Thursday, December 25, 2008

Highlander Condensed Milk

Image: Grey River Argus, 6 February 1919

While looking into what has become a more and more intriguing search for information on William Tullibardine Murray, formerly of 103 Avondale Road here in Avondale, one of the librarians at the Auckland Research Centre in the Central Library gave me a reference to a Weekly News piece from 1899 on the Auckland Exhibition and a display of condensed milk by W. T. Murray & Co. That led on (as always happens with me and diversions) to tracking down some information on one of New Zealand’s most well-known and enduring brands – Highlander condensed milk.

The beginnings – New Zealand versus the Swiss

In 1892, the main player of the New Zealand condensed milk market was the Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Company, the forerunner to Nestlé, under a number of brands including “Milkmaid”.

Image: Otago Witness, 1 September 1892

Image: Otago Witness, 25 July 1895

Later that year, Robert Blair started a new milk-preserving factory, based on the Swiss system, at Underwood, near Wallacetown. (Otago Witness, 24 November 1892) Unfortunately, he died on 27 January 1893.

Otago Witness, 9 February 1893
"The Southland Times gives some particulars of the death of the late Mr. Robert Blair, who will be widely remembered as the manager for some years of the New Zealand Meat Preserving Company's extensive works at Kakanui, Washdyke, and Woodlands. He subsequently erected on his own account large milk preserving works at Wallacetown, from which he has turned out an excellent article. Our contemporary says that on the morning of the 27th ult. Mr. Blair was in perfect health, and breakfasted heartily at 7 o'clock. He went immediately afterwards to his milk condensing works to superintend one of the many delicate operations in the process, and seemed to his foreman (Mr. McLeod) to be in excellent spirits. Suddenly he grew pale, complained of a pain in his head, and vomited, and Mr. McLeod was just in time to prevent his falling heavily. Mr. McLeod ran to the house, which is close by, for assistance, sending a man whom he met to look after Mr. Blair. The deceased's brother-in-law, the Hon. Mr. Wilson, of Queensland, who was sitting at breakfast, after procuring what he thought a suitable medicine, made for the works. Mr. Blair took the draught, and was placed in a chair, seeming to have got relief, though he again vomited. Suddenly he complained for the second time of severe pain in the head, lay back, and never spoke again. He was carried into the house, but it is thought probable that he died on the way. Dr Grigor had been in the meantime sent for, but on arrival found that all had been over for some time. Afterwards Dr Hunter, who also had been sent for, appeared. The cause of death was apoplexy. Mr. Blair's age was 44.

"The aspect of this event … from a public point of view … must be looked upon as calamitous. Mr. Blair had shown a spirit of patient enterprise that is exceedingly rare. His aim was to perfect a new industry, and for years he had been studying to this end. He had to master by persevering investigation the secrets of a very difficult process, and after much labour and some expensive failures was supposed to have succeeded. Mr. Blair had made a journey to Britain, and, we understand, to the Continent of Europe, in pursuit of his object, but was disappointed in his search after information, and was obliged finally to rely, as we have said, on his own efforts. …We repeat that his loss is not only irreparable to his family, but a public misfortune. Those whom he has left behind are a widow and three children."
It wasn’t the end of Blair’s factory, however. In October 1893, A. H. Highton, headmaster at the Southland Boys’ High School, resigned his position to take up the business of manufacturing condensed milk and butter. To that end, he purchased Blair’s factory. (North Otago Times, 27 October 1893) He launched the New Zealand Milk Preserving Company Limited, under the Maltese Cross Brand, producing 1000 tins of condensed milk per day, along with butter for the British market.

Image: Otago Witness, 26 April 1894

Otago Witness, 4 January 1894
“The premises are prettily and conveniently situated on a piece of cleared land alongside the road, about three-quarters of a mile from the Wallacetown station. Near by is the proprietor's residence, a large structure of handsome design in neatly laid-off grounds, and skirted by the native bush on three sides. The factory is a substantially built two-storeyed wooden erection, with iron roof and floor of concrete throughout. It contains quite a large number of apartments. On the ground floor there are the separating room, refrigerating room, two cool rooms, butter-making room, storeroom, and at the back a tinsmith's shop. In the upper storey the condenser is situated, and the other apartments are devoted to filling, soldering down, and storing the manufactured article. The machinery is all of the latest type and much of it very heavy and costly — the price of the condenser and appliances alone approaching £2000. … The tins used are made on the premises, five hands being employed in this department, turning out 1000 per day, and the neatness with which they are finished could not well be excelled. Water, which is an important factor in the business, is obtained from two large wells, as well as a dam, and is pumped up into tanks at about the same altitude as the building. “
The political climate in New Zealand for starting and operating a business condensing milk was a good one. The government had a tariff of 20% on imported tins, (Marlborough Express, 9 March 1894), Parliament even considered an incentive scheme for the local trade, and by late 1894, Highton’s business was so good he was seeking permission from the authorities in Victoria to establish a branch across the Tasman. (Hawera & Normanby Star, 29 October 1894)

Enter W. T. Murray and Co.

Meanwhile, at the Auckland Agricultural Show in November that year, the Zealandia Milk Condensing Company displayed their wares, “condensed milk of local manufacture and excellent quality.” (Observer, 24 November 1894) This was the trading name for the W. T. Murray & Company. Murray started this business near Auckland in 1893, initially making the standard condensed milk with refined sugar, then patenting a process for preserving milk without sugar, using pasteurisation to make unsweetened condensed milk, also known as Murray’s Concentrated Pasteurised Milk. (Weekly News supplement, 3 February 1899) From 1896, Murray’s company was to feature prominently in the “Highlander brand” story.

Image: Bay of Plenty Times, 2 June 1897

In March 1896, it seems that Highton’s plans had come to nought. W. R. Cook, an accountant from Auckland, arrived to find out from local farmers just how much milk they would be able to supply to make the factory a viable operation should he purchase it. Unfortunately, their figures didn’t match his, so the factory remained idle. (Otago Witness, 19 March 1896) Five months later, it was announced that W. T. Murray & Co had purchased the Wallacetown factory. (Otago Witness, 13 August 1896)

Timaru Herald, 22 October 1896

"Mr. W. T. Murray has successfully restarted the milk preserving factory near Wallacetown, Southland, which was established by a Mr. Blair three years ago, and was almost immediately closed owing to Mr. Blair's death. Mr. Murray already had two milk preserving factories m the Auckland district. He gave a Southland Times reporter some interesting facts concerning condensed milk, some of which we reproduce : — When I started, the condensed milk trade was entirely in the hands of the two well known brands. In Auckland nothing could be sold except Nestlé's Swiss milk, and in the South Island nothing but the Milkmaid brand. These practically held the market. Their imports into New Zealand are 500 cases per week, which amounts to 2000 dozen tins and represents nearly £30,000 a year which goes out of the country for this article. … I started another factory about 100 miles out of Auckland last year in order to try to get a winter supply of milk for both factories. At the end of last year I took up pasteurising or sterilising milk, and after three months' experimenting succeeded in so manipulating the milk that it would keep for almost any length of time, while still retaining the full flavour of new milk. However, I did not put it on the market until I had kept it for six months as a test of its keeping qualities. During that time it was placed just above the engine of the factory, so that the test was a thoroughly severe one, and at the end of the time it was as good as when I put it there. It immediately found public favour, and my own impression is that it will entirely cut out the condensed milk for household use, for the simple reason that it is not sweetened. Condensed milk consists of ordinary milk preserved with sugar. Pasteurised milk is simply pure milk so treated that it will keep good almost any length of time. … The capacity of the three factories is enormous. …”
Murray’s operation went from strength to strength. In 1898, W. T. Murray & Co became a limited liability company with a capital of £25,000, with the following directors: Colonel Henry Burton, Major. F. N. George, Messrs. Frank Jagger, James Macfarlane and C. V. Houghton. Murray remained as general manager, while H. N. Bell was secretary. (Weekly News, 3 February 1899) More dairy plants were purchased by the company. Business would have been boosted at the turn of the century due to two factors: an increasing public concern about purity and freedom from contamination in milk products, and the 2nd Boer War.

Image: Weekly News supplement, 3 February 1899

The “Highlander” brand was developed during the 2nd Boer War, appearing in advertising from c.1901.

Image: Otago Witness 22 May 1901

In 1904, Blair’s original 1892 factory burned down (Otago Witness, 27 April 1904), but “Highlander” condensed milk continued. In 1906, it was awarded a gold medal and special diploma at the Crystal Palace exhibition in London, (Otago Witness, 3 October 1906) and a silver medal in a 1909 exhibition also in London. (New Zealand Tablet, 11 February 1909)

In 1918, the W. T. Murray Company changed its name to New Zealand Milk Products Limited (Grey River Argus, 5 June 1918). Twenty years later, the company was taken over by Nestlé, with the factory at Underwood (apparently replaced after the 1904 fire) closing finally in the 1960s

Part of a new book called Made in New Zealand by Nicola McCloy goes into the story of Highlander condensed milk. Apart from the wrong date for the brand’s inception (she has 1890, while Robert Blair didn’t start his factory until 1892, and the brand itself appeared only c.1901), she does mention the theory as to who the Highlander on the ads and the tins was based on. She says that it is thought to have been based on Drum Major James Macgregor of the Invercargill Pipe Band. That is a possibility, certainly – the band was very prominent at the end of 1900, travelling to Sydney as part of the Commonwealth contingent to the Boer War.

Wanganui Herald, 21 December 1900
“A striking feature about the Invercargill Pipe Band, which has gone to Sydney with the Commonwealth Contingent is the fine physique of the members. One man (Drummer A. Thompson) stands 6ft 4in in his stockings, though only eighteen of age. All are of Scottish descent, but New Zealand born, except Bandmaster K. Cameron' and Drum-Major McGregor. The bandmaster came to the colony quite a youth, and learned all his pipeplaying out here. He holds ten gold and fifteen silver medals, one of the former being for the championship of New Zealand for pipe-playing, and another for the Championship Mile Race (open), the time being 4min 21sec. Some of the medals are for wrestling, rowing, running, and jumping. “
However, another contender is Peter Mackay, a former member of the 93rd regiment of Highlanders, who served in the Crimean War, India, and the New Zealand Land Wars. He died in Southland Hospital on 12 December 1900, and a subscription list was started up for a memorial stone in his honor. He was also a pipe band drummer. (Southland Times; Otago Witness, 2 January 1901)

What intrigues me

I’ll be checking two sources from here: an Archives New Zealand file (thankfully held in Auckland!) on the New Zealand Milk Products Limited, formerly W. T. Murray and Company, and the Cyclopedia of New Zealand, South Island editions. The latter I’ll see next time the libraries open up again (it’s Christmas, so things are shut up, of course), while the former will be part of my planned multi-topic trek to the wilds of Mangere’s farmland. (I’m building up a good list now of topics, so it will be well-worth the day’s trip). What has me scratching my head is this: is the “W. T. Murray” William Tullibardine Murray? I can see him being involved with the Avondale Supply Depot in 1891, but – milk processing? Then again, A. H. Highton was a schoolmaster who quit to own and operate Blair’s factory in Underwood. Avondale’s Mr. Murray may have done the same (but he still held his license to teach down to 1898).

If it isn’t one and the same man (and I wouldn’t mind if that was the case, I’ve quite enjoyed the trawl through Papers Past pulling together the Highlander milk story) – what about his son, Henry Lamont Murray? A Henry Lamont Murray was living in Epsom in Auckland during the 1930s, and taking out patents for dairy processing equipment and pasteurisation techniques not only here, but in Canada, the U.S. and Britain. One patent he’s particularly known for is the Vacreator Cream Processing Plant. If his father wasn’t the condensed milk businessman, then this is one heck of a coincidence.

More information and updates as they come to pass. (Update: 5 January 2009. W. T. Murray was William Tullibardine Murray, after all.)


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  2. Go for it, Darian. Anything here is yours to use.

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  7. Probably so ... poor devil hardly had time for much at all.