You are on page 1of 11

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 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.1829-
3 4
1892), describing him as being “of Yeovil, Somerset”. Elsewhere, 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)
varnish making. 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”. (William
Bailey, it seems, was a jam maker, and
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

“New Zealand Varnish Works,


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. It is from their
correspondent’s report that a description is
available 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 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. This may
have been Edwin Mitchelson, an Auckland merchant who through his wife Sarah
purchased the varnish factory land from Sealy Best in July 1892. 18

On 2 August 1892, Mary Best

purchased 7 acres, 3 roods and 30
perches, or nearly 8 acres, of Lot 15,
Allotment 11 from Avondale farmer
John Boyd for £400. This land
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
family had a home in Avondale. The
From CT 527/156
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. By 1910, he’d obtained work for
Archibald Bros, one of the local brickyards. His brother Charles also appears in
1904, living at Avondale but also proprietor of Best & Co in Auckland. By 1905,
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
34 35
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. The company was incorporated under the new Companies Act as at 20 May
1920, 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
• 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. By 1921,
Skelton’s shares were held by a Robert Burns, and Paterson had 280 more shares from
Esam. 42

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. 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

Little remains

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

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 – enquiries
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. CT 46/215
2. CT 40B/1293
3. Site visit to George Maxwell cemetery, 2002
4. Family Search site by Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, URL:
5. From The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1868), transcribed by Colin
Hinson, 2003, via Genuki online. URL:
6. Website: Free BMD, URL:
7. From “Industries of Southwark”, URL:
8. “Best and Murray’s Varnish Works, Avondale”, NZ Herald, 11 October 1886, p. 6
9. ibid.
10. Family Search site.
11. Auckland Area Passenger Arrivals 1838-1886, APL website.
12. CT 31/139
13. NZ Herald, 3 November 1885, p. 4
14. ibid.
15. CT 46/215
16. Herald, 11 October 1886
17. Brett’s Auckland Almanac, 1890, p. 58 (advertisement)
18. CT 46/215
19. Deed 121706, DI 16A.745, LINZ records
20. Site visit to George Maxwell cemetery, Sealy James Best the elder’s headstone.
21. Wise’s Postal Directory, 1894/95, p. 824 the last entry for the varnish works at Avondale
22. Wises, 1896/97, p. 854
23. Wises, first use of street numbers for Customs Street, 1911
24. CT 46/215
25. ibid.
26. Re-enactment of Victoria Hall Trustees session of 20 October 1897, from script written 1987
for the Hall’s 90th anniversary (from minute books)
27. Wises, 1904
28. Wises, 1910
29. Wises, 1904
30. Wises, 1905. It seemed to have lasted only a year.
31. Wises, 1909
32. Deed 244576, DI 16A.745, LINZ records
33. CT 527/156
34. Death notice
35. Death notice for Sealy J. Best, NZ Herald 29 November 1937, p. 1
36. CT 46/215
37. Legal statement, National Archives file
38. Certificate of incorporation # 1920/58, National Archives
39. Memorandum of Association, 20 May 1920, National Archives
40. ibid.
41. Wises Directory 1921
42. Directors listed as at 24 July 1920, National Archives. Paterson held 5020 shares, Esam 1330,
and Skelton 3650.
43. Directors listed as at 7 December 1921, National Archives
44. Letter to Registrar from Wynyard, Wilson, Vallance & Holmden, 16 March 1922, National
45. Order of the Court dated 14 March 1922. National Archives
46. 28 June 1922. National Archives.
47. Legal statement, allotment of shares, 30 November 1922.
48. Company papers, National Archives
49. Note of certificate of incorporation, dated 5 July 1929, National Archives
50. Legal statement, 15 January 1932, National Archives
51. Legal statement, 8 September 1932.
52. Sole directors Thomas Caesar Latham and Mossman as at 25 January 1940, and notice of
debenture was registered 25 March 1941. National Archives.
53. Notice of special resolution, 24 May 1944. National Archives.
54. Note on file, National Archives
55. Valuation Field Sheets for 5 Airedale Street, City, Auckland City Archives
56. Eric Waterfield, “An Avondale Secret: The S. J. Best Varnish Works”, Avondale Historical
Journal, Vol. 4 Issue 20 September-October 2004, pp. 3-4
57. Valuation field sheets, ACC 213/12a, Auckland City Archives
58. ibid.
59. ibid, comment under 1935-36.
60. CT 46/215
61. CT 46/215
62. Death notice, Herald, 1937
63. CT 527/156
64. CT 776/276
65. CT 1008/273
66. CT 4D/372
67. AHJ, 2004

Related Interests