Thursday, February 22, 2024

Brave visionaries behind Lamb Day

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Shipments of frozen lamb to Britain would help transform NZ’s economy.
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This year’s National Lamb Day is being celebrated on February 15, the day the ship Dunedin left Port Chalmers for London in 1882 carrying the first frozen shipment of sheep meat. 

The day is a celebration of food, the hard work of Kiwi farmers and the significant economic contribution the red meat sector makes to New Zealand.

AgProud has taken the lead on organising events in collaboration with Beef + Lamb NZ. 

Normally celebrated in May, National Lamb Day has been moved to February this year to allow more farmers and producers to actively participate.

People are encouraged to celebrate the day by enjoying lamb, hosting a barbecue or a roast.

NZ’s first successful shipment of frozen meat had a huge impact on the colony, paving the way for the trade in frozen meat and dairy products that became the cornerstone of NZ’s 20th century economy.

The Dunedin’s voyage was organised by William Soltau Davidson, the British-based general manager of the NZ and Australian Land Company, whose landholdings in the two countries exceeded a million hectares. 

Davidson had taken a keen interest in experiments from 1876, which had proved the concept, if not yet the economic viability, of shipping frozen meat around the globe.

He decided to fit out a passenger sailing ship, the Albion Line’s Dunedin, with a coal-powered Bell Coleman freezing plant, which cooled the entire hold to 22degC below the outside temperature. 

Company employee Thomas Brydone was sent to Britain to study refrigeration technology and then handled the experiment in NZ.

Owned by Albion Shipping Co., which brought the first cargo of frozen mutton from New Zealand to London, 1882. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Most of the first cargo originated from Brydone’s slaughterhouse at Totara Estate, near Oamaru. 

Cooled on site and then sent by rail to Port Chalmers, the mutton and lamb carcases were frozen aboard the Dunedin. Despite mechanical problems, the plant froze nearly 10,000 carcases in two months.

About 5000 carcases were on board the Dunedinwhen it sailed on February 15. 

When the vessel became becalmed in the tropics, the crew noticed that the cold air in the hold was not circulating properly. 

To save his historic cargo, Captain John Whitson crawled inside and sawed extra air holes, almost freezing to death in the process. Crew members managed to pull him out by a rope and resuscitated him. 

When the Dunedin arrived in London in late May, only one carcase had to be condemned and the cargo’s superiority over Australian shipments was noted.

More than a single successful shipment was needed to create a new industry, so Davidson set to work creating a marketing and insurance structure to underpin refrigerated shipping. 

The new technology ultimately enabled the owner-operated family farm to become the standard economic unit in rural NZ for the next century.

The Dunedin made another nine successful voyages before disappearing in the Southern Ocean in 1890.

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