Flax, Coffee, Tea and Chicory – the Trent Brothers’ Christchurch Empire

St John's Anglican Church, Latimer Square, Christchurch, 1881. Image: Ferrier, William (Christchurch) fl 1881-1900. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org
St John’s Anglican Church, Latimer Square, Christchurch, 1881. [1]
It is ten days before Christmas, 1877 and two brothers, Frederick and James Trent, stand expectantly before the Reverend Henry Crocker Marriott Watson at the altar of St John the Baptist Church in Latimer Square.

The day before, at Christchurch Normal School, pupils joyfully ended their year with an annual prize giving. The children sat in closely packed rows throughout the proceedings, happy in the knowledge that they would soon be dismissed to commence their Christmas break.

That week, residents in Colombo Street are being entertained in the evenings by the antics of a pet kangaroo which had escaped from the confines of somebody’s backyard. The animal had managed to alight onto Mr Mein’s small goods shop, providing great amusement to the passers-by.

Whilst James and Frederick await the arrival of the two women with whom they will vow to spend the rest of their lives, not far away members of the Christchurch City Council are holding their annual meeting, toasting the health of his Worship the Mayor with champagne and biscuits.

By the standards of the day, neither groom is young. Thirty five year old Frederick is in his middle years and is a veteran of the Taranaki Wars. His brother, James is almost ten years younger. They are partners in a successful Christchurch coffee business.

Their brides, the Sowersby sisters, are from Edinburgh. Twenty eight year old Mary, who is betrothed to Frederick, is the oldest daughter of the late Andrew Sowersby, of Perthshire, Scotland. His youngest daughter, twenty six year old Annie Falshaw, will make a match with James.

Taking time away from his busy city iron foundry to witness this special occasion is a local businessman, John Anderson. The vicar’s wife, Annie, is also attending to bear witness to the event. Fanny Washbourne, the wife of a successful early settler, is also present. [2]

Sowersby' School for Young Ladies. Source: "Educational" Press, Volume XXVII, Issue 3692, 22 May 1877, Page 1. Image: PapersPast
Sowersby’ School for Young Ladies. [3]
Sowersby’s School for Young Ladies

Just over a year before, Mary and Annie Sowersby, accompanied by their mother, sailed to New Zealand on board the Waitangi. They travelled in the relative comfort of a saloon cabin in comparison to the rest of the 282 assisted immigrants who endured the confined conditions of steerage. Thankfully for all on board, the twelve week voyage was comfortable and uneventful, and the ship arrived in Lyttelton on 16 September, 1876. The passengers disembarked at the port before making their way to the Addington Immigration Depot.

The sisters lost no time in establishing a boarding school for ‘Young Ladies’. They set up on Hereford Street east – on the corner of Latimer Square, opening the school to pupils on 25th January, 1877.

Unmarried ladies of class and refinement are in short supply in colonial Canterbury. Even though the sisters are twenty six and twenty eight – well past their first flush of youth, it was not long before the Sowersby sisters were offered proposals of marriage. [4]

Roots in Ropemaking

Although it was coffee that brought Frederick and James Trent to Christchurch, it was not coffee that had attracted them to New Zealand in the first instance. What most excited their father, Edwin Ward Trent senior, about this South Pacific colony was the product of the swampy wet lands – Phormium tenax – New Zealand flax.

Phormium tenax, New Zealand Flax.
Phormium tenax, New Zealand Flax. [5]

The rope making, sail cloth and spinning industries in Britain were dependent on large supplies of flax imported from Belgium, Holland and Russia. By the 1840s, upwards of 4-5 million pounds sterling was being spent on annual importation. The fibre from New Zealand flax was considered by nautical men to be superior in strength and durability, over any other material used in the manufacture of lines and rigging. It could also produce a fibre as fine as silk, which was ideal for textiles.

‘Some specimens of a preparation of the Phormium Tenax or New Zealand flax, have lately been submitted to the New Zealand Company, warranting a hope that the difficulties which have hitherto prevented the general use of this article, arising from the costliness of the various modes of dressing hitherto attempted, may at length have been surmounted. Several of the leading hemp and flax brokers of London testify to the efficiency of the new process, which is alleged to be inexpensive, while, at the same time it involves little waste of material. The inventor is Mr. E. W. Trent, of Smith’s hemp-works, Old Ford. [6]

Edwin senior knew more than most about flax and rope making. He had been born in Penn Mill, Yeovil, a village in Somersetshire in 1810, where there had been a flax market. As a young man he had wanted to go to sea, but his mother was against the idea, so instead, he worked in the rope making trade. He excelled in his work and also proved to be clever with mechanics. He invented and made machines for processing raw materials into fibre and for making rope, and twine.

He had been in partnership with his brother Henry, who was also a rope maker. When that enterprise failed, Edwin became manager of the Park Works in Old Ford, London. Henry, who had also managed a rope factor, died in 1859, leaving a motherless child, Henry junior, who became Edwin’s ward.

Edwin senior was also an avid traveller, making frequent business trips to Canada, United States and Russia. His interests also carried over to social issues, and he wrote and published a work on the subject of training boys, who had not been convicted of a crime, on a self-supporting system for colonial life. He called it “England; Her Colonies: Her Superabundant Population, a Few Suggestions”.

Writing to the London Royal Society in 1864, Edwin senior – who was then residing at Brooksby’s-walk in Homerton – highlighted Britain’s impending flax shortage which was predicted to follow on the heels of the cotton shortage. With foresight, he opined this shortage could be averted. On one of his business trips to Eastern Europe he observed the Russians building a monopolistic supply of ship’s cordage, brought about by cheap labour, an abundant supply of the raw material, and exported English talent and machinery. In Britain, flax cultivation had traditionally been undertaken in Norfolk and Suffolk, but the art of cultivating and preparing flax had all but been lost.

In 1861, a ‘friend’ of Edwin’s who was living in Nelson, consigned three and a half tons of New Zealand flax to him. To test its value, Trent put it up for auction. As it had been badly prepared and suffered from being shipped loose in the vessel’s hold, the flax only realised £15 per ton. After paying for the flax, plus insurance, shipping, dock fees, etc., his friend made a loss of over £45 on the whole exercise. Had the flax been properly prepared and shipped, it had the potential to fetch £30 to £35 per ton.

Trent still believed, that the loss was due to the lack of preparation and packing of the fibres, and that if correctly transported, New Zealand flax could be the answer to supplying all Britain’s hemp and flax needs.

He encouraged the Royal Society to promote the discovery of fresh sources of supply and advocated the cultivation of flax at home, and in Australia and New Zealand. [7]

>> READ PART  2 : The Staple Commodity of the Future Commerce of New Zealand

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Kathrine Holyoak says:

    AMAZING!!! I am a direct descendent of Edwin Ward Trent Sr. I come from his daughter, Mary Ann Trent (who died in England). He also had other daughters who never immigrated to New Zealand (and thus were not noted in your local history). You have done an OUTSTANDING job of researching and documenting this family. Are you part of the blood line too? I learned facts I hadn’t yet found from this article. I can share some details that I have uncovered if you would be interested. My contact info is noted above. I live in Rexburg, Idaho, USA but have fallen in love with the Trent family and am currently researching them. Their New Zealand branch is a productive and fascinating part of the line. I look forward to hearing from you- Kathrine Holyoak

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  2. Darian Zam says:

    Trent’s “Good Cook” brand seems to have lived on into the 1960s-1970s. At some point they also acquired the “Musto” brand from S. Kirkpatrick and Co which had been around since the 1920s. Trent’s Tins from the 1950s and 1960s come up regularly at auction but I’ve never seen older than that. I only this week found two references to Trent’s white pepper in the 1930s, making me realise they had a much older back story than I thought from items and adverts I’ve seen over time. That didn’t bring me to this story though – just a coincidence.

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  3. dean cameron says:

    A very interesting read on the Trent family I can add some more details. James Trent lived at 119 Salisbury street 1886 – 1891 . Frederick Trent lived at 151 Salisbury street 1887 – 1899 . in about 1912 they changed the street numbering in Salisbury street 151 Salisbury street became 90 Salisbury Street which is my house. James house which was on the Salisbury & Colombo corner has been a car park for a few decades if anyone has any photos of 90 Salisbury street I would be grateful.

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