The Dunedin listen (help·info) (1876–82) was the first ship to successfully transport a cargo of refrigerated meat. In this capacity, it provided the impetus to develop the capacity of New Zealand as a major provider of agricultural exports, notwithstanding its remoteness from most markets.
The 1,320-ton, 73-metre (240 ft) Dunedin was built by Robert Duncan and Co at Port Glasgow, Scotland, in 1874, for the Albion Line (later the Shaw, Savill & Albion Line). She cost ₤23,750 (£1.6 million, in 2010 inflation-adjusted British pounds). She was one of six 'Auckland' class emigrant vessels, each designed to carry 400 passengers. In 1881, still painted in her original colours of a black hull with a gold band and pink boot topping as shown, she was refitted with a Bell Coleman refrigeration machine, with which she took the first load of frozen meat from New Zealand to the United Kingdom.
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This historical importance of the Dunedin is due to this shipment, which proved refrigerated meat could be exported long distances, so establishing the New Zealand meat industry, and revolutionising agriculture in New Zealand and Australia. New Zealand in the 1870s produced large amounts of wool, but prices were depressed. In the United Kingdom (UK), the rapidly expanding population had outrun the supply of local meat, leading to rapid increases in prices. Live shipment from sources as distant as New Zealand was prohibitively expensive. New Zealand did export some canned meat, but the industry was in its infancy, and while the product was popular in the Pacific islands, it was less so in the UK.
The first attempt to ship refrigerated meat was made when the Northam sailed from Australia to the UK in 1876; however the refrigeration machinery broke down en route and so the cargo was lost. Later that year chilled beef was sent from the United States to Britain (a shorter journey, at cooler, higher latitudes) and, although spoilage was high, this voyage provided some encouragement to Australian and New Zealand promoters of refrigeration. In 1877 the steamers Le Frigorifique and Paraguay carried frozen mutton from Argentina to France, proving the concept, if not the economic case, for long-distance refrigerated shipping. In 1879 the Strathleven, equipped with compression refrigeration, sailed from Sydney with 40 long tons (41 t) of frozen beef and mutton as a small part of her cargo, and this meat arrived in good condition.
Director of the New Zealand and Australian Land Company (NZALC), William Soltau Davidson, sent an employee, Thomas Brydone, from New Zealand to the UK to investigate compression refrigeration units. In 1880 Davidson convinced the company to invest in refrigeration. Teaming up with James Galbraith of the Albion shipping company, they approached John Bell and Sons and J.J. Coleman, who had been involved in American chilled beef shipments.
As a result of negotiations, Albion agreed to refit the Dunedin with a Bell-Coleman compression refrigeration machine, cooling the entire hold. Using 3 tons of coal a day, this steam-powered machine could chill the hold to 40 degrees Fahrenheit (22 °C) below surrounding air temperature, freezing the cargo in the temperate climate of southern New Zealand, and then maintaining it beneath zero through the tropics. The Dunedin was refitted in May 1881, the most visible sign being a funnel for the refrigeration plant between her fore and main masts - sometimes leading her to be mistaken for a steamship. The refitted Dunedin arrived in Dunedin's Port Chalmers at the end of November 1881.
From 5 December 1881, a herd of 10,000 Merino/Lincoln and Leicester crossbreed sheep on NZALC's Totara Estate near Oamaru was slaughtered at a purpose-built slaughter works close to the railhead there. The carcases were sent overnight by goods trains with a central block of ice to be loaded on the Dunedin, where they were sewn into calico bags and frozen. To prove the process, the first frozen carcases were taken off the ship, thawed and cut.
After 7 days of loading, the crankshaft of the compressor broke, damaging the machine's casing and causing the loss of the 643 sheep stowed. It took a month for a local machinist to rebuild the crankshaft and associated machinery. The frozen carcasses were resold locally during this time, and, encouragingly, they were considered to be indistinguishable from fresh meat.
On 15 February 1882, the Dunedin sailed with 4331 mutton, 598 lamb and 22 pig carcasses, 250 kegs of butter, hare, pheasant, turkey, chicken and 2226 sheep tongues. Sparks from the compressor's boiler created a fire hazard, and Captain Whitson at one point developed hypothermia while working alone in the air duct.
The Dunedin arrived in London 98 days after setting sail. Carcasses were sold at the Smithfield market over two weeks by John Swan and Sons, who noted butchers' concerns about the quality of meat from the experimental transport; "Directly the meat was placed on the market, its superiority over the Australian [frozen] meat struck us, and in fact the entire trade". Although crossed with the primarily wool bearing Merino, the well fed New Zealand sheep weighed an average of over 40 kilograms (88 lb), and some exceeded 90 kilograms (200 lb). Only one carcass was condemned. 
Establishing an industry
The Times commented "Today we have to record such a triumph over physical difficulties, as would have been incredible, even unimaginable, a very few days ago...". After meeting all costs, NZALC's profit from the voyage was £4700. The shipment effectively launched the refrigerated meat industry and assured New Zealand's early dominance in it. The Marlborough—sister ship to the Dunedin – was immediately converted and joined the trade the following year, along with the rival New Zealand Shipping Company vessel Mataurua, while the German Steamer Marsala began carrying frozen New Zealand lamb in December 1882. Within five years, 172 shipments of frozen meat were sent from New Zealand to the United Kingdom, of which only 9 had significant amounts of meat condemned. Refrigerated shipping also led to a broader meat and dairy boom in Australasia and South America. Frozen meat and dairy exports continued to form the backbone of New Zealand's economy until the UK's entry into the European Economic Community in 1974, and are still important.
The Dunedin and Marlborough continued in the frozen meat trade until both disappeared in 1890. The Marlborough had sailed first in January and the Dunedin followed in March. Although both were sighted just after leaving New Zealand, neither were seen again. RMS Rimutaka reported that there were great quantities of ice in the Southern Ocean on their normal route between the Chatham Island and Cape Horn when she sailed through the area in early to mid February. No trace was ever found of the Dunedin and it was presumed both she and the Marlborough hit icebergs in the Southern Ocean.
- The Dunedin, Exotic Intruders, Joan Druett, Heinemann, 1983, Auckland
- Untitled, Auckland Star, Volume XXI, Issue 138, 12 June 1890, Page 4
- A lasting Legacy – A 125 year history of New Zealand Farming since the first Frozen Meat Shipment, Ed. Colin Williscroft PMP, NZ Rural Press Limited, Auckland, 2007
- Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Mervyn Palmer.
- Encyclopedia of New Zealand Ships, famous – Dunedin
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