Volume 5 (2021)
By 1878 A&G Price had 40 employees and were building a large boiler making facility in Thames.
The earliest form of power for the stamper batteries was provided by overshot or undershot water wheels and although steam engines were introduced they were more expensive to run than water power. In 1884 twenty out of twenty-six batteries were still using water wheels. In the same year, A&G Price began manufacturing Pelton wheels under license from the American inventor. They were also used to power their own machine shops.
These water wheels were a kind of turbine with a high pressure water-jet directed at curved buckets mounted on the edge of a wheel. They required water to be conveyed in enclosed pipes from several hundred feet above the wheel to provide sufficient pressure. The advantage was that they were remarkably efficient. They published numbers in the order of 90% efficiency (I checked their calculations and they appear to be correct.) A six feet Pelton wheel using 163 cubic feet (4400 liters) of water per minute could produce 107 horsepower (80 kW). A stamper battery at Waihi had 6 of these six feet Pelton wheels driving 60 stampers with 900 pound (400 Kg) hammers operating at 92 impacts per minute.
According to the 'Men Of Metal' book published for the Centennial, in 1871 there were 265 mining companies registered in Thames but 135 wound up, leaving 130, but only 23 paid dividends. That means there was significant risk in extending credit to these companies who wanted to buy mining equipment from A&G Price, but it is likely that some mining companies were largely funded by speculative investors.
In later years, A&G Price won contracts for a 100-stamper battery at Waikino for Waihi Gold Mining Company, a 60-head battery at Moanataiari (directly over the road from their foundry) and a 40-head battery of stampers at Karangahake mine. There were also several contracts for smaller batteries of about 10 stampers.
Water pumps became a necessity as the miners dug below sea level. Initially each mining company provided their own pumps. For example the famous Caledonian mine had a 45 horsepower (33 kW) pump. But as the mines went deeper they could not cope with the quantity of water that was seeping into the mines, and the companies had to group together to build bigger pumping projects.
There were two of these ‘Big Pump’ projects. First a consortium of four companies formed the United Pumping Association in 1872 and built the first Big Pump using equipment from UK and Ballarat, Australia at the location of the Imperial Crown mine. In 1874 A&G Price were contracted to construct new underground equipment to extend the depth below the 400 foot mark (120m) to 660 feet (200m). The 300 horsepower (225 kW) Bull’s steam engine was nearly 7 times more powerful than the Caledonian pump and was designed to pump 10 tons of water per minute from a depth of 443 feet (135m) and could be extended to 2000 feet (600m). The warden of the Thames Goldfields Colonel W. Fraser reported to the Colonial secretary that 'The castings are larger and heavier than any ever turned out of a New Zealand Foundry.' A road surface collapse in 2012 uncovered evidence of the first Big Pump site under State Highway 25.
Another consortium called the Thames-Hauraki Pumping Association was created in 1898 to build the second Big Pump which was even bigger. Often referred to as the Hauraki Big Pump it was located at the Queen of Beauty mine now in Bella Street. This used a big beam engine with two large compound condensing cylinders. A&G Price provided ten huge Lancaster boilers 9.1 m long and 2.1 m diameter. They tested the boilers to a pressure of 300 psi (20 times atmospheric pressure) at the foundry to ensure that they could work safely at 120 psi (8.3 atm). The engine moved a shaft back and forth horizontally. The horizontal motion was translated into a vertical motion by two huge quadrants weighing 22 tons each. They were constructed from wrought iron shipped from England and riveted together by A&G Price. The water was lifted in three stages with pumps at approximately 100m, 200m and 300m down. In the end, the Big Pump failed to save the mining industry when, in 1913, the miners struck a fault 1000 feet (300m) from the surface resulting in a major influx of water which swamped the mines. When the Mines Department attempted to dismantle the underground pumps and shafts, they again called on A&G Price to use huge blow-torches to allow the joints in the pump rods to be separated. When the huge horizontal steam engine came up for sale, both A&G Price and Charles Judd Ltd put in bids, but the Mines Department decided to call for tenders again and finally received about three times as much as the first offers. The Hauraki Big Pump has been restored as the Bella Street Pump House.
As the gold mining industry subsided, A&G Price continued their interest in the flax industry but the number of flax mills around New Zealand also declined from about 300 to 40 when prices for fiber dropped as sailing ships were replaced by steam, but they diversified into the timber industry, railways and ship building. In the 1930s they were still doing some maintenance work for mining companies.
In 1872, they won a government contract to manufacture railway carriages and wagons including 22 pieces of rolling stock at a cost of 2916 pounds and when this was completed successfully at their Onehunga branch in 1874 they moved all their production to their facility on Beach Road, Grahamstown. This is the same location currently occupied by A&G Price in Thames today. Railway contracts were to become a major part of their business for a century.
By 1868 the estimated 16 million acres of native timber (kauri, puriri, kahikatea and other species) had dwindled to 1.65 million acres and within 5 years was down to 1.2 million acres. But there was still enough timber on Coromandel Peninsula to keep a dozen saw mills producing an average of 50,000 linear feet of sawn timber per week for years to come. One mill was located at Tapu, just north of Grahamstown. In Tairua alone, 87 square miles of bush including 56,000 acres of kauri were considered sufficient to keep four mills busy for the next 50 years.
One piece of equipment that was particularly important in New Zealand forestry was the timber jacks. Although similar jacks had been used since the 1700’s the two New Zealand designs were apparently popular around the world. A&G Price designed, patented and manufactured an improved timber jack. The Auckland Star reported on 30th December 1940 that a large number of timber jacks had been ordered to help with demolition and rescue work in bombed areas of England. The firm reported that they had completed 30,000 of them in more than 60 years and they had already donated some jacks to the military. Charles Judd Ltd had their own design and also manufactured them in large numbers.
Errol Ross described working at A&G Price making timber jacks and he found it very repetitive monotonous work making identical parts. Apparently they hand-chiselled the teeth of a gear wheel called a pinion and there were hundreds of them.
In addition to timber jacks, A&G Price also provided for the timber industry stationary steam powered winches used as log haulers, and later diesel versions. The Deal Frame Saw was an interesting machine they manufactured to saw a whole log into planks in one operation using multiple vertical saws which could be set up in various positions to make different sized planks.
During a major national depression in 1880, John Watson represented A&G Price to make a submission in which he stated that they were ‘in a position to manufacture nearly any article required in New Zealand in general engineering, iron-founding, boiler making, shipbuilding, etc.’ He went on to say that they had only 40 to 50 staff but could employ 70. However, they were suffering from competition as there were no duties paid on most imported goods and wages were 3 pounds to 3 pounds 12 shillings per 48 hour week which was twice as much as that paid for a 72 hour week in England. (The hourly rate paid in New Zealand was three times that paid in England and was equivalent to about an ounce of gold per week.)
A&G Price became a highly diversified engineering company making equipment for every major industry in New Zealand. As the country grew the company itself became more diverse. In 1983 half the employees man-hours were spent on railway work. The bulk of their remaining work was 'jobbing' tasks which were one-off jobs rather than production-line manufacturing. This included repair and maintenance tasks and production of one-off machines.
The main form of transport for people and goods was by coastal shipping and the company built a number of ships and provided marine steam engines, boilers, propeller shafts and were particularly proficient at casting large brass propellers. In 1880 the NZ Herald reported: Messrs. A&G Price have completed at the Thames the machinery for a steam launch, for Messrs. Guthrie and Larnach’s sawmills in the Manukau. The boat was built by Mr Logan, at the North Shore.
In 1879 the SS Coromandel was launched with boiler and engines made by A&G Price. In 1881 they built a wooden paddle steamer ‘Patiki’ on an iron frame. In 1883 they completed the 67 feet (20m) ‘Despatch’ with a triple expansion steam engine, but there was a depression at the time and they were only paid 25% of its construction cost. Consequently they were able to keep the ship and operated it themselves on the Waihou River. Ship-building operations expanded and they opened a branch specifically for ship-building in Queen Street, Auckland.
The dairy industry also grew and the Waikato area became particularly well know for its dairy farms. The company provided the machinery needed by numerous cooperative dairy factories from boilers to butter churns and they provided maintenance service for them as well. The New Zealand Herald reported in 1937 that a large churn, capable of producing 2.5 tons of butter, was manufactured by A&G Price for a butter factory at Waiuku and it was thought to be the largest in the world.
There were lime works and quarries in the area and they required a lot of maintenance work in the years leading up to World War II.
In 1929, A&G Price employed Abner Doble and purchased the rights to manufacture his steam powered buses which were more economical to run than internal combustion engines at that time and they were used in Auckland city. As roads were being built they produced 100 graders between 1930 and the end of the second world war in 1945. They made girders for bridges including the Maraetai power station in 1947. In the 1950’s they built a floating crane for the construction of the Auckland Harbour Bridge.
During the two wars they manufactured numerous parts for military equipment. For example Merv Strange in his interview for Coromandel Heritage Trust mentioned that he was excused from war service because he was engaged in essential war work making wheels for the Bren light machine gun carrier. He eventually underwent military training and was about to leave the country when the war ended. Four generations of his family worked for A&G Price.
After World War II, they built large conveyer belt systems for Westport Coal Co., the Dairy Board, and Auckland Gas Company. They even had a medical application constructing decompression chambers for treating divers who suffered from the bends when they ascended too quickly. Nitrogen gas in the air dissolves in the blood at high pressure, but it comes out of solution forming bubbles just like carbonated drinks when the pressure decreases too rapidly. To treat this the diver is placed in a pressure tank (similar to a boiler) and the pressure is decreased very slowly.
Reid Rubber Mills had a problem with their hydraulic upstroke press that could produce a pressure of 1500 tons. In 1966 the cylinder had cracked and burst and they needed an urgent replacement. A&G Price came to the rescue but it required pouring 20 tons of molten steel at 1600 degrees C. Then it would require machining down to 10 tons. They did not have a furnace big enough to produce this quantity of molten steel so they built the pattern and created the mould in Thames, then took it by truck to Pacific Steel in Auckland where the steel was poured directly into their mould. The moulding boxes containing sand and casting weighing 53 tons were taken back to Thames where the job was completed.
In 1983, A&G Price had 200 employees and were producing very complex cast Francis turbines for hydro-electric power stations.
In 1995 and 2000, all the winners and challengers for the America’s Cup race were fitted with keels and bulbs made by A&G Price. A division was created in 2004 to build Maximus canting keels for ocean yacht racing.
Memories of Working at A&G Price
Errol Ross was interviewed by Graham Robinson for the Oral History Group of the Coromandel Heritage Trust in 2007 and gave us some insights into the life of an employee at A&G Price. He worked as a fitter and turner in the machine shop from age 14 in 1936 until 1946 when he left to work on a farm and later ran a quarry but returned to Price’s in 1974 until retirement in 1980. He served as an apprentice for the first five years and started at 13 shilling per week. Every 6 months their pay was increased by 4 shillings and eventually reached 3 pounds per week. They were assigned to one particular workshop within the plant and it was expected that they would not work in other areas.
William Price was known by his nickname, and as Errol told us '… old Nosey as they called him because you never knew where he was going to appear. Just be working and all of a sudden a head would appear over your shoulder, he’d see what you were doing.'
Errol went to school with William Price’s son Billy and described going pig hunting with him every weekend in the late 1930s.
‘There were plenty of pigs on Mc Loughlin’s private property in Waikawau.’They would typically get 5 pigs a day and deliver pork to families who needed it. On one occasion their dog was gored by a pig and they took it to Dr Liggin’s surgery. The doctor went out onto the lawn and sewed the dog up while his patients waited inside. During World War II, Billy joined the Navy. Errol also knew Peter Watson’s son who worked assembling harrows.
'You know putting the bolts in the ruddy thing and a bit of case-hardening. They had a bay, [with a] steam engine there for driving the generator for the casting days.'
In describing George Price Jnr, he said he ‘never realised how good George was until we started making crank-shafts for the mine-sweepers during the war and they were made in sections and shrunk together. And he handled that when we assembled them and never had a failure in the time shrinking those blocks on.’
Errol had problems with his ears since childhood and working at the foundry didn’t help. He said, 'In those days there was no ear muffs and everything was noisy, the machines rattled. Like now they are so quiet. Hammering the steel plates, the boilermakers all done with hammers. Riveting guns, you were using pneumatic hammers, chiselling and whatnot. The noise was fantastic…'. They used grinders without goggles or hearing protection. When he returned to Price’s in 1974, he noticed a big difference in the noise with quieter machines, ear muffs, goggles and other safety equipment.
Now, in 2018 workers also wear high visibility jackets, helmets, face visors, metal covered leggings and steel capped boots. They were recently required to put a fence around their water-quenching tank, even though it had been there for over 100 years and no-one had fallen into it.
Of course accidents did occur in this industry. Thames Star reported an ‘Accident at Price’s Foundry’ 13 April 1912:
‘…He with others, was engaged in moving a heavy roller when by some means it slipped and fell on Turnbull’s leg, which was broken…’The New Zealand Herald reported an accident on 18 May 1927:
‘While dismantling an old building at Messrs. A&G Price's ironworks yesterday a young workman, Phillip Smith lost his balance and fell about 14 feet. He broke his left arm near the wrist, and received severe cuts about the head. He was conveyed to the Thames Hospital.’New Zealand Herald reported on 16 September 1935:
‘Caught by a sudden burst of flame from a furnace, Mr. A. Fleming, an iron moulder at A. and G. Price’s foundry received severe burns to his arms, face and neck…’The Herald reported another accident on 24th July 1936:
‘Mr Hoskins was dismantling a large churn when the barrel turned over suddenly, crushing him against another machine and inflicting severe injuries to his chest and face.’
Errol started there at age 14 and had to call everyone Mr… If they tried to talk to each other, they got a clip over the ear. He thought they were all old men but actually 20 to 30 years old. When he returned, he was 53 and found the atmosphere much friendlier with everyone using first names. He asked one young apprentice to do a small grinding job to remove a tiny tack of weld so that the waiting customer could pick up the finished product. The apprentice refused because there were no goggles, gloves and ear muffs handy, but then refused to turn his ‘ghetto-blaster’ radio down. So Errol cut the power cable off the radio and fixed that.
In his early years, there were only three cars parked at the foundry and they were owned by management. Everyone else used bicycles, and he would bike home for a hot cooked lunch which his wife, Betty, had ready. They liked playing practical jokes on each other. One of the employees always parked his bike beside a work bench with the pedal in position ready for him to leap onto it and take off to a flying start when lunch-time came. They tied his bike to the bench with a piece of copper wire with a bit of slack so that when he took off the bike suddenly came to a halt, and he went over the handle bars! On another occasion, they put one of the bikes high up in the air on a crane which was so slow to operate that he wouldn’t be able to get home for lunch. When Errol returned in 1974, he found that everyone had cars, and the most popular was the Ford Anglia. Only one employee had a bigger Chevie.
He described the toilet block with men sitting back to back in a row with no walls between them. A great place for a conversation and reminiscent of Roman public toilets. In later years, they had cubicles and one apprentice was fond of going to the toilet and reading. Errol described how he fixed the problem:
'So I painted the toes of his boots with orange paint, just tips. And the doors were about so high off the ground. So I went down this day and have a look I saw his red shoes, so I got the fire hose and put it underneath. And I hear a voice ‘Hey!' So I turned it off, then I hear the papers rustling again, and he was reading. So I put it on and left it going. Next thing, the door came open, and here he is perched on top of the toilet trying to get his overhauls up, with water flying in all directions. So I said, 'Next time, over the top.’ So after that he used to come to me, he’d say, 'Hey Boss, three minutes?' 'Yep, Okay.'
He explained that they did have a power operated crane, which for some reason they were not allowed to use. Instead they had to use a completely mechanical crane on rails. To move it along the rails, they had to use a hand-operated winch with a crank-handle connected to a chain. The crane itself was also operated by hand, with the assistance of jacks and manpower. When they were finished, they had to operate the crank-handle winch again to move it back to its storage location. This was obviously a very labour-intensive job that they did not enjoy.
He then went on to say:
'One day, I got a clever idea and hooked the thing on the back of Reg Dovell’s truck… and of course [it only had] old cast iron bearings. (Laughter) [And when I] looked up, the smoke was pouring off these bearings, the shaft was going so fast. I’ll never forget that, we were sick and tired of pulling this damned chain. Pulled it up three times that day. We’d use it and then they would want it back.'
To move heavier projects from one work area to another, they used hand-pushed carts on a railway system in the workshops. There was a central turntable which allowed them to move the carts from one railway line to another. He found the work much more varied and interesting in later years and describes pouring large white-metal bearings for shafts up to 5 inches in diameter for the turbines used at Karipiro power station.A & G PRICE: AN EARLY FOUNDRY OF THE THAMES GOLDFIELD. Part II. by Evan Lewis