New Zealand Lamb, Start of the Frozen Food Aisle

New Zealand lamb has a rich history tied to the country’s agricultural development and international trade, and is a household name.

In the modern era it is not an uncommon reality for the food we eat to have been farmed thousands of miles away, packaged, shipped, frozen and transported all the way across the world to our nearest supermarket shelves.

However, this, perhaps unsurprisingly, wasn’t always the case, partly because with the technological advancements of the modern era it is much easier to keep food fresh and edible on its long journey from farm to plate.

Before the invention of technology such as refrigeration and climate control, unless it was preserved with methods such as salting or pickling, perishable products such as meat, seafood and dairy had to be farmed closer to home. 


In fact, it wasn’t until 1882 that the very first frozen meat shipment from New Zealand would reach the shores, and plates, of Britain.

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The shipment represented a new age of trade and responded to a changing socio-economic landscape taking shape across the British Isles, culminating in a growing urban population in Britain.

Sheep were first brought to New Zealand between 1773 and 1777, largely credited to British explorer James Cook. The years between 1856 and 1987 marked a prosperous era for sheep farming, contributing significantly to the country’s economic growth.

While not the first attempt to ship frozen meat on long ocean voyages, the 1882 shipment demonstrated an unprecedented level of success in transporting frozen goods and helped to build the foundations of an import and export industry still thriving today. 

The Pioneer of the Frozen Food Aisle

It was a man called William Soltau Davidson that was behind the idea of shipping frozen meat from the southern lands of Australia and New Zealand all the way to Britain.

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Although Davidson was based in Britain, he did hold the title of the general manager of the New Zealand and Australian Land Company. This organisation was no small endeavour, and possessed land holdings across New Zealand and Australia that equalled to more than one million hectares.

The SS Dunedin loading at Port Chalmers in 1882.
The SS Dunedin loading at Port Chalmers in 1882.

Keen to innovate to boost profits, Davidson was intrigued by the concept of shipping meat produced in Australia and New Zealand to markets around the world.

So, in the late 1800s, Davidson modified the passenger ship, the Dunedin with a Bell Colman coal powered freezing plant. The plant had the capability to drop the temperature of the hold to twenty-two degrees lower than the external temperature.

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Overseen by Thomas Brydone, who worked for the New Zealand and Australian Land Company, mutton and lamb carcasses from the Totara Estate slaughterhouse in New Zealand were cooled and then loaded into the freezing hold aboard the Dunedin.

On the fifteenth of February, 1882, five thousand frozen carcasses of New Zealand lamb began the journey to the United Kingdom 

Almost Freezing to Death on Tropical Seas 

The first journey of the Dunedin as a frozen food transport ship was not an uneventful one. At one point in the tropics, the ship’s crew discovered that the air in the hold was not circulating as it should have been, leading to the possibility of spoiling the cargo.

In a successful attempt to save the frozen goods, the ship’s captain climbed into the freezing hold and sawed out new holes to allow the air to circulate properly and the temperature to remain sufficiently frigid.

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

This endeavour was not without its risks. While the captain was successful in saving the cargo, he became hypothermic in the cargo hold and almost lost his life, having to be pulled out by his crew and resuscitated.

A voyage on the sea from New Zealand to Britain in the 1800s wasn’t a short journey. It wouldn’t be until May 1882 that the Dunedin would conclude its historic trip and reach its destination in London.

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The shipment was highly successful and out of the thousands of carcasses on board the Dunedin, only one had to be discarded.

On the success on the first voyage, Davidson quickly went about expanding his frozen shipping endeavours. The 1882 journey of the Dunedin  would prove to be just the first of many voyages carrying frozen products from New Zealand and Australia to destinations all around the world. 

Earlier Exploits into the Frozen Meat Business

While the Dunedin shipment was significant in the history of food trade and transportation, it wasn’t the first exploration into the concept of refrigerating products for shipping. As early as 1876 attempts were being made to transport cold stored meat from Australia to England, however this voyage proved unsuccessful.

Sheep farming was established by the 1850s, and has played an important role in New Zealand’s economy ever since. For several decades wool accounted for more than a third of New Zealand’s exports by value. Following the first export shipment of frozen meat in 1882 (see 15 February), sheep meat became a significant source of revenue as New Zealand forged a role as Britain’s farmyard.
Sheep farming was established by the 1850s, and has played an important role in New Zealand’s economy ever since.

There was also a shipment with limited success from the Americas to the UK in 1876, and a successful shipment of frozen mutton from Argentina to France in 1877. However carried aboard a steamer, the Argentina to France transport proved to be quite costly.

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The ship the Strathleven also sailed from Sydney to England in 1879 with a smaller load of frozen beef. This trip proved successful and paved the way for the undertakings of larger operations such as the Dunedin shipment 

The Impact of Imported Meat

Initially, there were concerns from British farmers that such shipments would undermine potential profits of homegrown meat by flooding the British market.

However, during the period that ships like the Dunedin were making their voyagers to the UK, the supply of meat products was not nearly keeping up with demand. So as a result, nineteenth century farmers found they had little to worry about from foreign meat imports. In major cities across the UK, the influx of quality meat products was a welcome occurrence.

Glenmark Mansion between 1888 (the year it was finished) and January 1891 (when it burned down).
Glenmark Mansion between 1888 (the year it was finished) and January 1891 (when it burned down). New Zealand Lamb export made many millionaires

As the population of cities was swelling in the nineteenth century, driven by major socio-economic shifts sparked by the industrial revolution, city populations were commonly left facing the prospect of food shortages. Importing food products from abroad, such as meat goods from New Zealand, helped to ease the pressure on food resources that a growing  urban population created. 

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The meat imports from New Zealand in the latter part of the nineteenth century provided both economic benefit to New Zealand producers and aided in improving food security for the British population. 

New Zealand Lamb, Icebergs and Storms 

Between 1882 and 1890 the Dunedin proved a successful transport method for frozen and refrigerated goods, making a total of nine trips in these eight years.

It was so successful that a sister ship, the Marlborough, was fitted to also ship frozen goods from New Zealand.  However, despite its success, Dunedin did meet a rather mysterious end. Leaving Oamaru in New Zealand on the nineteenth of March 1890, the ship was expected to arrive in Britain roughly three months later.

SS Dunedin in 1876, wearing the colours of Shaw, Savill & Albion Line of London (retained in 1882).
Early shipments New Zealand Lamb such as the Dunedin shipment in the 1800s paved the way for the massive scale of food imports and exports that Britain conducts today.

But, by October, the ship still hadn’t arrived, nor had the Marlborough which had also left New Zealand a few months before the Dunedin in January of the same year. Both ships were reported to have been seen in the southern ocean not long after leaving New Zealand, however were not seen again. 

The Dunedin was being commanded by an experienced captain and had been found to be highly seaworthy, so its sudden disappearance remains somewhat unexplainable.

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One of the strongest theories posited was that both the Dunedin and Marlborough hit icebergs in the Southern Sea and sank. Alternatively it has been theorised that the vessels were lost in ocean storms. 

In 1911, remains of a ship thought to possibly be the Marlborough were found with human skeletons still on board off the coast of South America. 

The true fate of the Dunedin still remains a mystery. After it left New Zealand in March 1890, no one ever heard from the ship’s thirty-four crew members, captain, or the captain’s daughter who was also aboard the doomed vessel, ever again. 

The Age of Imports and Exports 

Early shipments such as the Dunedin shipment in the 1800s paved the way for the massive scale of food imports and exports that Britain conducts today.

Thirty-five percent of the beef and veal consumed across the United Kingdom today is imported. Similarly, a third of the lamb meat that is consumed in the UK in the modern era is imported.

Interestingly, New Zealand actually remains the biggest importer of lamb in Britain, with over seventy percent  of imported lamb in Britain coming from New Zealand.

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A further fifteen percent of lamb imports come from New Zealand’s close neighbour, Australia. Meat exports also now create a significant revenue stream for the economy of New Zealand with the sheep and beef sector generating over NZD$9 billion in the 2019/2020 financial year. 

It also isn’t just meat that is imported into the UK. Estimates state that nearly half of the total food consumed in Britain comes from abroad. Without a combination of both homegrown produce and imported products Britain would be faced with a food shortage crisis. 

New Zealand Lamb From 1882 to Today 

Many of us may not put a lot of thought into where our food comes from and in an interconnected modern world it may seem commonplace to be consuming food produced on the other side of the globe.

However, this wasn’t always the case, and the voyage of the Dunedin and ships like it paved the way for how the global modern agricultural sector functions. Responding to socio-economic changes, the Dunedin shipment ushered in a system that changed the agricultural and trade landscape of Britain.

The shipment demonstrated the viability of the international trade of perishable goods and opened the door for trade avenues that were previously considered impossible. While the fate of the Dunedin may remain a mystery, there is no doubt that it made a mark on New Zealand, Britain, and the meat industry around the world.