Big sugar in little Birkenhead – and the Chelsea Archives

Photo credit: Melvin Vaniman c1902, Chelsea Archives
It's big, it's orange, it's preposterous. You see it out of the corner of your eye as you drive up the Harbour Bridge, unless you're concentrating on the road of course.. It's the Chelsea Sugar Refinery in Birkenhead.

It wasn't always orange. Once it was pink. And it’s been red and yellow. Over the years, a confection. And it's a lot older than the bridge.

Once it was even grey. In this c1902 panorama by Melvin Vaniman the smokiness of the complex is hard to miss. Unless, like Vaniman, you were in a balloon.

The Chelsea Archives are the business records of the Refinery shortly after it began in 1883, when a million and a half bricks were carved out of the clay near Duck Creek. A hundred or so years in 200 something boxes. A good-sized community archive then, of great local significance, particularly for those interested in discovering if family members worked there or perhaps if the houses they are in have any historical connection. Also, there is much local history embedded within it, waiting to be discovered.

As well, the Archives are of broader interest in terms of such things as social development, industrial history, and trade relations. Predominately it contains letter books between Auckland, Sydney and Fiji. There are also engineering notes, accounting, legal and sales records, as well as oddities like more than you ever wanted to know about beet.

Beyond the letter books, there is a plethora of other media including slides, newsletters and esp photos - many of which will be viewable at Local History Online. A fuller sense of the Archives contents can be gleaned from the Index's Table of Contents.

Author: Paul Croxson