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In March 1977, Universal Homes bought an area of land just over an acre in size 1 just to the south of today’s Maple Street, between Avondale and Riversdale Roads, on the Rosebank Peninsula of Avondale. By August of the following year, they were able to subdivide that land, plus the adjoining section, to form a fan-shaped development which is now known as Sceptre Place.
Anyone living there today might think that
this was merely former market gardening land, surrounded as it is by ground with histories of the plough and seed, and the closeness of the ribbon of water we call the Whau River. But, there is a difference. The northern part, the original 1.2.0 acres, has a different story attached to it – that of a family travelling to New Zealand in the late 19th century to start a business that, it seems, had never been known here in New Zealand before.
The Bests arrive in New Zealand
There’s a gravestone in the George Maxwell Cemetery for Sealy James Best (c.18291892), describing him as being “of Yeovil, Somerset”.
there is more
detail. In the 1881 English census, Sealy J Best is noted as having been born in East Chinnock, some 3 ½ miles southwest of Yeovil, a parish situated on the river Parret in Somerset.
The name Sealy Best appears as traces in birth records, marriage details
and census returns from the 1850s to 1880s. There are records of a Sealy James Best marrying in Bristol in June 1853, a son (Sealy James) born in Bermondsey, London in the third quarter of 1861, another (Charles) born there c.1866, and another (Albert Thomas) c.1867. 6 Bermonsey in the middle of the 19th century was a densely packed industrial area, known for glass manufacturing, glue making, tanneries, warehousing, and colour and
Site of the Avondale Varnish Works (from CT 46/215)
It is quite possible that Sealy Best was carrying out his varnish
manufacturing trade here, perhaps the West of England Varnish Works he is said to have built and started.
Two of his sons, by the mid 1880s, were “practical varnish
makers” as well. By the time of the 1881 census, he and his family were living at 48 Pomeroy Street, Deptford, in Kent. 10
Sometime between 1881 and 1885, Sealy J. Best made the decision to come to New Zealand. He, his wife Mary, and seven children arrived at Auckland on 19 August 1885, aboard the Kaikoura. 11 By 2 October 1885, Sealy Best and William Bailey had sub-leased just over 16 acres of land on the Rosebank Peninsula, part of allotments 9 and 10,
and plans to erect a varnish factory there were made public the following
month by the NZ Herald as part of the Avondale district promising “to be some day a great industrial centre”.
Bailey, it seems, was a jam maker,
was perhaps sharing the land for his own plans.) Solicitor William Henry Connell who owned the land finally sold 1.2.0 acres outright to Sealy Best on 13 April 1887. 15
Between the time Sealy Best sub-leased the Rosebank property and his eventual purchase of the Whau River coastal property in 1887, the New Zealand Herald paid a visit to the factory site in early October 1886.
Advertisement from Brett’s Almanac, 1890, Trades, p. 58
correspondent’s report that a description is available of what was, in effect, one of the
earliest industrial complexes on the Rosebank Peninsula. The buildings were constructed from corrugated iron with angle iron framing (no wood utilised, it was noted – quite possibly due to the ever-present risk of fire from the furnaces) and comprised what was termed as the “factory proper”: drying room, gum room, engineer and blacksmith’s workshops, and office. A two-storey brick warehouse was intended to be erected as at the time of the Herald’s visit. The furnaces had large firebrick lining set in massive brickwork underground and covered to the floor with cast-iron fire plate. Wrought iron grating admitted air to the furnaces, while the chimney was also of strong wrought iron, quarter inch thick, and galvanised in 12 feet lengths. The oil-copper was similarly set in brickwork with fire-brick lining. The machinery was driven by a 5-horse power vertical engine and boiler, with water for the boiler coming from the river, and coke for the furnaces supplied by the Auckland gasworks. Even the packing cases for the finished product were made on site, with circular and band saws described during the 1886 visit, as it was the intention of Sealy Best and his (then) partner Mr. Murray to not only supply the local market but also to export to Australia.
Processing kauri gum, the main ingredient of the varnish produced on the site (also involving 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 into uniformly-sized pieces, and then melted in “copper pots of complicated form”. After melting, and while still molten, the gum was poured into settling tanks, and allowed to settle over some days. After being pumped into a wrought iron drum and spun for some hours, again the gum was placed into settling tanks and allowed to remain there until matured.
It certainly appears that the Best & Murray “Avondale Varnish Works” was one of the first, 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 varnish imported for local use. “No doubt when Messrs. Best and Murray have proved to the satisfaction of the Government that they have established the industry, they will get a rebate of duty on the raw materials imported, so as to aid them in excluding the foreign product,” in the opinion of the Herald at the time.
By 1890, the “Best” trade mark was a feature of the New Zealand Varnish Works of Avondale, Auckland, “Manufacturing the Finest Class of Varnishes, Japans, Lacquers, etc.”, with Mitchelson & Co of Auckland as their sole agents. purchased the varnish factory land from Sealy Best in July 1892. 18
have been Edwin Mitchelson, an Auckland merchant who through his wife Sarah
purchased 7 acres, 3 roods and 30 perches, or nearly 8 acres, of Lot 15, Allotment 11 from Avondale farmer John Boyd for £400.
fronted onto what was soon to be Riversdale Road, right on the shore of the Whau River, just to the south of the varnish factory. From then on, the
From CT 527/156
family had a home in Avondale. The purchase took place just a day before
the death of Sealy James Best on 3 August.
The family continued the business
based at Avondale for a couple of years as S J Best & Co; down to 1894/95, the Avondale factory was listed in directories. But in 1896/97 came a change. There
appeared “Best S.J. & Co. N.Z. Varnish & Paint Works; offices & stores, Customs street east, Auck, manufacturers of all kinds of varnishes, japans, lacquers, French polish &c,: paints ground in oil and ready mixed: oil & colour merchants: established 1885.”
There was no longer any mention in the trade directories of an Avondale
factory, but there is no reason to suspect that it stopped producing material that would have been delivered to the new headquarters at 43 Customs Street, between Gore and Fort Streets. 23 The Mitchelsons transferred the varnish factory land at Avondale back to Sealy James Best (the eldest son), engineer, Charles Miller Best, varnish manufacturer, John De Renzy, merchant and William Hope De Renzy, accountant as “tenants in common” in October 1895.
The De Renzys transferred their interest to
the two Best brothers in 1909 but then took up a lease from them over the land. 25
S J Best & Co. assisted the surrounding community while they were in operation in Avondale. The organising committee for the Victoria Hall, on the corner of Rosebank Road and Orchard Street in Avondale, appreciated the free varnish provided for their new acquisition from “our local varnish manufacturer” in 1897. 26
Percy Best appears on the records as an engineer, living in Avondale (quite possibly on the family’s Riversdale property) in 1904. Archibald Bros, one of the local brickyards.
By 1910, he’d obtained work for
His brother Charles also appears in By 1905,
1904, living at Avondale but also proprietor of Best & Co in Auckland. the firm had (briefly) set up a branch office at Harris Street, Wellington.
The disaster which was always a threat when dealing with such a flammable product, happened in May 1907. As reported by the Weekly News of 9 May:
“A destructive fire occurred about noon on Thursday at Avondale, at the New Zealand Varnish Factory, owned by Mr. F. J. Best. [A typo, I‘d say, for S. J. Best, but the paper may also have been mistakenly referring to the elder S.J. Best, rather than the younger.] The building and contents were almost completely gutted. The building, which was erected of brick and iron, contained a considerable stock of the materials used in the manufacture of varnish. Three or four of the boilers were filled with the mixture for the varnish, when suddenly, by some unaccountable means, one of them caught fire. Owing to the highly inflammable matter the whole building was quickly a mass of flames. Two young men, one a son of the proprietor, had narrow escapes from death, as they just managed to escape from the building before the fire was in every part and shooting out of all openings. There was a good stock of turpentine and other inflammable material in the factory, and the flames licked this up with marvellous rapidity. Before long the building was one seething furnace. Beyond a few cases of turpentine nothing was saved. So intense was the heat that a portion of the brick walls collapsed, while iron doors, pillars and machinery were twisted into numerous distorted shapes.
“How the boiler caught fire is a mystery. The materials blazed for some considerable time and were smouldering in the evening and still emitting clouds of dense smoke. The building and contents are insured, but the amounts could not be ascertained last
evening; but Mr. Best will be a considerable loser by the fire. All the machinery has been almost hopelessly destroyed.
“The works were insured in the South British Company, a policy of £750 covering the building, stock and machinery.”
In the aftermath, by 1909, Albert E. Best joined his brothers in appearing in the directories, as a co-proprietor of Best & Co along with Charles.
Only in 1910 does
Sealy James Best, their elder brother, appear in the directories, as living at Riversdale Road. He does not appear to have had a directorship in the company, but due to the interest with Charles in the varnish factory land at Avondale he must have been involved to some extent.
On 10 September 1915, Mary Best sold the “equity of redemption” of her Riversdale Road property to her eldest son Sealy J Best for the nominal sum of 10 shillings, “out of the natural love and affection” she felt towards her son.
This meant that her son
held the right to prevent a mortgagee sale by the mortgagor as he had an interest in the property. Five days later, she died and her son proceeded to pay off the remaining £200 State Advances mortgage. 33
The company without the Best family
For some reason, or perhaps many reasons, everything changed in 1920. Charles and Albert Best’s names disappear from the Auckland Directory in 1921. Albert Best went on living at Riversdale Road, and died still living there on 28 October 1936, at the age of 61.
But by 1937 Charles was living in Melbourne.
He may well have
moved there earlier the previous decade. He transferred his interest in the Avondale varnish works property to his elder brother Sealy on 5 March 1920, and leaves the record at that point. 36
In papers deposited with the equivalent of the Companies Office in 1920, William Charles Vallance advised that he was acting as solicitor for S J Best & Co on 22 April. 1920,
The company was incorporated under the new Companies Act as at 20 May with the following objects: 39
To acquire & takeover business of varnish and paint manufactures carried on at Auckland by Paterson & Esam under name of S J Best & Co.
To engage in the business of manufactures of oil colour paint varnish enamels red & white lead painters and artists requisitions stains distempers and all kinds of products or substances used for painting decorative or protective work.
Also in business as glaziers paint paperhangers oil & colourman picture dealers & framers & importers, exporters & dealers wholesale/retail in paints colours glass papers oils etc.
• • • •
Printers & bookbinders Oils for machinery and motor vehicles Financial & commission agents Brokers
While the registered office remained as 43 Customs Street, 40 and the company name was the same, bewilderingly everything else was changed. “Paterson & Esam” appears to have been a firm connected with one Campbell Paterson, a merchant from the North Shore
who was also a varnish and paint manufacturer. It seems that
sometime before May 1920 his company had taken over the day to day operations of S J Best & Co, while still operating under that name. Indeed, the list of three directors in 1920 show no members of the Best family connected with the firm at all – controlling interest rested with Paterson and his partner Ivo Burnet Durban Esam, with approximately 1/3 going to Arthur Edward Skelton, a solicitor. Esam. 42
Skelton’s shares were held by a Robert Burns, and Paterson had 280 more shares from
In February 1922, the directors of the company decided to change the name to “Camp”,
and by order of the Court in March S. J. Best became The Camp Paint &
Varnish Ltd. 45 The company was duly incorporated under that name in June that year, and advised the Registrar of a change of address to 5 Alexandra Street (now
Airedale Street) in the city.
But by November 1925, Paterson had moved to
Melbourne, and forfeited his shares by the end of 1926.
The directors met in May
1929 to change the company’s name back to S J Best & Co, and this was duly done
by order of the Court in June. Kenderdine.
By now, the directors were Esam, Burns and John
From January 1932, the managing director was Reginald Douglas Mossman.
During this year, the directors voted to voluntarily wind up the company, even to the point of appointing a liquidator. 51 But by 1940, the company was still in operation, 52 and another change of name came in 1944 to Best Paints Ltd. 53
The head office for Best Paints Ltd moved to 59 Courtenay Place, Wellington, in 1954, 54 and by January 1957 was in liquidation. Its only assets by now were shares in Taubman’s paints. These passed to Dominion Motors Ltd, “as distribution in specie”. Indeed, during the late 1940s, the address for valuation notices from Auckland City Council to Best Paints Ltd. was care of “E. C. Nimon, Dominion Motors Ltd, Myers St.” 55
Eric Waterfield, a member of the Avondale History Group who put together Challenge of the Whau in 1994, has clear memories of the Avondale varnish factory, still run by an aging Sealy Best in the late 1920s. “…some 300 metres from the house was a big stand of mature Radiata pine trees behind which was an old factory partly in ruins and covered in pine needles and blackberry bushes. Despite its dilapidated appearance and on subsequent visits we found out that it produced varnish from kauri gum. We met its owner, a white-haired old man who invited us in to a smoke-filled interior, where he introduced himself, and we were to spend many happy hours “helping” Mr. Best. “To melt the gum, huge iron cauldrons were set in steel grating at floor level located over coke fires below. The cauldrons contained a syrup-like liquid which was the melted kauri gum. Little did we realise we were in NZ’s first gum varnish factory founded in the 1880s by Mr. Best’s father. One of Avondale’s first motorised carriers owned by a Mr. Hunter used to have to force his truck through the overgrown lane to deliver coke, gleaming empty tins and sacks of gum and take away tons of varnish
which, incidentally, was amongst the world’s best varnishes at that time. Mr. Hunter delivered the varnish to Best’s warehouse in Airedale Street. Due to shortage of kauri gum and the development of synthetic paints etc. the little family industry closed down in the mid thirties.” 56 At that time, however, Sealy Best had little if any say in the running of his father’s business. The buildings at the varnish factory site were described in 1927 as a “brick factory and wood shed at back”, 57 a far cry from the extensive complex described in 1886, apparently all that was able to be restored after the 1907 fire. It was serviced by a right-of-way, described as 1260 feet long, “very rough”. 58 At one point, it was “too wet” for the council valuers to visit.
Best sold the property finally at the end of
1936 to a labourer named Toti Baker, who defaulted on his rates to Council and so the property was on sold in 1946. 60 By March 1977, the property which was once the site of one of this country’s earliest varnish manufactories was owned by Universal Homes, and would soon after be subdivided and covered by housing as part of Sceptre Place.
Sealy Best died 28 November 1937 at a private hospital.
His Riversdale Road
property went to his sister Emily Jane Best in 1938, and then to his brother Percy in 1943. Percy Best, the last of the Best family in name in Avondale, died in 1951, 64
and the property was transferred to Arthur Henry Tait, who in turn sold the property to Beazley Homes in 1963. Shortly thereafter, Te Wiata Place was formed, and the property subdivided for homes. 66
There is little if anything left of the early business and its successor. 5 Airedale Street has vanished, since the construction of the Mayoral Drive in the 1980s cut across the bottom of the street. We have the relics of old advertisements from the late 19th century, to remind us, tantalisingly, of what once was. Eric Waterfield mentioned a varnish settling tank finding its way, via the Tait family, to MOTAT
there proved fruitless, except for a suggestion that the Matakohe Kauri Museum might be approached as they had close links with MOTAT during the formative days of the early 1960s..
If this tank still exists, and has provenance linking it back to Avondale, it will be the only physical remains of the enterprise started here by a varnish maker from out of Somerset, England, nearly 120 years ago, a pioneer largely forgotten today.
Lisa J Truttman July 2005 (updated 26 October 2008)
1. 2. 3. 4. 5.
6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19. 20. 21. 22. 23. 24. 25. 26. 27. 28. 29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34. 35. 36. 37. 38. 39. 40. 41.
CT 46/215 CT 40B/1293 Site visit to George Maxwell cemetery, 2002 Family Search site by Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, URL: http://www.familysearch.org/ From The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1868), transcribed by Colin Hinson, 2003, via Genuki online. URL: http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/SOM/EastChinnock/ Website: Free BMD, URL: http://freebmd.rootsweb.com/ From “Industries of Southwark”, URL: http://www.lostindustry.org.uk/industries.htm “Best and Murray’s Varnish Works, Avondale”, NZ Herald, 11 October 1886, p. 6 ibid. Family Search site. Auckland Area Passenger Arrivals 1838-1886, APL website. CT 31/139 NZ Herald, 3 November 1885, p. 4 ibid. CT 46/215 Herald, 11 October 1886 Brett’s Auckland Almanac, 1890, p. 58 (advertisement) CT 46/215 Deed 121706, DI 16A.745, LINZ records Site visit to George Maxwell cemetery, Sealy James Best the elder’s headstone. Wise’s Postal Directory, 1894/95, p. 824 the last entry for the varnish works at Avondale Wises, 1896/97, p. 854 Wises, first use of street numbers for Customs Street, 1911 CT 46/215 ibid. Re-enactment of Victoria Hall Trustees session of 20 October 1897, from script written 1987 for the Hall’s 90th anniversary (from minute books) Wises, 1904 Wises, 1910 Wises, 1904 Wises, 1905. It seemed to have lasted only a year. Wises, 1909 Deed 244576, DI 16A.745, LINZ records CT 527/156 Death notice Death notice for Sealy J. Best, NZ Herald 29 November 1937, p. 1 CT 46/215 Legal statement, National Archives file Certificate of incorporation # 1920/58, National Archives Memorandum of Association, 20 May 1920, National Archives ibid. Wises Directory 1921
42. 43. 44. 45. 46. 47. 48. 49. 50. 51. 52. 53. 54. 55. 56. 57. 58. 59. 60. 61. 62. 63. 64. 65. 66. 67.
Directors listed as at 24 July 1920, National Archives. Paterson held 5020 shares, Esam 1330, and Skelton 3650. Directors listed as at 7 December 1921, National Archives Letter to Registrar from Wynyard, Wilson, Vallance & Holmden, 16 March 1922, National Archives Order of the Court dated 14 March 1922. National Archives 28 June 1922. National Archives. Legal statement, allotment of shares, 30 November 1922. Company papers, National Archives Note of certificate of incorporation, dated 5 July 1929, National Archives Legal statement, 15 January 1932, National Archives Legal statement, 8 September 1932. Sole directors Thomas Caesar Latham and Mossman as at 25 January 1940, and notice of debenture was registered 25 March 1941. National Archives. Notice of special resolution, 24 May 1944. National Archives. Note on file, National Archives Valuation Field Sheets for 5 Airedale Street, City, Auckland City Archives Eric Waterfield, “An Avondale Secret: The S. J. Best Varnish Works”, Avondale Historical Journal, Vol. 4 Issue 20 September-October 2004, pp. 3-4 Valuation field sheets, ACC 213/12a, Auckland City Archives ibid. ibid, comment under 1935-36. CT 46/215 CT 46/215 Death notice, Herald, 1937 CT 527/156 CT 776/276 CT 1008/273 CT 4D/372 AHJ, 2004
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