Summer Newsroom

The sweet life in sugar town

It's a giant collection of thick-walled buildings that glows candy-floss pink at dusk, sitting on the edge of Auckland's inner harbour, just past the bridge. But many casual commuters have no idea what it is, or how this institution has shaped the suburb that sits above it. That's changing with the opening of a wildly successful cafe, Sugar, and visitor centre at Chelsea Bay. 

New Zealand's only sugar refinery was built in 1884, from 1.5 million clay bricks made by hand from the land the factory sits on. The government was offering a subsidy in order reduce the country's reliance on imported sugar from Australia. Birkenhead was the ideal spot - close to Auckland, near a deep water channel for the ships to berth, and close to a fresh water source, Duck Creek. The entire catchment of the creek was purchased, and it also provided some timber, although the kauri trusses still evident in the buildings were floated down from Great Barrier Island. Dams were built and the sugar factory rose. 

With no harbour bridge the refinery company built two wharves, adding another two at a later date  - for passenger ferries, sugar ships, coal ships and for the fleet of lighter ships built on the premises. 

Everything the industry needed, from sugar sacks to golden syrup tins, was made at the factory, and that meant a big payroll. The refinery was the biggest employer on the North Shore, at its peak providing 400 jobs. Current NZ Sugar general manager Bernard Duignan says it was a tough industry - "hard work, manual labour, heavy and hot, noisy and dangerous. It was male-dominated until World Wars I and II changed that." Automation has also dramatically changed the industry and now the workforce is half that number.

Golden syrup and treacle tins were made at the refinery - men packed them. Photo; Chelsea Sugar

The company also built homes - and later provided cheap loans so workers could own them. Many are now historically protected buildings, in Rawene, Huka and Colonial Roads. 

It doesn't take long to find people still living in Birkenhead who grew up in such homes, and whose families have a huge connection to the refinery. In many cases it provided work for entire families, down through generations - and there are still workers there today who've been with the company for more than 40 years. One of them is production manager Tony Grant, who as a 16 year old lied about his age to sign up. It wasn't until the payroll system changed from wages to salary a decade later that he admitted to being two years younger than stated. 

"It's a feel-good thing working in a place like this," he says. "There's always been quite a community spirit here ... a lot of workers live locally." Grant is so loyal to the brand that when he cut down from his milk-and-two-sugars cup of tea - he left out the milk. 

Grant has seen dramatic changes in his time, both in automation and health and safety. It used to be so hot working running the centrifuge machines that spin the sugar that workers would be in shorts and no shirts - at the pan stations the company provided plastic sandals. "That sort of attire is not appropriate now," he understates. 

"A lot of people see the Chelsea site as a bit mysterious - many don't realise that big pink place is a refinery." Actually it's not "pink" - it's "Tuscan Red", a change plotted by board member Sir Michael Fowler in the early 90s to replace the patchwork of green and brown buildings. 

Other changes include nearby road names - Colonial Rd, named for the Colonial Refining Company that took over ownership after the 1888 depression, used to be Seddon Rd: Huka Rd - Māori for sugar - used to be Hutton. 

There was an absolute art to stacking sugar bags - catch and flip. To young invaders there was also an art to climbing the stacks. Photo; Chelsea Sugar

Nowadays the factory is secured and protected, but once upon a time naughty boys knew how to get around the gatekeeper. 

Dave Moore was one of those - he and his mates, including the son of the gatekeeper, would get in and play in the sugar chutes, climb the stacks of sugar bags, explore the factory and keep one eye out for the bosses. "The gate keeper wasn't there to stop kids getting in, he was there to stop people stealing sugar," he says. Moore, now in his early 80s, admits there was some consternation if they were found at the top of the sugar stacks but if they were caught they would just scarper. His father, a good rugby league player, had been lured to Birkenhead by the Northcote Tigers with the promise of a refinery job. The refinery was the children's playground - fishing and whitebaiting at the wharf, stealing a ride on the cart horses used to transport sugar, digging tunnels in bush in what is now the suburb of Chatswood, and building tree houses. The factory's 4.35pm knock-off whistle was their home time - it could be heard for quite some distance. 

Born and bred in Huka Rd, Moore says growing up everyone in the street worked at the refinery.  "The bush was full of little tracks made by countless bare feet," he says. The only place they didn't go was the higher dams. "We were always frightened of the manager (who lived there). He lived in feudal splendour - no one knew him. He was above us mere mortals. We never knew his name, he was just The Manager." 

Coal fired chimneys and four wharves - the refinery circa 1920s. Photo: Chelsea Sugar

Sugar soot and Chelsea's Santa

Black soot from the refinery's coal fires was a problem when the wind was in the wrong direction. Window sills and the sides of homes were covered with it ... and housewives rushed to get the washing in when they realised it was coming in their direction. Colleen Hickinbottom says the smell from sludge - residue from the refining process - could also be extremely strong, but a phone call would send the workers scurrying to get rid of it. "They would bury it - they're very good people," she says. 

Dave Moore remembers one day coming across a lot of coal that had spilled from a truck, and taking it home to his mother. "Coal was rationed so it was a big triumph for me," he says. Except that the refinery used high grade industrial coal from Westport and when lit it burnt through the grate at his home ... his victory turning to ashes. 

Many older residents remember fondly the social events for sugar families - in particular, the company Christmas picnics. In the early days the picnics were at Pine Island (now Herald Island). Later they were at the refinery grounds, where the sight of Santa rowing across the dam enthralled children. Margaret King, a child during the war years, still remembers the sight - "there were always wonderful parcels," she says. "Nowadays you would say we were poverty stricken - we never had much."

Company cottages

Jackie Kenyon grew up in one of the historic cottages in Colonial Road between 1966 and 1976, and still feels a sense of ownership over the refinery - she admits to being quite put out on heading down to the new cafe soon after it opened to find it flat out and full. She says it was a unique way to grow up. "Lots of people now don't know what that pink building is," she says. 

Her sister Donna Repia remembers the beautiful brick homes as cold and dusty - they have since been restored and brought up to standard. Their mother, Margaret Chambers, remembers the very productive fruit trees there - "even to this day I don't like plum jam'. Her father, an engineer, was brought out to work in the refinery from England. He was in one of the cottages as part of the refinery's move to always have a tradesman handy. 

Donna Repia remembers the trucks making their slow way up the steep route outside her house - so slow that on their walk home from school the drivers would chat to them out the window and share their cigarettes with the girls. 

That hill and the trucks

Today, 1000 tonnes a day of sugar products crawl their way up the extremely steep Colonial Road - 40 to 50 trucks making return trips. The powerful bulk tankers of today are a far cry from from the New Zealand Express trucks driven by the likes of Ron Hickinbottom, who as a free immigrant in 1959 from the UK was made by the government to take a driving job at Chelsea. Ron recalls low-gear crawls up the hill that brought a particular danger - the possibility that a jerky gear change could mean the loss of a 70lb bag of sugar off the back. "Seven tons just about loaded a truck and we had to put a sheet across the back just to hold it going up the hill." You could hear the grinding gears from streets away. 

"I had it happen once but I never had a broken bag so I was lucky," he says. When that happened - others recall the shout of "sugar!" and residents would come out with their pots and cups to grab some of the white gold, which was still rationed in those post-war years. ("We'd scrape it off the road it was that precious!" says former Huka Rd resident Anne Stevens.) 

Ron's job involved talking public transport over to The Strand in Parnell to pick up a truck before he started his day - he only found out much later he could have parked the truck at home. He'd load up with sugar bags thrown at "tremendous pace" by the loaders, who took great delight in trying to upset them. 

Ron, 82, and his wife Colleen, 81, live in a company house in Rawene Road and are steeped in sugar history. Colleen's father, grandfathers, cousins and brothers all worked at Chelsea. 

"There's no doubt about it, Birkenhead is Chelsea," she says. 

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