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

Canterbury Steam Coffee Mills and New Zealand Chicory Works

In early 1862, whilst Frederick was still in Taranaki, his Nelson-based brother Edwin sold all his furniture and household effects – without reserve – to return to England. During his three or so years in Nelson, Edwin had become accustomed to the New Zealand climate. On his return to the cooler climes of Britain, he soon found that the English weather no longer suited him. By May 1863, he was back in New Zealand, taking over the hardware and general furnishing business of Mr A. Holland in Christchurch. Within four months of his return, he had an agreement with the Provincial Government for supplying ‘rations’ to the Christchurch Gaol and Immigration Barracks for a 12 month period.

From these early business dealings, ‘Trent & Co’ grocers, coffee roasters and general importers began to grow. A business partnership with William Arthur Knapman, increased business until the partnership closed in May 1865. Edwin carried on the wholesale coffee business in Market-place, with Knapman occupying the Whateley Road grocery. [19]

Canterbury Steam Coffee Mills, Victoria Street. Source: Trent Bros stationery, 1898. Image: Archives NZ, Christchurch.
Canterbury Steam Coffee Mills, Victoria Street. [20]
The Town Manufactory: Whateley Road and Market Place

At first, Trent’s grocery shop was cramped into premises in Cambridge Terrace, but business grew to the extent that Edwin was able to build his own three storey, manufactory on Whateley Road near Victoria bridge.

Constructed of wood and corrugated iron lined with match boards the three storeyed building was lit by 62 windows. Warehousing and offices were based on the bottom floor while on the second floor was the mill room, and on the third floor the roasting room. The roasting room’s floor was covered with thick sheet iron, with a plastered roof overhead and lantern ventilation. Three roasting machines resided here for roasting coffee and chicory, which then passed through to the mill room on the second floor. The mills ground the coffee and chicory, along with pepper and spices, whilst another machine manufactured pearl barley. They were mixed, packed into tins, weighed and sent downstairs for labelling.

It was a fully integrated business, with a smaller building on site used for manufacturing all the various tin cans needed for packaging, serviced by a tinsmith’s shop.

Edwin had run the business by himself until 1st April, 1872, when he admitted his youngest brother, James, as his partner. The business then became ‘Trent Brothers’.

Not long after, Edwin and James dissolved their partnership, and Edwin turned his attention to the cultivation of chicory. Frederick took Edwin’s place, and he and James continued the business of Trent Brothers, leasing the Whateley road warehouse and office from Edwin. [21]

Edwin Trent's Chicory Kilns at Templeton. Image supplied courtesy of John & Sue Shanks, Trent's Vineyard.
Edwin Trent’s Chicory Kilns at Templeton. [22]
The Chicory Farm and Works in Templeton

Inheriting his father’s keen business sense, Edwin junior became “the first to bring chicory forward as an article of commerce in New Zealand.” In 1867, with import duties on chicory at a high three pence a pound, Edwin purchased a farm to begin growing the root crop locally. He started with 150 acres situated about half a mile from the Templeton Railway Station, on the Great Southern Line, and fronting what was known as Dawson’s and the Waimakariri Rd. The land, which was formally in ‘a native state’, was divided into 25 acre paddocks. The soil was not suited to traditional farming but proved second to none for the purpose of cultivating chicory.

The buildings forming the homestead were built about four hundred yards back from the road, and occupied about an acre of land. The largest, in 1871, was the ‘match lined’ bunkhouse, which accommodated sixteen workers, and had a cookhouse at the back.

The ‘root house’ had a nine foot stud to allow carts to enter and off-load the roots, which were dug out during May by contract labourers. Boys were employed to cut off the roots and deposit them in baskets, which were emptied into the drays by the carters, and transported to the root house. In one corner, was a ‘coke bunk’ for the storage of the fuel, and on the right a door lead to the kiln, implement and double storey store house. The chicory was washed in a machine similar to a potato washer, powered by a four-horse steam engine on the ground floor. There was also a large vat built of kauri – used to soak the root before washing – as well as sleeping quarters for seven men, and a small office.

The chicory came out of the wash perfectly bleached and fell onto a sheet on the ground, where it was pitched into a slicing machine by a man with a wooden spade and strong arms. The sliced chicory was then shovelled into bags and hoisted upstairs by a steam hoist into the kiln room. The floor of the kiln room was lined with 576 perforated tiles, and overhead a 4 x 4 foot ventilation system resided. Here the sliced chicory was spread out to dry on the tiled floor for 24 hours. It was then stored before transportation to Christchurch by a waggon of ‘mammoth proportions’ capable of carrying five tons of root.

At the rear of the buildings there were harness rooms, cart sheds, fowl houses, piggeries and a large yard with stables for eight horses. There was also a cattle shed and ‘dung yard’ necessary because the cultivation of chicory required large quantities of manure. All of this was under the control of the foreman, whose house was located nearby on half an acre of land.

The farm was served by a 50 foot well which supplied ‘an apparently inexhaustible supply of splendid water’. What made this well different was that the entire length of the well was lined with 1 1/2 inch thick Totara planks with standing stages and trap doors every 10 feet, to allow a man safe descent into the well.

Writing to a contemporary in 1867, Trent said “by that means I am enabled to give employment to a number of men during the worst season of the year, besides keeping a considerable amount of money in the province annually. I may add, in addition to the root crop I get about ten large dray loads of tops to the acre, which is an invaluable winter food for sheep, pigs, &c. Sheep in particular prefer it to any other description of food, even turnips”. [23]

Trent Farm and Chicory Works, Templeton. Supplied courtesy of John and Sue Shanks, Trent Vineyard.
Trent Farm and Chicory Works, Templeton. [22]

With a further purchase of 50 acres, the farm covered a total of 200 acres. Each year crop sizes increased as did the harvest. In the fourth season, cropping 75 acres, Trent was able to harvest 100 tons of chicory, of which 2/3s was exported out of the province. This crop yielded £50 per ton.

Production was divided between the Templeton farm and Christchurch, where the chicory was roasted and ground. The cost of sending the chicory by rail to town – which had been the intent – ended up being too expensive as the dried root was classified as ‘chemicals’ and therefore commanded a higher freight cost than farm produce. This was why Trent used the mammoth waggon to transport the root to town.

Despite the large investment made in chicory cultivation – and the fact that it had grown into one of the most successful export businesses in the province – the property was not insured. At 4 am one morning in June 1873, a worker living on-site woke up to the sound of sharp crackling. On investigation, he discovered the chaff store was in flames. He raised the alarm and a messenger was sent to the Fire Brigade in Christchurch, and to Edwin Trent who lived in town.

Although the well boasted an endless amount of water, little was accessible to fight the fire. The fire quickly spread, engulfing buildings, destroying machinery and incinerating half of the 60 ton crop in storage.

By the next day, the whole of the works was destroyed. The only buildings left standing were the stabling, the root house, the new brick kiln, the manager’s house and men’s quarters. The damage was estimated to be a figure of £6000. [24]

>> READ PART 5: Rising from the Ashes


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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