The History of Chelsea Sugar Refinery
When New Zealand was first being settled, the government offered money to set up the country’s first sugar refinery. Before this, we had been importing all our sugar from Australia.
The Colonial Sugar Refining Company of Australia took up the challenge, and partnered with the Victorian Sugar Company to form the New Zealand Sugar Company. A number of New Zealand businessmen were involved too, including Horton, L D Nathan, W S Wilson and Sir Frederick Whitaker. The partnership lasted until the 1888 depression, when it was absorbed by the Colonial Refining Company.
The refinery still stands on its original site in Birkenhead, on the North Shore of Auckland City. The site was over 82 hectares of flat land, had fresh water from Duck Creek to use in the refining process and deep water in the Waitemata Harbour to let boats come right up to the refinery door. Building materials, like timber from the trees and clay to make bricks, were also right there on site, all within 9 kilometres of Auckland city. It was the perfect spot for a sugar refinery.
The Chelsea Refinery took 18 months to complete and was built using one million hand-made bricks. These were made out of the clay, which had been excavated from the site.
Another half a million bricks were made to build two dams across Duck Creek (dams 1 & 2). The upper dam was eight metres deep and held nearly four million litres of water. The lower dam covered nearly a hectare and had a brick batter and a roadway up the side. There were also two wharves, which were 64 metres long.
Once opened, the refinery was given a name, Chelsea, after the London hometown of the first customs officer.
The next year, the first ships full of Indonesian raw sugar arrived, and the refinery began processing and packing. But they were in for a shock. Not long after, the world sugar market collapsed – over supply meant the refinery would have to sell their sugar for much less than they had first thought.
While the refinery was being constructed, workers lived in a shantytown, 60 tents near the lower part of the creek. In 1886, these were replaced by Chelsea Village on Colonial road: a collection of small, comfortable homes for refinery workers and their families.
The collapse of the sugar market hit the refinery hard – after four years, they were still seeing no profit. So, shares were exchanged for shares in another company, Colonial Sugar Refinery (CSR). This created one amalgamated company that would share costs to produce and sell sugar more cost efficiently.
In the 1900s a passenger wharf was built next to the refinery, and the shipping wharf was extended.
With production ticking over, Chelsea began replanting the land around the refinery. The estate was planted in native and exotic trees and shrubs to encouraged people to visit, and local wildlife to make their home there. This programme of planting continued over the years, resulting in the lush, beautiful park you see today.
With production expanding, a third dam was built, with a bridge over Chelsea Bay.
More houses were built on site, including the original manager’s homestead. This was a large brick house, at the top of the hill above the Refinery raw store. In 1909, four brick cottages were built for the workers who needed to be close by in case of emergency. You can still see these five houses on the left side of Colonial road inside the Chelsea Estate. Of the original houses built by Chelsea, these are the only ones still standing.
1910s and 1920s
Before it was cleared to make way for the refinery, the Chelsea Estate was home to many Kauri trees. These left big deposits of kauri gum underground. Kauri gum was used from things like varnish and linoleum and was quite valuable. Locals would cut spears from the trees on the Chelsea Estate and dig for gum to sell to a dealer in Fort Street in Auckland. Gumdigging was hard work, but worth the effort – a sugar bag full of kauri gum was worth about £3, which was a week’s wages for some people!
In 1920, a fourth dam was constructed. All four dams were built to create a man-made stream from the water in Duck Creek. These are still used in the refinery process to this day. The water is treated at our treatment station, which we call Candy Filter Station, to make sure that it is safe to use. It’s then boiled with natural gas to make steam. The refinery uses about 650m3 of water everyday, most of which is taken from the third dam.
In the 1930s, most New Zealand business were hit by The Great Depression. Business shut down or reduced their production to cut costs, which left many out of work. People were often asked to work only part time to share the work and the wages. Fortunately, Chelsea was a well-established business and made a product that people still wanted and needed. It meant we were able to get through the hard times and keep our workers in paid employment.
Like most other New Zealand businesses during this time, Chelsea only employed men. During World War II, most young men were sent to fight, so for the first time, businesses had to employ women to keep things running. Chelsea was no different – women worked in the office and the golden syrup packinghouse. A special defence block was also set up at the Chelsea Refinery to help with the war effort.
The first bulk shipments of raw sugar were unloaded in the new automated bulk sugar store. Before this, a 9, 500 tonne shipload would take 60 men three weeks to unload. The sugar would arrive in sacks, which were transported to the raw sugar store by horse drawn carts and stacked up to 13 metres high. The new system dramatically cut down on time and labour, which reduced the cost of production.
The late 50s saw the arrival of the first supermarkets in New Zealand. Before this people would shop at small, local shops. Supermarkets meant Chelsea could get their products out to people more quickly and cost effectively.
The opening of the Auckland Harbour Bridge also made things a lot simpler for Chelsea. Before the bridge was built, 90% of Chelsea’s sugar had to be shipped across the harbour on flat-bottomed boats called Lighters. Special consideration was taken when the bridge was designed, so that Chelsea’s ships could fit underneath it.
With all the sugar now being trucked over the new bridge, Chelsea sold all seven of their Lighters.
The bridge also meant that Auckland’s North Shore was now a convenient place to live, so Chelsea sold more than 100 hectares of land for subdivision. This is the suburb now known as Chatswood.
The Chelsea grounds were home to the ‘Downhill Derby’. In this event, people built carts to race down the very steep refinery road – the fastest survivor took the honours.
By the mid seventies, the Chelsea Estate had been planted with thousands of native and exotic trees and bushes. Its lush, carefully planted surrounds won Chelsea Sugar the Waitemata Garden Centre prize for the best factory environment on the North Shore.
New Zealand became the second country in the world to deregulate their sugar market, which loosened many rules about who could sell sugar and how much for. Before this, Chelsea had to sell their sugar for a fixed price, but were the only company in the country who could sell it. Deregulation meant Chelsea had more freedom, but also more competition!
In 1984, Chelsea turned 100! A ‘centenary grove’ of 120 Kauri trees were planted in the grounds to commemorate the century of Chelsea Refinery.
The Chelsea Wharf is bound by the strict rules that apply to official port facilities and Chelsea’s wharf was upgraded in 1997 to stay within these. The upgrade allowed for each shipment of sugar to be cleared by Customs and MAF (Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries).
37 hectares of land, including the lakes, regenerating forest, wetlands and open spaces were sold to the Heritage Park Trust. Because it is now owned by the Heritage Park Trust, it won’t ever by subdivided or cleared to make way for buildings or houses. This means Chelsea was able to help keep the park safe for future generations to enjoy.
The Heritage Park was officially opened with a family fun day. Supported by the North Shore City Council, the day featured good old fashioned games like sack races, food and entertainment. 2009 was also the year we celebrated 125 years in business.
More than 125 years later, the refinery still operates from its original site. The New Zealand Sugar Company is now one of New Zealand’s top 100 companies and Chelsea Sugar has become one of New Zealand’s most beloved and iconic brands.