From Heritage New Zealand Summer 2006
by Shelley Howells
Every day, hundreds of thousands of Aucklanders crossing the harbour bridge see one of the city's true waterfront landmarks, and yet very few know its fascinating history and heritage values.
The familiar pink Chelsea Sugar Refinery as seen from the Waitemata Harbour
No matter how many smart, shiny modern machines are inside it, there’s no ignoring the past as you walk through the Chelsea Sugar Refinery in Birkenhead on Auckland’s North Shore. It’s a huge, unglamorous industrial site crouched beside the sea, surrounded by bush and house-clad hills, painted top-to-toe in an improbable, unflattering but definitive “Chelsea” pink. Its labyrinth of buildings is a jarring mix of architectures that reflects the refinery’s 122-year history and its very practical industrial purpose, with few nods to aesthetics. Dominating all is the iconic, hulking Char House (as seen on the company logo) whose 37-metrehigh, metre-plus-thick brick walls tower over all.
Two things are instantly striking: this is a living, breathing piece of Victoriana – the old buildings positively ooze character, and it’s not much of a stretch to imagine the place crawling with Dickensian, char-covered workers and belching black smoke over the surrounding landscape – and this stunning, green, pohutukawa-lined coastal site must be one of the country’s most beautiful industrial settings.
It wasn’t good looks that first drew the Colonial Sugar Refining Company to the site in 1882, when the chairman bought around 65 hectares of mostly bare farmland to establish New Zealand’s first (and still only) sugar refinery. It was an isolated area: the Herald newspaper described it in 1883 as uninhabited and “wild
and bleak”. But the site had a deep-water access to the Waitemata for a port, plenty of fresh water for the water-hungry refining process, building materials – timber, clay – on site, and it was close, by boat, to Auckland.
They didn’t waste time. In 1883, 150 workers moved into a tent town on the land and began work, starting with pickaxe levelling the site, filling in the lagoon, whipping up some 1.5 million bricks (half a million for the two dams, a million for the buildings) from the surrounding land, and buildings (first blasting the bedrock), for starters. Incredibly, by 1884, the refinery began operating and basically hasn’t stopped, 24/7, since.
Because of the area’s isolation, the refinery essentially had to be self-sufficient, from workers’ veggie gardens through to tool and boat-building operations and power generation. A Chelsea sugar worker might have been involved in refining sugar, but was just as likely to be a carpenter, plumber, fitter, cooper, tinsmith, blacksmith, sailor or sailmaker.
Around 100 of the original workers stayed on and took jobs at the refinery, some of them moving in to the brand spanking new company village nearby, complete with school, reading room and privately owned shop (progressive company policy discouraged the old “I owe my soul to the company store” routine). By 1905, the buildings were condemned – some were moved and are still standing in Birkenhead – and, later, the four brick homes that are
still there were built near the site of the original village.
It’s impossible to overstate the impact the refinery had on what was rural wilderness Birkenhead before its arrival. It was the main employer and attracted people and money to the area. In 1886, Birkenhead township’s population was 334, while Chelsea company village had 189. By 1900, the borough population was 1000, and one-third of the men in Birkenhead were sugar workers. Casual work at the refinery helped local orchards survive through lean times. Its sirens, starting at 5.30am, punctuated daily life (“…and when the five o’clock whistle blew, the table cloth went on,” said one worker’s wife), its waste blackened clean washing, and the annual picnic was a hugely anticipated extravaganza that made Birkenhead a ghost town for the day. Staff manned local boards, sports teams and bands, refinery loans built the early homes and the works were responsible for the bulk of the feverish shipping action (until the Auckland Harbour Bridge opened in 1959).
The impact is less obvious today but the works still employ locals, the buildings are a major part of the landscape, their
steaming industrious pinkness an iconic landmark from the Auckland side of the Waitemata. Chelsea-branded trucks thunder out daily, and the refinery’s surrounding park area and ponds are a regular destination for dog-walkers, joggers and duckfeeding families (local legend has it that the ponds’ voracious, ferocious eels are responsible for snacking on poor ducklings’ wee feet, which may explain why so many of Chelsea’s ducks walk funny).
Chelsea’s importance is also wider than the local community, says Martin Jones, Heritage Advisor Registration for the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. It is nationally and internationally significant as well. The refinery’s early factory buildings, manager’s house and workers’ houses are registered as Category II historic places. “But the whole area is an important industrial landscape linked with the international sugar trade,” he says. “Sugar was a very valuable commodity in New Zealand and internationally. By 1860, it was New Zealand’s second most important import.”
It was a very unusual complex for its time – its size alone made it a rarity – and it represented enormous investment. It was not just the only place producing sugar in the country, but one of few in the South Pacific. “The refinery marks New Zealand’s coming-of-age as an economic force,” says Jones. We were big enough and had enough economic clout to make it cheaper to refine rather than import the finished goods.
Located a short distance from the factory gates, the site of the original workers’ village is significant and rare, and, says Jones, “reflects prevailing ideas on class”. For example, skilled employees such as the engineer and sugar boilers had the best houses in the settlement, while the manager’s house was completely separate, next to the “clean” end of the production process.
Chelsea is one of the few surviving 19th-century refineries in Australasia, and one of the longest-functioning industries in New Zealand. Reflecting an architectural tradition that extends back to the Industrial Revolution, it used (and still contains) equipment that was imported from Greenock near Glasgow, one of the major centres of British sugar refining at the time and where today there are no working refineries, adds Jones.
The refinery is also very closely tied in to Auckland’s rich maritime history – most workers walked to work, but everything else, from food to mail to news, and especially coal from Australia and the West Coast and raw sugar from Fiji, Cuba, Australia, Indonesia and Peru, arrived by sea. In the 1920s, more than 120 Auckland wharfies ferried to Chelsea daily, unloading the sacks of raw sugar and stacking them in the raw store.
Refinery work was often dirty and dangerous labour. Even as recently as 1969, a disenchanted employee, one James K. Baxter, upon his dismissal as a cleaner after three weeks, was moved to write a poem. “The Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Works” includes the lines, “… along those slippery floors/A man might break a leg/And the foul stink of Diesel fumes/Flows through the packing shed/And men in clouds of char dust move/Like the animated dead…”
Modern Chelsea is a much more … ahem … refined workplace with modern, cleaner and safer methods of production. The evolution of Chelsea work practices, industrial relations and technology (for example, moving from coal-generated power, through to gas, then on to the national grid) reflected national change. It’s easy to imagine the crusty, labour-hardened old-timers having a good belly laugh at modern visitors in reflective vests, hardhats and safety eyewear, protecting them from the perils of the quietly humming, clean, efficient and largely mechanised refinery equipment used today. Chelsea, therefore is a dynamic industrial workplace where the past is palpable – in the buildings, the surrounding landscape and the memories of the locals. It’s a living piece of history that has been preserved largely on the strength of its economic worth. Its future may depend on the value we place on its past.
What of the future of the refinery? John Ellis, commercial manager at Chelsea, says the company is looking for certainty by way of an application to the North Shore City Council to change the district plan. Proposed Private Plan Change No 16; the Chelsea Mixed Use Overlay Plan, is a request to the council to amend its district plan to allow mixed use of some of Chelsea’s land in the event of the refinery ceasing operation.
The idea is to sell 37 of their 52 hectares to the council to use as undeveloped open space for public use in perpetuity. The remaining roughly 15 hectares will continue to operate as it does today. But, if refining should end, the 15 hectares could be developed for residential and light commercial activities. Developments could mean up to 528 homes including eight-storey apartments. Chelsea has no intention of ceasing refining sugar. “It’s a good business,” says Ellis. “We want to continue it. But, if we had to stop, we want to have some certainty on what to do.”
The Historic Places Trust has made a submission (one of more than 500 at time of writing, mostly against the proposal)
to council to, “Decline the proposed plan change, as currently proposed”.
Trust objections to the plan change state that there is a lack of proper assessment of the impact the proposed Chelsea Mixed Use Overlay would have on the heritage significance of the Chelsea Sugar Refinery. The Trust fears that the plan change will result in some of the significant values of the refinery being lost through the development that would be required to facilitate the desired mixed use. Trust Heritage Advisor Planning Megan Patrick points out that being registered as an historic place doesn’t offer protection to heritage values, as such. Protection is achieved through such tools as provisions within a district plan. That is why this plan change is so important.
Ellis says the proposed plan change is widely misunderstood, and that current regulations protect the registered heritage areas in question. The sale to the council of the proposed public space is dependent on the approval of the change to the district plan going through. “We don’t need to sell. We were approached by the Chelsea Park Trust… $20 million for 37 hectares – why bother for all this grief ?” he asks.
He adds that the company is proud of its history of protecting its heritage and surrounding environment, and has no intention of jeopardising that heritage. “The only reason these buildings are still standing and protected is because we are still using them and have maintained them. We have spent a lot of money refurbishing the workers’ cottages and the manager’s house, planting the land and allowing public access, donating our archives to the library, recording our history as we go along.”
The Trust says it wants to see an ongoing future for the site, ideally with the continuation of the current refinery use.
However, if this use is to cease, there is a need to ensure future use is undertaken in such a way as to protect the heritage significance of the site. Trust Heritage Advisor Architecture Robin Byron adds that maintaining heritage values has a lot to do with the identification of an adaptive re-use that is compatible with the form, character and qualities of the existing buildings. The Trust recognises that certain compromises may be necessary to ensure the future of any heritage building. However, whether this particular site continues as a refinery or changes to another use, there is also a clear need to ensure that any modifications do not put the site in jeopardy.