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Best's Varnish Works

Best's Varnish Works

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Published by Lisa Truttman
Account of the history of the Best Varnish Works of Rosebank, Avondale, in Auckland.
Account of the history of the Best Varnish Works of Rosebank, Avondale, in Auckland.

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Published by: Lisa Truttman on Oct 26, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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08/23/2010

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Rosebank’s Varnish Works:Sealy James Best and sons (1885-1937)
In March 1977, Universal Homes bought an area of land just over an acre in size
1
justto the south of today’s Maple Street, between Avondale and Riversdale Roads, on theRosebank Peninsula of Avondale. By August of the following year, they were able tosubdivide that land, plus the adjoining section, to form a fan-shaped developmentwhich is now known as Sceptre Place.
2
Anyone living there today might think thatthis was merely former market gardening land, surrounded as it is by ground withhistories of the plough and seed, and the closeness of the ribbon of water we call theWhau River. But, there is a difference. The northern part, the original 1.2.0 acres, hasa different story attached to it – that of a family travelling to New Zealand in the late19
th
century to start a business that, it seems, had never been known here in NewZealand before.
The Bests arrive in New Zealand
There’s a gravestone in the George Maxwell Cemetery for Sealy James Best (c.1829-1892), describing him as being “of Yeovil, Somerset”.
3
Elsewhere,
4
there is moredetail. In the 1881 English census, Sealy J Best is noted as having been born in EastChinnock, some 3 ½ miles southwest of Yeovil, a parish situated on the river Parret inSomerset.
5
The name Sealy Best appears as traces in birth records, marriage detailsand census returns from the 1850s to 1880s. There are records of a Sealy James Bestmarrying in Bristol in June 1853, a son(Sealy James) born in Bermondsey, Londonin the third quarter of 1861, another(Charles) born there c.1866, and another(Albert Thomas) c.1867.
6 
Bermonsey in the middle of the 19
th
centurywas a densely packed industrial area, knownfor glass manufacturing, glue making,tanneries, warehousing, and colour and
Site of the Avondale Varnish Works (from CT 46/215)
 
varnish making.
7
It is quite possible that Sealy Best was carrying out his varnishmanufacturing trade here, perhaps the West of England Varnish Works he is said tohave built and started.
8
Two of his sons, by the mid 1880s, were “practical varnishmakers” as well.
9
By the time of the 1881 census, he and his family were living at 48Pomeroy Street, Deptford, in Kent.
10 
Sometime between 1881 and 1885, Sealy J. Best made the decision to come to NewZealand. He, his wife Mary, and seven children arrived at Auckland on 19 August1885, aboard the
Kaikoura
.
11
By 2 October 1885, Sealy Best and William Bailey hadsub-leased just over 16 acres of land on the Rosebank Peninsula, part of allotments 9and 10,
12
and plans to erect a varnish factory there were made public the followingmonth by the
 NZ Herald 
as part of theAvondale district promising “to be someday a great industrial centre”.
13
(WilliamBailey, it seems, was a jam maker,
14
andwas perhaps sharing the land for his ownplans.) Solicitor William Henry Connellwho owned the land finally sold 1.2.0acres outright to Sealy Best on 13 April1887.
15 
“New Zealand Varnish Works,Avondale”
Between the time Sealy Best sub-leasedthe Rosebank property and his eventualpurchase of the Whau River coastalproperty in 1887, the
 New Zealand Herald 
 paid a visit to the factory site in earlyOctober 1886.
16
It is from theircorrespondent’s report that a description isavailable of what was, in effect, one of the
Advertisement from Brett’s Almanac, 1890,Trades, p. 58 
 
earliest industrial complexes on the Rosebank Peninsula. The buildings wereconstructed from corrugated iron with angle iron framing (no wood utilised, it wasnoted – quite possibly due to the ever-present risk of fire from the furnaces) andcomprised what was termed as the “factory proper”: drying room, gum room,engineer and blacksmith’s workshops, and office. A two-storey brick warehouse wasintended to be erected as at the time of the
 Herald’s
visit. The furnaces had largefirebrick lining set in massive brickwork underground and covered to the floor withcast-iron fire plate. Wrought iron grating admitted air to the furnaces, while thechimney was also of strong wrought iron, quarter inch thick, and galvanised in 12 feetlengths. The oil-copper was similarly set in brickwork with fire-brick lining. Themachinery was driven by a 5-horse power vertical engine and boiler, with water forthe boiler coming from the river, and coke for the furnaces supplied by the Aucklandgasworks. Even the packing cases for the finished product were made on site, withcircular and band saws described during the 1886 visit, as it was the intention of SealyBest and his (then) partner Mr. Murray to not only supply the local market but also toexport to Australia.Processing kauri gum, the main ingredient of the varnish produced on the site (alsoinvolving linseed oil and spirits of turpentine) was very involved. The
 Herald 
 provided a summary of some of them: the raw kauri gum was scraped, chopped intouniformly-sized pieces, and then melted in “copper pots of complicated form”. Aftermelting, and while still molten, the gum was poured into settling tanks, and allowed tosettle over some days. After being pumped into a wrought iron drum and spun forsome hours, again the gum was placed into settling tanks and allowed to remain thereuntil matured.It certainly appears that the Best & Murray “Avondale Varnish Works” was one of thefirst, if not actually the very first, varnish manufactories in the country. Previously,raw kauri gum was exported as-is to be processed and products such as varnishimported for local use. “No doubt when Messrs. Best and Murray have proved to thesatisfaction of the Government that they have established the industry, they will get arebate of duty on the raw materials imported, so as to aid them in excluding theforeign product,” in the opinion of the
 Herald 
at the time.

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