The Freezer Building - North elevation

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Bruce Comfort on October 21, 2011

STEAM PUNK ,WATER PUNK. THE BOROUGH RACE.

In this second article about the Oamaru Borough Water Race, retired engineer Bruce Comfort contemplates the significance of the old Freezer Building. Long threatened by erosion of the Oamaru shoreline, it is now receiving some protection as the Council armours the ocean edge with a layer of huge rocks.


It's good to see protection work happening down at the foreshore, right where the sea is closest to the freezer building.

Now, I think we may have some confidence that in our lifetimes at least, the sea will not be coming in to gnaw away at the land on which some of our historic buildings are located.

And the freezer building what is that, and how historic is it?

Its place in the hierarchy of artefacts that relate to Oamaru's industrial past (as opposed to its visible opulence) was explored by The Oamaru Mail back in 2006 when it ran a feature article in The Weekend Extra. This is worth looking up if you are interested as it was well researched and well written by Dena Henderson.

My interest is in its engineering and functioning and of course in it's connection to the Borough Water Race, and although that might seem an obscure relationship, it will help if you know that before this town was the Steam Punk centre of New Zealand, it was the Water Punk centre.

When the Oamaru (town) water supply was first contemplated in about 1876, the Oamaru Borough Council, then barely a decade old, agreed that its designer should be selected by a kind of "competition" which would have awarded the successful architect with a bonus of ₤150 over and above the fee for doing the design.

There were a couple of notable things about this council decision and their requirements for the water supply.

Firstly the council knew, and decided, that an engineer would be needed to either design the supply system or oversee any design that was not engineered.

Secondly, the council decided that it needed its own Borough Engineer. The position was advertised in New Zealand, Australia and the UK, and one was appointed. He turned out to be local, and from Timaru.

Thirdly and seminal to this [article, story, vignette!!????? what do you call these things??] was the very innovative criterion that the design of the water supply, which was primarily for town water and mainly for fire fighting at that, was to include amongst its many specified attributes, the ultimate provision of 300 horsepower of spare water capacity.

Who made this momentous decision and how they were advised and by whom, is a mystery at this time and it will only be resolved when someone reads every minute book and every borough council note from the period 1868 to 1878. It was an amazing decision for a remote colonial council to make and it will be expanded on in later instalments of the story of the Borough Race.

Floating around, there were proposals to use Oamaru Creek or the Kakanui River for water and there were others, too unwieldy to consider, but options had narrowed and a water supply from the Waitaki River had been pretty well canvassed by 1876. The debate then centred on whether a gravity fed race from away up in the valley, or a pumped supply from lower down, would endure and be most cost effective.

A water race seemed the best, and the Council said so.

Immediately, lots of people popped up out of nowhere and, with no qualifications to do so, they offered rash and at times bizarre proposals and predictions that 300 HP "simply could not be got" from a water supply as envisaged, "without running the Waitaki River dry, rendering the new bridge at Glenavy redundant" as one forthright correspondent opined at the end of a long letter filled with dodgy calculations!

Amongst the many scores of published letters to the Editor of the North Otago Times, and from other preserved comments, we can see that people thought that the supply could be provided by a small simple water race which could be "dug by a couple of good men from the goldfields, in a few months" so selecting an engineer for the adjudication, was an excellent primary decision.

It would have been so easy to screw up.

No decent proposals for a design were received by the council, so the Borough Engineer set about convincing the council to award the design contract to him, without claiming the bonus, which they did. His name was Donald McLeod and his contribution to Oamaru's prosperity has been greatly overlooked.

When the race was completed, the water was ultimately stored in the reservoir built in the head of Glen Creek gully at Ardgowan.

At the reservoir the water had a working surface level of just on 100 metres above sea level and it was, when distributed around.

Oamaru township in the huge cast iron pipes which were laid as part of the contract, well and truly capable of delivering the 300 HP which the foresighted council had said that they wanted.

The result was that the town was able to have clean water for its residents, water for fire-fighting, and water for hydraulic power.

Now hydraulic power,you might think, is a new thing - something that replaced steam and mechanical devices like winches and cables and pulleys after the introduction of modern machine tools and processes, and possibly as late as the second world war - but that is not correct.

Hydraulic power, derived from pressurised water - and long before the discovery of mineral oil - was utilised by the Victorians and it was a driving force for industry in many countries, contemporaneously with the age of steam and long before distributed electricity became usable.

A few of the worlds greatest cities had hydraulic networks, installed underground like a gas network - pipes carrying water at high pressure which was sold to consumers just as electric energy is now. In Victorian London, Sydney, Melbourne, Toronto and others, huge steam engines pumped the water around the cities, and it, in turn, was used to drive "water engines" which superficially looked just like steam engines.

These water engines provided motive power to lift, carry, open bank vault doors, raise the stage and orchestra pit at many of the worlds great opera houses, bend cut and polish all the nick-nacks that the Victorians demanded from the manufactories which were springing up - Victorian water powered consumerism!

Oamaru businesses were no different. It is difficult to know, now, how many water engines were ever installed and run in Oamaru, but it will have been dozens. Remnants of three are in one building alone. Where the PostShop is now, once was a factory making barbed wire, and all its cutting, crimping, winding and twisting was done with water power.

The freezer building had two such water engines, the first, installed in 1886 was built by A&T Burt in Dunedin and they boasted that it was the biggest water engine in the world at 135HP.

It drove a refrigerating plant that had been salvaged from a ship that had been taken out of service. The use of such a large water engine for refrigeration motive power may be unique in the world.

Much about the plant and the way it operated and the arguments that the operators had with the Borough Council over the contract to supply water (and the cost) is absorbing to discover.

The freezer building started life as a small brick-store and it was purchased by The New Zealand Refrigerating Company, a business incorporated in Dunedin and with a number of well known Oamaru men on its Board. The company had already built a small abattoir at Eveline in about 1884 and it sent warm sheep carcases to Oamaru to be frozen on board the refrigerated sailing ships that carried the commerce between Oamaru and London. No land based freezing facility existed in New Zealand at that time although ship based freezers, powered by separate steam engines on sailing ships, were quite common.

Significant, if plain, additions were constructed by Forrester and Lemon to facilitate the trade in frozen sheep carcases between New Zealand and the UK and this forgotten and unloved building was central to a trading relationship with the far side of the world for which Oamaru can claim a number of innovations and pioneering expertise.

The Oamaru freezer facility was established so that killing and freezing could go on even when there was no ship in port. It is said that the building could freeze and hold 22,000 sheep carcases.

Oamaru was not the first place which sent frozen meat to London of course. It had been shipped from Europe, South America and North Africa at various times - a trade made possible by the invention of the Bell-Coleman refrigerating plant. The design and patents of this device had been bought from the three Scottish inventors by an enterprising English engineer, Alfred Searle Haslam, who had a factory in Derby UK.

His machines dominated refrigeration on-board ships for 40 years and the Bell-Coleman principle is still current and utilised exclusively in many places - notably blast freezing of vegetables air liquification and the air-conditioning of jet airliners - a Victorian invention of very durable currency.

There are two Haslam made, Bell-Coleman refrigeration machines, still in running order, in Christchurch at the Belfast works and one in disrepair at McLean's Island Steam Park.

Most Bell-Coleman plant was steam driven, but Oamaru's foresighted burghers in 1877 had ensured that the townsfolk and businessmen of Oamaru were able to capitalise on water pressure, a fuel-free source of energy, for nearly 30 years. Of course the plan was to make money out of the sale of water, but plans sometimes, well, you know . . . .

The freezer building has strong links to the whole frozen meat trade and it and the remnants of the NZ Refrigerating Company's 1884 abattoir at Eveline are artefacts which we should work to preserve.

As it turned out, the business didn't ultimately last and the company didn't process lots of product in Oamaru. The split facilities were rendered redundant by the establishment of large combined killing and freezing plants, firstly at Pukeuri in 1914 then later at Timaru, Islington and Burnside, but its significance lies in what the company achieved early in its history, how they did it and the unusual link to our public water supply.

Sadly the freezer building is gutted and badly damaged and possibly effectively "lost" to preservation. The abattoir exhibits just its concrete floor and a few concrete hoppers, engine mounts and tanks to show us where it was.


As usual, if anyone in Oamaru has any photographs or further information about the freezer building or the Borough Race, Bruce would be pleased to see them to help him complete the documentation of this fascinating part of our built heritage. Contact him on guyro@slingshot.co.nz or (03) 434-2094.

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Photo details

  • Uploaded on October 19, 2011
  • Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works
    by Bruce Comfort
    • Camera: OLYMPUS IMAGING CORP. FE230/X790
    • Taken on 2010/08/17 12:57:49
    • Exposure: 0.003s (1/320)
    • Focal Length: 9.30mm
    • F/Stop: f/5.600
    • ISO Speed: ISO50
    • Exposure Bias: 0.00 EV
    • No flash

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