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

The Staple Commodity of the Future Commerce of New Zealand
Interior of a twine spinning factory, with spindles, pulleys and spools of twine from New Zealand flax. Photograph taken by Samuel Heath Head, Christchurch. Source: Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference Number : 1/1-007315-G.
Interior of a twine spinning factory, with spindles, pulleys and spools of twine from New Zealand flax. [8]

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.

Flax processing factory interior, circa 1920s, probably Christchurch region. View includes machinery and workers. Photograph taken by Samuel Heath Head. Image: Ref: 1/1-007297-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.
Flax processing factory interior, circa 1920s, probably Christchurch region. View includes machinery and workers. [9]

“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.” [10]

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. [11]

>> READ PART 3: Edwin Trent junior, Colonial Settler


4 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


    1. Geoffrey says:

      I’ve got a old photo of the Trent’s coffee and Chicory Works at Templeton it back dates to the 1870


  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.


  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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