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William Saltau Davidson


In the late 1870s immigrants to New Zealand found that the once booming economy was in decline. The country was sliding into a depression and wool was almost the only commodity that was carrying the country.

Without refrigerated ships New Zealand's sheep meat was worthless because it couldn't be transported to off-shore markets. Refrigeration would give New Zealand sheep farmers the means of sending meat as well as wool to Britain and the world.

Edinburgh-born William Saltau Davidson was an enterprising and determined entrepreneur who set out to solve the refrigeration problem in the meat trade.

Davidson was the managing director of a company that owned thousands of hectares of farms in New Zealand. One of its properties was Totara Estate, a large sheep station south of Oamaru.

He convinced his board to put up the money for a risky experiment, to ship refrigerated meat across the globe. He planned to install a coal-powered refrigerator unit on a sailing ship that would hold enough carcasses to make the trip economically viable.

On 15 February 1882 the sailing ship Dunedin with its newly installed refrigeration unit set sail from Port Chalmers to London. The cargo from Totara Estate included about 4,000 carcasses of mutton, 500 lambs, some pigs, turkeys, rabbits and over 2,000 sheep tongues.

Davidson was on the wharf to see Dunedin go and, having caught a faster ship to London, was there 98 days later to see it arrive. He went aboard straight away to check the carcasses. Ultimately, only one was rejected.

It was the making of a new source of wealth for New Zealand. Part of the success of the venture was due to the new, prosperous, British market centred in London where people could afford better food.

Thousands of tonnes of New Zealand lamb followed that first shipment. One historian called refrigeration in the meat trade the "icy white knight that saved the economy."

William Saltau Davidson's triumphant accomplishment created the basis of the modern New Zealand economy, where the exporting of primary produce sustained the country throughout the 20th Century.


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