Flour, bread and bakeries

Bread was a staple for British settlers to New Zealand and, at first, flour and bread were imported from Australia. In the early 1800s, Ngāpuhi chief Ruatara was among the first to plant wheat in New Zealand. To begin with wheat was ground with a steel hand-mill. The first flour mill in New Zealand began operation in 1834 at the Church Missionary Society’s farm at Waimate, built of timber, it was powered by a water wheel set in a small stream.

Image: Frank Denton. A view of an old flour mill, Waimate North, Bay of Islands, with the water wheel visible, about 1898. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 877-ALBUM-138-28.

From the mid-1840s Māori invested in water-powered mills to process the wheat they grew. Between 1846 and 1860, 37 flour mills were built for Māori owners in the Auckland province alone.

Image: Letter to Governor Grey at Wellington, written at Manawatū by Hōri,
possibly Hōri Takerei. The letter requests a plough to prepare land for wheat for a mill.
Signed by Takerei, Māka, Te Papa, Ngāweua, Tamarua, and Ngāwaka, 20 July 1853.
Ngā reta Māori – Grey New Zealand Māori letters.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, GNZMA 411.

Flour milling was the most widespread industry in early colonial New Zealand and remained one of the largest industries throughout the nineteenth century. Flour milling turned wheat into flour, which was mainly used for bread making. The first fully automated mill was the Northern Roller Flour Mill on Quay Street, Auckland Central, which opened in 1888.

Image: Unknown photographer. Low and Motion's flour mill at Western Springs, with Mr Motion's house (left), 1870s. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 5-232.

Missionary wives and pioneers had to learn to make their own bread and how to keep yeast alive. Most English towns had baker’s shops that supplied bread. For many Pākehā immigrants, bread was not something they had ever had to prepare before. Few imported cookbooks included yeast recipes so early New Zealand newspapers often printed instructions on how to make yeast and keep it alive. Most early bread baking was achieved on a camp oven resulting in large round loaves.

Image: Auckland Weekly News. An unidentified woman from Herekino with freshly baked bread, 30 October 1902. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19021030-11-2.

Image: Auckland Weekly News. A gum-digger at Tom Bowling's Bay, North Auckland, with his baking, 20 March 1913. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19130320-10-6.

Image: Albert Percy Godber. Two men, including the cook, inside the kitchen
at the Piha Mill camp. Note the two large cobs of bread on the table, 1916.
 Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, JTD-04A-00122.

In 1919, William Buchanan’s “up-to-date” bakery at Eden Terrace was the most modern bread-working plant in New Zealand, with only two other similar bakeries in Australasia. Each oven had capacity for 280 loaves, so, with six ovens, Buchanan’s bakery was capable of baking 10,000 loaves in 8 hours. 

Image: The Weekly Graphic and New Zealand Mail. Bread-making by machinery – A visit to a modern bakery article, 27 July 1910, page 33. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZG-19100727-33.

The ‘Weekly Graphic and New Zealand Mail’ article above and below provides a thorough insight into the processes at Buchanan’s bakery: “On the second floor is the kneading machine, in appearance something like a huge churn. The interior of the machine appears to be a mass of blades of about the thickness of a plough-share. Churned into dough the flour advances and recedes like the waves of a miniature ocean, one minute threatening to overflow the sides of the machine, the next being swallowed up within its depths.”

Image: The Weekly Graphic and New Zealand Mail. Bread-making by machinery –
A visit to a modern bakery article continued, 27 July 1910, page 34.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZG-19100727-34.

The writer continues to outline their observations at Buchanan’s bakery: “To see the bread emerging from the ovens, one cannot do better than visit the bakery early on a Saturday morning, as the writer did. The final batches of bread were in readiness for baking on our arrival and oven after oven was being opened to release the bread, some 8,000 loaves being required for the day’s supply. Everything went with the regularity of clock-work, the ovens being rapidly emptied…”

Image: Herman Schmidt. Portrait of Missie Montgomery holding a large loaf of bread, 1910. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 31-62235.

In New Zealand in the early 1900s, white bread was preferred. Wholemeal was associated with poverty, as unprocessed wholemeal flour was cheaper. Brown bread was coloured with the addition of caramel and a little wholemeal. In the 1940s, wholemeal bread was promoted as being healthier than white. Pre-sliced, wrapped bread was unheard of before 1950, most bread was sold unwrapped and unsliced, and was simply put in a paper bag at the shop counter. The baking industry was one of the most heavily regulated in the country from the 1930s to the 1980s. Prices for certain types of bread were subsidised by the government until price controls on bread ended in 1980.

Image: Unknown photographer. Adkins home bakery in Highbury, Birkenhead, 1940s.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, T5202.

Bread is best eaten fresh, so it must get to the customer quickly and regularly. Before good transport links were established, bakeries had to be close to their customers. In 1940, New Zealand had 730 bread bakeries. By 1968, there were only 119. By the 1980s, the baking industry had changed from hundreds of tiny family-owned operations, with limited mechanisation, to a few, much larger, fully automated factories owned by a small number of companies. There was also a much wider range of breads becoming available. Over the 1990s, small niche specialty bakeries, selling a range of breads, grew in popularity to meet a change in the public’s bread tastes.

Image: Solomon Mortimer. The bread making machinery at the premises of La Voie Francaise, 875 Dominion Road, Auckland, 2013. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1212-8.

A physical display of this blog post is available to view on the second floor atrium space at Tāmaki Pātaka Kōrero | Central City Library. This display complements the Heritage Collections ‘Food for thought’ exhibition also on show on the second floor of the library until 31 January 2021.

Author: Elspeth Orwin, Heritage Collections.