How the SS Dunedin Revolutionised the Global Food Market | History Hit
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How the SS Dunedin Revolutionised the Global Food Market

Dan Snow

30 Jun 2021
Image Credit: Lloyd's Register Foundation

At a coffee house in 1760, as ships travelled further than ever before carrying ever-more cargo, the Lloyd’s Register was founded. With new shipping technologies on the horizon it was increasingly important that vessels were fit for travel. The first maritime classification society, Lloyd’s surveyed and recorded the seaworthiness of ships in a register, providing security to investors and revolutionising British maritime trade.

Meanwhile, Britain’s industrial revolution attracted people to cities, hungry for work. The result was overpopulation and a growing demand for fresh meat that Britain alone could not supply. The problem was, how to ensure meat survived long journeys overseas?

In February 1882 the SS Dunedin departed New Zealand on a voyage that would revolutionise the way we eat and kickstart the globalisation of the world's food supply chain. Aboard were thousands of mutton, lamb and pig carcasses as well as 250 kegs of butter, hare, pheasant, turkey, chicken and 2226 sheep tongues. This cargo would be kept fresh in the ship's hold using a Bell-Coleman compression refrigeration machine and would mark the first time fresh goods had ever been transported over such a distance. However, the journey was far from plain sailing though as you will hear in this episode. To tell the Dunedin's story and to celebrate the new digitisation project by Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s Heritage & Education Centre Dan is joined by Charlotte Ward and Max Wilson from the Foundation.
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An intense rivalry began to see a ship’s refrigerated cargo safely across the globe. In 1878, the French steamer Paraguay successfully delivered 5,500 frozen carcasses between Buenos Aires and Le Havre. The Paraguay’s success was closely followed by a Lloyd’s classified ship, the Strathleven, that delivered 50 tons of Australian beef to hungry Londoners.

Yet the Strathleven depended on speed – and a short-cut via the Suez Canal. The issue remained as to whether a ship could transport refrigerated cargo long distances without the same pace.

Enterprising men

The Bell Coleman Refrigeration Machine

Image Credit: Lloyd's Register Foundation

In 1877 the Glasgow shipping company John Bell & Sons approached Joseph James Coleman, a representative of the Chemical Institute tasked with solving the shipping refrigeration question. Together, these enterprising men created a new refrigeration machine that relied on circulating cold air rather than chemicals such as brine or ammonia, exhibited at London’s Naval and Submarine Engineering Exhibition.

The Bell Coleman machine, hailed in the newspapers, caught the attention of William Davidson. Director of the New Zealand and Australian Land Company and responsible for 186,000 acres of farmland, Davidson persuaded shareholders to invest in the new technology. To save on coal and refuelling time, the sailing ship SS Dunedin was offered by the Albion Shipping Company and hastily fitted with the machinery.

Having surveyed the ship, Lloyd’s Register noted the new machinery onboard and classified the Dunedin for the momentous 12,000 mile journey.

Image Credit: Lloyd's Register Foundation

SS Dunedin

Also from Glasgow, SS Dunedin was a two-decked three-mast iron sailing ship built in 1874. Originally tasked with ferrying emigrants to New Zealand, Dunedin had earned a reputation under Captain John Whitson for completing crossings from London in under 100 days – extraordinary at the time.

Photograph of the SS Dunedin loading its historic refrigerated cargo in 1882.

Image Credit: Lloyd's Register Foundation

On 15 February 1882, the Dunedin set sail carrying a cargo including 4,331 mutton, 598 lamb and 22 pig carcasses as well as 2,226 sheep tongues. Sailing through the tropics the crew noticed sparks flying from the compressor’s boiler and the cold air not circulating. With his historic cargo in jeopardy, Captain Whitson crawled inside the cold chamber, drilling holes to recirculate the air.

The crew hauled the frozen Whitson out by a rope. Yet despite the near loss of life and cargo, 98 days after setting sail the Dunedin arrived in London and delivered the cold meat to Smithfield Market for sale, where sceptical butchers praised the superb quality of the meat.

‘Kiwi Miracle’

The shipment of refrigerated meat from New Zealand to London was proclaimed a success and the ‘kiwi miracle’ opened up global trade with New Zealand and Australia as leading exporters. Over the next five years, out of 172 shipments from New Zealand, only 9 had a significant amount of meat condemned.

The Dunedin embarked on nine further voyages before mysteriously disappearing with 35 hands onboard in 1890. Having paved the way for a globalised food market and future shipping innovations, the historic ship was lost at sea and largely to history.

‘The ship that has accomplished a feat which must long have a place in commercial, indeed, in political annals, is the Dunedin, belonging to the Albion Shipping Line.’

The Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s Heritage & Education Centre are the custodians to an archive collection of maritime, engineering, scientific, technological, social and economic history that stretches back to 1760. Their ship plan ship plan and survey report collection numbers a colossal 1.25 million records. The Lloyd’s Register Foundation are committed to cataloguing and digitising this collection for free open access and are pleased to announce that over 600,000 of these are online and available for viewing.

Dan Snow