The Staple Commodity of the Future Commerce of New Zealand
Before New Zealand had been formally added to the colonial dependencies of Great Britain, and before systematic colonisation was commenced, considerable quantities of native New Zealand flax had made its way into England. It had been considered likely to form the staple commodity of the future commerce of this country, and a means of rendering the Mother country independent of foreign supply.
However abundant the raw material, the biggest obstacle was the lack of a simple and cheap means of preparing the fibre to meet the high demand from manufacturers.
The New Zealand Society, through its connections with the London Society of Arts (established for the encouragement of arts, manufactures and commerce) offered a premium for the invention of a machine for the preparation of the Phormium tenax. Edwin Trent, who was a member of the Royal Society of Arts, and the manager of Park Hemp Works, had been working on an invention for preparing New Zealand flax.
Trent exhibited the fishing line and tow ropes made at his hemp works using NZ flax at London’s Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in 1851 – making up some of the 13,000 natural and man-made objects in the largest collection of materials and inventions the world had ever seen.
The following year, tests were conducted at her Majesty’s dockyard in Woolwich to check the strength of a new patent band for driving machinery, made with a combination of webbing – hemp, leather and ‘gutta percha’. Two bands were tested; one made with the best Russian hemp, the other with New Zealand flax. The latter broke at a much higher strain than the Russian hemp.
“I have seen specimens of ropes, twine, yarn, lines, sail-cloth, sacking, bed-tick, &c, made of Phormium tenax; also finer fabrics of various kinds, affording demonstrable evidence that its fibre is susceptible of being woven into tissues of the most delicate description, or manufactured into materials of the strongest and coarsest kind. The sails, cables, and running rigging of the beautiful model of the frigate presented by his Majesty William the Fourth to the King of Prussia, were entirely formed from Phormium tenax. Captain Harris’s yacht, perfect gem in naval architecture, is supplied with a mainsail composed of three different varieties of New Zealand flax, and the cordage is made of musa textilis.” 
Auckland Leads the Way
Auckland, being the largest flax producing province in the colony, took the lead in all attempts to prepare the fibre. By 1866, a frenzy of activity was underway to find a cheap way to prepare the flax for manufacturing. Edwin Trent junior, who was now well settled in Canterbury, New Zealand, designed a machine for cleaning New Zealand flax, by separating the vegetable gum from the fibre, rendering it fit for manufacturing into rope. He began to patent this process in 1868 whilst proprietor of the Steam Coffee Works in Market Place, Christchurch. The object of his invention was to produce an exportable commodity, capable of receiving the finishing touches by the more elaborate machinery used in England and elsewhere.
At around the same time, the Halswell Flax Company was showcasing it’s new set up. A host of prominent Christchurch business men and reporters were invited to inspect their works beside the river Halswell – some distance beyond Landsdowne, the late residence of Mr Guise Brittan. Situated in the middle of the great swamp, the company had an abundant supply of raw flax.
Their process was a simple one, patented by Purchas and Ninnis of the Kaiapoi Flax Works. After the flax was cut, it passed through a 3000 lb weight, steam driven, stamping machine which smashed the flax without harming the fibres. The gummy residue was carried away by water pumped from the nearby river. The fibres were then hung on wires to dry and bleach for two to three days in the sun. It was then ready for manufacturing into rope.
The flax cost £12 a ton to produce. The company speculated it would resell it at £30 – £40 a ton. Their first commercial transaction of ten tons of fibre fetched an encouraging £30 per ton, and by December, 1867, it was destined for the British textile industry.
The refuse ‘tow’ found sale in Christchurch at £30 a ton for stuffing mattresses, etc. By all accounts, it looked like it was going to be a successful enterprise.