the most successful facility of its kind in this country.

“What may well be termed a new local industry has been established at the Taieri (writes our Mosgiel correspondent). Mr. Hanson, who has had considerable experience in Germany and Denmark, having arrived at the conclusion that there was an opening here for a good fertiliser, has now succeeded in establishing "poudrette works" at Wingatui, where he has been engaged for some 18 months perfecting his arrangements. Through the courtesy of Mr. Hanson and his Northern traveller. Mr. A. Glass, I have been permitted to make an inspection of the works. On approaching these the olfactory nerves are greeted with what to a fastidious taste would prove anything but an agreeable odour. Still, on entering the works the deodorising effects produced on the material are at once appreciated. Shortly stated, the idea is to utilise the city nightsoil, and the process of manufacture is as follows : — The nightsoil is sent from town to the Wingatui siding in iron tanks, from whence it is ejected into pit No. 1, the railway line being considerably higher than the situation of the pit. From pit No. 1 it is allowed to percolate into No.'s 2 and 3. Sufficient lime is then added to effect deodorisation, and the material becomes almost inoffensive. The next process is that of drying. This necessarily takes up a good deal of ground — fully an acre — being enclosed in sections with wood. The material after being taken from the drying ground undergoes another drying process and is then rolled and otherwise worked down into a powder, hence the name "Poudrette." Mr Hanson states that since he has placed his production on the market he has received inducements sufficient to warrant him extending his premises.”
(Otago Witness , 8 October 1886)

In 1885 Samuel White, at some point possibly a nightsoil contractor working for Auckland City Council, leased two large farms, 149½ acres at Pt Chevalier (see Pt Chevalier Times No. 4). He obtained a patent for a process of making manure from nightsoil, called “Native Guano”, in January 1888 (Otago Witness, 20 January 1888), and apparently worked on his farm producing 30 tons of his “Native Guano”, selling it for £5 10s a ton. (Timaru Herald, 7 December 1888) His source of supply appears to have been, from 1888 at least, via Maurice Casey, the nightsoil contractor for Auckland City down to c.1898. Casey was using a depot at Morningside to plow in the waste, as well as one in Pt Chevalier, judging by the complaints from Edwin Barker and others (Morningside) and Simon Fraser and others (Pt Chevalier). Casey batted back the complaints, making his own complaint that he hadn’t been paid by the increasingly cash-strapped Council, so he refused to do any more work. (NZ Herald, 2 February 1888).

In the midst of the ensuing controversy, a letter writer to the Herald named “Practical” suggested that private enterprise should take over from the municipal authorities, “making manures, sewage dressing, or improving barren land.” (27 February 1888) The Avondale district offered to receive the nightsoil “if delivered conveniently.” (NZ Herald, 2 March 1888) That may have meant by rail: Casey advised the Council that if he were to remove nightsoil by rail, he’d need a siding near the railway. (NZ Herald, 16 March 1888) He made a firm offer to remove the nightsoil by rail for five years on 29 March 1888 – Council liked the idea, but deferred doing anything about it until Casey had produced a report. (NZ Herald, 30 March 1888)

It seems that everything was then left as-is. Pt Chevalier residents complained again about nightsoil being disposed of in their area, and this seems to have ceased. (NZ Herald, 28 September 1888) By November, however, as Casey carted the nightsoil to Mt Albert and Avondale, those districts also raised protests, with the Avondale Road Board threatening to prosecute local landowners who allowed the nightsoil to be applied to their fields. (Evening Post, 6 November 1888) Then, a man named John Vare approached the beleaguered City Council with a proposal for an alternate method to dispose of the nuisance. The Council referred his suggestion to their Legal Committee. (NZ Herald, 8 November 1888)

By the end of November there were four proposals before the City Council: one from a Mr. J. E. Friend (later declined); one from Messrs Fairbrother & Campion of Carterton, for a refined earth closet system (declined); Vare and F. Langdon, from Dunedin, with a proposal to erect an American-style poudrette factory somewhere in or near Auckland; and Samuel White, offering to provide a French-style poudrette depot “just beyond Avondale” for 5-10 years, able to negotiate with Casey for the balance of his contract, and backed in partnership not only by Casey but also by local timber merchant Frank Jagger. (NZ Herald, 23 November 1888)

The City Council decided to go with White’s application, with the following conditions; they had to approve the site, necessary machinery and apparatus had to be completed within 3 months, the nightsoil to be received from the city within that period, White and his partners had to submit a £100 deposit as a goodwill bond, no nuisance to be created at the depot by manufacture (and if any authority objected, the deal was off), and the Council were to have contractors use the depot for 6 years after expiry of present contract with Casey. Even though Vare and Langdon raised their offer to a bond of £1000, they were still turned down – mainly because White, Casey and Jagger were locals. (NZ Herald 7 December 1888)

Frank Jagger’s partner William Johnson Parker took out a patent with an Auckland engineer in early 1889 “for an improved method or system of evaporating and drying manure, nightsoil, fish, offal, blood, meat, or any other refuse matter, and to be called "The Giant Evaporator." (Evening Post, 1 February 1889) Jagger & Parker, having done well with their timber businesses swallowed up by the Kauri Timber Company, not to mention their stake in the Onehunga Woollen Mills, had also now taken over the Gittos tannery at Richmond. The poudrette business looked like it would be yet another success in their commercial portfolio.

On 16 January 1889, The Mayor and several City Councillors went out to see the proposed sites for the poudrette factory, along with White and Parker.

“The first site inspected was at New Lynn. It is a fine piece of property many acres in extent, with a creek and copious supply of water running through it, and with the railway line adjacent. There are no dwellings in the vicinity, and no objection is expected to be raised by the owners of adjoining properties. The contractors appeared specially anxious to secure this site for their works because of its nearness to the railway and the possibility of their being able to come to some arrangement with the railway management for the conveyance of nightsoil.”
(Auckland Star, 17 January 1889)

The New Lynn site impressed the Mayor and Councillors, but the distance from the city (and potential increased charges from Casey) were a concern. There was really little contest between New Lynn and Pt. Chevalier, however. The latter had made loud noises in the past year about the nuisance of nightsoil disposal. New Lynn was in another county altogether. Apart from their due obligations to public health, they were effectively exporting the problem. Out of sight (and beyond the range of offended noses belonging to those who could complain) out of mind …

In February 1889, the Avondale Road Board protested again, contacting both Auckland City Council and White & partners registering their opposition to the establishment of the poudrette factory in New Lynn, threatening to put tolls on the road if need be. (Avondale Road Board minutes, 13 February 1889) A letter from the Board joined a number of others in protest to the Waitemata County Council the following month. Walter McCaul protested, declaring the factory as “an intolerable nuisance, danger to public health, and (likely to cause) deterioration of the value of the property.” Other residents and ratepayers followed suit. At the meeting, where both John Bollard (Avondale Road Board) and McCaul were present, Parker said “…that the people of the district, with the exception of three persons, were in favour of the establishment of the works. He was confident that there would be no nuisance, and if the people who had signed the petition in favour of the scheme objected to the work after it was given a trial, it would be stopped.” The County Council moved to consider the whole matter at a special meeting in two weeks’ time.

Come 15 March 1889, and Bollard was there again, as was Samuel White. The Inspector of the Bank of New Zealand wrote in declaring that the factory would depreciate New Lynn property values. The assignee of John Buchanan’s bankrupt estate objected strongly to the factory as it was likely to deteriorate the value of Buchanan’s property (part of which adjoined the factory site). But, 26 New Lynn residents signed a petition (presented no doubt by Parker) agreeing to the proposal, along with a further petition of 61 residents of Avondale saying the same thing. That petition, to Bollard’s chagrin, included signatures from three Avondale Road Board members – in those days, a majority. This despite Bollard being given authority from the Board, in a unanimous decision, to try to stop the factory. “The greater part of those signing the petition,” he advised the County Council, “were not property-holders in the Avondale district. They were mostly working men, and one of them was now working at Cuvier Island, and he wondered how his signature was obtained. To show the fallacy of these petitions, he might say that one man got up a petition to have nightsoil received on the Avondale district, and it was signed by 25 people, and another got up a petition against it, and it was signed by 85 people, including 20 of those who had signed the other petition.”

Still, the County Council Chairman approved of the factory, provided the nightsoil was “removed in covered tanks and shot into one place where it would be treated.” The County Council agreed “That permission be granted by the Council for the establishment of poudrette works at New Lynn, on condition that the promoters enter into a bond to be drawn by the Council’s solicitor, guaranteeing that no nuisance would be created by the works and that the Council be indemnified against loss or expense incurred in any legal proceedings in reference to such works.” The bond set was £1000. The council later agreed the following month that the provision that a complaint made by 10 residents was sufficient to shut the factory down was “too stringent”, and resolved to alter the clause that the power was left in the hands of the County Council and two medical men to say whether or not there was a nuisance. (Weekly News 9 & 23 March, 13 April 1889)

During a Waitemata County Council tour on March 23 1889 through their vast district checking on the roads, they stopped by to take a look at the factory site.

“At New Lynn a temporary halt was made to have a look at the Poudrette Works. The buildings are in the process of erection and some of the machinery is on the ground. A railway siding at a cost of £500 is to be constructed. About 50 acres of land are secured with the works so that the promoters are not likely to be worried by litigation on the part of the neighbours. The nearest neighbours are living nearly half a mile to the westward and as the prevailing winds are from that quarter they are not likely to suffer any injury or inconvenience. The party were of the opinion that the Poudrette Works will prove a blessing not a nuisance to the district as there are thousands of acres of dun brown fern-clad land in the district which only want the poudrette to turn them from barren wastes into smiling farms, dotted with homesteads. One of the party said he would be glad to see such an enterprise in existence at the Wade (Silverdale) and if poudrette could be manufactured at £2/10/0 to £3 per ton it would be extensively used by the northern settlers.”
(Weekly News, 6 April 1889)

How long was it in operation? That’s unknown at this stage. The Observer made a passing reference to “the proprietors of the manure works at New Lynn” on 24 August 1889, but there’s nothing further after that.

From late 1889, a raft of freezing companies and abattoirs set up their own manure works, and supplies of natural guano and chemicals came in from overseas, fairly well flooding the market. This may be one of the reasons why the New Lynn works disappeared. However, it’s unknown why the complaints about nightsoil died down as well if the works weren’t in operation. What happened about the 6-year contract isn’t known, either, but Maurice Casey’s contracts with the City Council were renewed at the end of 1889, and again in 1893 (that time for 5 years).

One person interviewed by Jack Diamond in the 1950s suggested that the night soil was simply ploughed into the ground in New Lynn and Avondale districts.
“When this venture failed, the night soil was spread on the land thereabouts and ploughed in and it was also used on the Rosebank Peninsula where the orchards and vegetable gardens are today.”
(Mrs. Southgate, aged 73, interviewed 10 March 1956 by Jack Diamond. ”Memoir of Jim Ellestone together with the memories of 18 other residents of the Western Districts of Auckland, collected between 1948 and1968”, Item 110, J T Diamond Collection, Waitakere City Library.)

Others interviewed by Diamond said that “Casey used to cart the nightsoil from Auckland in the early days to a place on the right hand side of Titirangi Road just past the railway bridge and it was then ploughed into the ground on our place.” (Percy Thompson, from “The Poudrette Works at New Lynn with associated items on nightsoil disposal”, J. T. Diamond, unpublished draft, 1991, Waitakere City Libraries)

Whatever happened, Frank Jagger had not left the nightsoil trade at all. By 1904, he was City Council night soil contractor, and was supposed to have secured land at Harkin’s Point at Riverhead where he was dumping bargeloads of nightsoil. Only thing was, he was dumping it below the high water mark, so effectively Auckland’s sewage was washing into the Waitemata Harbour. The Council closed him down, but bought his land at Riverhead in 1907, and a little later turned it into a cart horse stud farm. (Ian Madden, "Riverhead, the Kaipara Gateway", 1966, p. 177)

So – where was the factory?

Jack Diamond stated in his book Once the Wilderness (2nd edition, 1966, p. 24) that it was at the back of the New Lynn Hotel, but on the opposite side of the railway line. This description tied in with his references from interviewing Dick Malam and Percy Thompson, both describing the works (or anything to do with nightsoil) as being on the “right hand side of Titirangi Road”). Trouble is, that would put the factory on what was, up to c.1884, Walter McCaul’s Rothesay Farm, from Titirangi Road to Fruitvale Road, approximately. McCaul’s house was between 3206-3214 Great North Road approximately, just up from the New Lynn Hotel. Unless the poudrette factory partners were somehow able to secure most of that farm, it’s unlikely that they had a 50 acre section there, which was what the Waitemata County Councillors saw in March 1889. It is possible that his informants may have confused the later nightsoil ploughing with the factory itself – and tangled that up with the brickmakers who came later.


Detail from Deed Whau 12, LINZ records (crown copyright), showing Rothesay (arrowed), and other landmarks c.1884. "D" marks the most likely poudrette factory site.

The other option is across Titirangi Road, the block bounded by Titirangi, Great North Road, Rankin and Margan Avenues. This was purchased by Frank Jagger in May 1887 from the Nathan family, and sold by him in December 1902 to John Gardner. (NA44/249, LINZ records) There is one reference in Jack Diamond’s research which backs that location up: “The Powdrette Factory stood near the Titirangi Road on the land now occupied by Gardner’s brickworks. It was to process the night soil but it was not a success. The night soil, brought out in trucks from Auckland and dried in the factory, was intended to be bagged and sold. A railway siding was run to the works from the New Lynn station yard.”
(Mrs. Southgate, 1956, reference above.)

The Rewarewa Creek runs through that property. It is hard to see these days how that could have ever been considered “flat”, after all the years of brickmaking on the site and clay quarrying, first by Gardners (although Diamond claims the Archibald Brothers may have been near there before they shifted to Avondale), then Amalgamated Brick and Pipe down to the middle of last century. But it does fit in with proximity to the New Lynn railway station, the factory possibly closer to Margan Avenue than the railway line, hence the talk of a siding (ultimately, a railway siding was in use somewhere on the total Amalgamated Brick and Pipe property which stretched through to Astley Avenue.)

Folks have easily become muddled when it comes to recollection of places in the New Lynn area and where events happened to help locate landmarks. Diamond himself, in his unpublished draft report, wrote “In a photograph of the collision between two morning passenger trains in 1913 near where the railway crosses Titirangi Road, there is in the background a smoke stack with some buildings beside it. Unfortunately these are very hazy and indistinct as it was a foggy morning when the collision occurred. However, when I asked Mr. Dick Malam of Parker Road, Oratia about the smoke stack, he informed me that it was for the poudrette works which was working before 1900 processing the nightsoil brought to it from Auckland.” Then Malam went on to describe it standing on flat land to the right of Titirangi Road, according to Diamond.

Trouble is, the train collision at New Lynn on 28 May 1913 didn’t happen “where the railway crosses Titirangi Road” at all – but much further east, at the Whau River rail bridge. (Geoff Conly, Graham Stewart, "Tragedy on the Track", 1986, p. 140) Any smokestacks seen in the distance wouldn’t have been on the land behind the New Lynn Hotel, but rather in the vicinity of Astley and Rankin Avenues, exactly where brickmaking was going on by both Crum and Gardners, close to the actual site of the short-lived New Lynn Poudrette Factory of 1889-c.1892.

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