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Volume 11 (2018)

A & G PRICE - FOUNDRY OF THE THAMES GOLDFIELD
THE HISTORY Part II

by Evan Lewis

The Railway Era

The Thames to Morrinsville branch railway line opened in 1898 and they built a geared steam engine for Te Aroha gold fields in 1885, but it wasn’t until 1903 that they won their first Government contract to build 10 full-sized 43 ton ‘Wf’ steam engines for the railway network. This was followed by an order for two more and then in 1906 a contract for 20 A-class Pacific locomotives with four compound cylinders (two on each side) for the Wellington-Auckland Express service.

The 16th A-class locomotive they built weighed 78 tons and could haul 700 tons. On 8 Aug 1908 an A&G Price 410 steam engine pulled the first train traveling from Wellington to Auckland on the main trunk line.

New Zealand Times reported

‘A Big Contract’ on 15 September 1919: ‘A&G Price Ltd have secured a Government contract for 20 express A and B class locomotives. This means three to four years work and providing employment for a considerable number of extra hands. Already the firm has turned out over 300,000 pounds worth of work to the satisfaction of the Railway Department. General pleasure is expressed at the firm having secured another big contract.’


Figure 5: A&G Price continued to maintain and repair locomotives.
In this photo, Engine class Ab 699 is undergoing maintenance,
with its engine linkages on the ground beside it.
Source: The Treasury Collection.
Click to enlarge the photo.

Figure 6: Engine class Ab 699 restored and in service
at the Pleasant Point Railway Museum in Timaru.
Click to enlarge the photo.


In the left hand side photograph above, a class Ab steam locomotive, known as a Pacific Tender Engine, is undergoing repairs at A&G Price. It was completed with the maker’s number 94 on August 2, 1922. This locomotive was then assigned engine number 699 by New Zealand Railways. It has a 4-6-2 wheel configuration with a two-stage compound single-acting steam cylinder on each side with the smaller primary high-pressure piston at the top and the secondary larger low-pressure piston at the bottom. With two pistons on each side, this was an improvement over the earlier A class engine of 1906 which had a single simple acting piston on each side. Prices built 50 of these class Ab locomotives while 141 were built altogether in New Zealand and UK. They were the most common steam engine used in New Zealand but only seven remain in Museums today.

In the right hand side photograph above, this same locomotive has been restored and is now at the Pleasant Point Railway Museum in Timaru. Engine Ab 699 was written off by NZ Railways in 1968 after it had travelled 1,341,762 miles (2,236,270 km). It was restored and taken to Pleasant Point in Timaru in 1970. Then it underwent another reconstruction and was placed in service again at Pleasant Point Museum in September 2018.

In November 1923, A&G Price produced their 100th locomotive. But in 1927 a Royal Commission recommended that the government-owned and operated New Zealand Railways should build their own engines rather than using private enterprise.

Although this marked the end of large steam locomotive production they continued to produce small steam engines and later, between 1956 and 1971, diesel and diesel-electric hybrids and even diesel-hydraulic hybrid engines were built for various industrial applications, bush tramways, saw mills, shunting yards and for New Zealand Railways.

They also received contracts for maintaining and overhauling large locomotives which continued until 1964 with their 155th overhaul. In 1969, the last locomotive was built for a freezing works. It was the 298th locomotive built by A&G Price. Maintenance and overhaul of various types of rolling stock continued, as did new construction of rolling stock including petrol tankers for New Zealand Railways. One international contract for 400 passenger carriages was completed in the 1960s. Similar work continued into the 1980s.

During World War II, railway carriages were built for personnel transport powered by car or truck engines and this led to the development of the railcar after the war.

Railway tracks varied considerably in the distance between the two rails, called the gauge, and manufacturers had to be prepared to accommodate all of these. State coal mines used narrow gauge of 2 feet 0 inches, Auckland City Council Waterworks used 2 feet 0 and 2 feet 6 tracks, Waihi gold mines used 2 feet 9 inches, Ohakune Flax mill at Foxton used 2 feet 11, Ministry of Works used 3 feet 0, but changed to 3 feet 6 for the Kaimai tunnel tunnel and this became the government standard for the main trunk line. The Kauri timber line on Great Barrier Island used 3 feet 6. One of the newer metric standard is one metre which is 3 feet 3 inches. A gauge of 4 feet 8.5 inches has become an international standard and is also used as a metric standard, now used in Britain, the United States and many other countries and 3 feet 6 inches is considered a narrow-gauge standard.

Many examples of steam locomotives made by A&G Price have been preserved by steam enthusiasts around the country and Wikipedia provides a list with links to the organizations who have preserved them.

They applied every innovation in steam engine and boiler design to improve power and efficiency. The best steam engines were only 11% efficient at converting heat energy into mechanical energy. Later they utilized internal combustion engines burning diesel or petrol and they were about 30% efficient but there was still a lot of energy wasted.

During World War II, they built rail tractors for the NZ Royal Air Force. These utilized commercial 87 horsepower petrol-driven Fordson farm tractors modified to run on rails and they used one in their own workshops. Petrol engines were preferred during war because smoke from steam engines could be seen and located by enemy gunners. Similar engines had been built for use in the New Zealand bush on narrow-gauge lines since the 1920s. During World War I, it had been found that these light-weight lines could be constructed and repaired very quickly to transport materials to the front line from the wide-gauge rail systems located well behind the front line.

The association between New Zealand Railways and A&G Price was affected by the many changes of ownership and management philosophy in the railways over the years. It is a complicated story but one worth summarizing:

Over-ambitious attempts by private companies to build railways in Britain and Canada led to a banking collapse in 1866 and a subsequent recession in Britain. It may have been knowledge of that experience that caused the NZ central Government to create a nationalized railway system built, owned and operated by the government.

Originally the railways were built and operated by the Public Works Department from 1873 to 1880. The New Zealand Railways Department came into existence in 1880 and continued to operated the railways for 102 years. It was then restructured as a corporation from 1982 to 1990. In 1990, NZ Railways Limited was created as an independent company to operate the railways but NZ Railways Corporation retained the huge quantity of land that was owned by the railways for their tracks and facilities.

In 1993 NZ Railways Limited was privatized and sold to a multinational company, becoming TRANZ Rail in 1995. This led to financial neglect and deterioration of the infrastructure. Rolling stock was sold to overseas buyers for a quick profit.

In 2004 the central NZ government bought back the rail service component at great expense assigning it to NZ Railways Corporation who still owned the land. But the truck and ferry component of TRANZ Rail was sold to another private company Toll Holdings. Negotiations between Toll Holdings and NZ Railways Corporation failed to come to an agreement that would allow rail freight to use the roll-on roll-off inter-island ferry economically. This impasse was resolved by the government buying the ferry service from Toll and all the components of the railway system were finally merged into a single government run system, as it had been from 1880 to 1982.

But then in 2012 the land component was split off again and they have been selling land. Kiwi Rail set up a 10-year restoration plan and received $2.1 billion from the government (about $525 per person in NZ) to upgrade infrastructure and rolling stock plus $60 million contributed by Mainfreight transport company and $130 million from Fontera Ltd to build new rail hubs at Ruakura, Hamilton and Mosgiel. Unfortunately earthquakes have had a negative impact on their plans and budget.

It is interesting to note that in 2012 New Zealand Railways (now operating as Kiwi Rail) purchased 500 flat-topped rail wagons from Chinese manufacturers, putting their own workshops out of business. They sold part of Hillside Engineering Division in Dunedin and 90 jobs were lost. This division started operating in 1875 and by 1925 they had 365 workers and by 1935 it had grown to 800 but in 1945 it was down to 550 and only a handful of jobs remained when they were taken over by an Australian firm called Bradken.

In 1990, A&G Price re-gauged 24 New Zealand Silver Star passenger carriages to one metre tracks so that they could be sold to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

Modernization

A recent contract included mining parts, such as a 3 ton cam shaft used for crushing ore as well as rock crushing jaws used in Papua New Guinea. This type of project requires pattern making, casting, hardening and tempering and machining.

On a lighter note they were making special castings for Weta Studios movie production. These days customers can design an object using 3D computer aided design software and send the digital design to the foundry where computer controlled milling machines automatically cut out the pattern from plastic foam such as polystyrene foam. This can be used in the same way as a conventional pattern which is removed from the sand mould before the metal is poured in. Or it can be left in place and the hot metal melts the foam in a similar fashion to the lost wax method used so many centuries ago.

They have a very wide range of versatile machine tools ranging from an old Poreba lathe with a bed 40 feet (12m) long and a giant chuck about 10 feet (3m) in diameter, to computer controlled machining workstations that can automatically machine almost any shape without human intervention.

In 2018, the A&G Price Website gives an impressive list of machinery, including many Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machines. These include a 6.3 metre diameter vertical CNC lathe, 10 metre long CNC milling machine, complete multifunctional CNC work centers, a computer aided design center, and a CNC fluid bed plasma cutter 14m x 13m which can cut metals 30mm thick or with gas cutting up to 200mm thick. They also have machines that can roll and shape steel plates up to 25mm thick and 3 metres wide.

In the early years the foundry had vertical cupola furnaces like blast furnaces but these days they use primarily electric induction furnaces to melt scrap metal. They need to know where the scrap came from so that they can estimate its composition but after melting they use X-ray spectroscopy to determine the exact chemical composition of the metal which allows them to use various additives to make the desired alloy.

The web site gives a nice example of the critical roll that this metallurgy plays in their business: Take an everyday mild steel, add a measure of manganese and molybdenum, a trace of titanium and chromium, balance it with carbon …and something new is born. A high-strength wear-resistant metal with a special characteristic: it gets even harder with use. Making it ideal for crusher jaws and other applications in the demanding quarrying industry. Uniquely formulated by A&G Price, we call it ‘Crushalloy’.

They also have an electric arc furnace purchased from the USA in 1947 that can melt four tons of steel, and other furnaces for melting non-ferrous metals such as brass, bronze, aluminium or special alloys up to 2.1 tonnes. Their current web site refers to capacity to cast 6 tonnes of steel, 2.5 tonnes of stainless steel, and 10 tonnes of iron. Then there are large electric ‘ovens’ used to heat the castings up to 1200 degrees C for hardening and tempering known as heat treatment.

Changes in Management

You would think that Alfred, George and John would be busy enough running this large business, but they found time to participate in many community activities. They were all involved in the founding of the School of Mines which developed to provide excellent education for the many apprentices who worked at the foundry and mines. Generally apprenticeships took five years of work experience with study and examinations at night classes. Both Alfred and George served on the Borough Council and Alfred was on the Harbour Board. George was Superintendent of Thames Fire Brigade for many years while George and John were both members of the Thames Scottish Volunteers.


Figure 7: The Thames Foundry Cricket Club photo.
Source:Auckland Weekly News 6 Oct 1899.
Sir George Grey Special Collections at Auckland City Library:
ref # AWNS-18991006-3-2.
Click to enlarge the photo.

Figure 8: Alfred and George Price about 1899
(cropped from the Thames Foundry Cricket Club photo left).
Click to enlarge the photo.

As the three original managers retired, they were replaced by their sons and a nephew. Alfred died in 1907, George in 1917 and John Watson in 1918. George Price’s son George Jnr and Peter Watson were directors while George Jnr acted as the works manager. William Price was George’s nephew and he was Chairman for over 30 years until 1949 and worked as office manager.


Figure 9: John and P.F. Watson about 1899
(cropped from the Thames Foundry Cricket Club photo above).
Click to enlarge the photo.

In 1949, A&G Price merged with William Cable heavy engineering company in Petone. They merged with Downer civil engineering company to form Cable Price Downer Group in 1954. Some smaller companies were merged into the group over the years. By 1974 A&G Price employed 520 staff with a head office in Auckland and the Thames facility on Beach Road was considered a branch. The Cable Price Downer Group was bought in 1988 by Brierly Investments who broke it up into its original three parts.

A&G Price was then purchased by Tiri Group in Mount Wellington, controlled by Executive Chairman Tom Sturgess in Nelson. Most of the companies in this group were involved in the printing industry including wallpaper manufacturing but there were other manufacturing and exporting companies such as Masport.

Tom Sturgess was interviewed in 2013 when his group already owned A&G Price. He had been a US Marine in Vietnam and later studied at Harvard before working in the US finance industry. He immigrated to New Zealand in 1996 and says he ‘specialized in picking up terrific legacy companies’ and went on to say they that he did not tend to sell companies, instead they are ‘buy and hold’ companies. Unfortunately A&G Price were unable to compete with the cheap deals offered by Chinese companies and started to run into financial difficulties.

In August 2017, the Tiri Group decided to close down A&G Price and place it in liquidation. Most of the 100 staff were laid off, leaving a skeleton crew of 27 to finish off the remaining contracts worth several million dollars.

Fortunately on 3rd April 2018, it was announced that an Auckland businessman had decided to save and restructure the company with reduced staff of about 40 to make it more economical. Chris Reeve and Jackie Reeve have owned the land and buildings since 1995, and they decided to buy A&G Price as sole owners. Chris said he wants Peter Yates who has worked there for 24 years to manage the company with Ian Findlay. Chris will take a ‘hands off’ approach and hopes that a small group of enthusiastic and experienced employees will revitalize the company. We hope to see the company thrive under new management and continue for another 150 years.


Figure 10. Inside one of the many huge rooms in A&G Price Foundry. A milling machine with its long flat bed can be seen in the distance.
Photo by the author, reference # AEL3331.
Click to enlarge the photo.

Figure 11: A&G Price buildings as they appear today.
Photo by the author, reference # AEL4435.
Click to enlarge the photo.

A Timeline History of A&G Price.

Events around the world:

3200BC Oldest known casting is a bronze statue made in Mesopotamia 3200 BC.
1300BC Iron casting took place in India.
1830 The great British railway era started with the construction of the Liverpool to Manchester line and boomed in the 1840’s with lines into and out of London.
1852 7000 miles of railway track had been built in Britain.
1847 Boom turned to bust in Britain and investors began to look overseas.
1861 Goldrush in Otago.
1866 Over-zealous expansion in Canada led to another crash in railways investing.
1866 British government printed money to bail out banks which crashed as a result of the railways crash.
1867 The Goldfields officially opened at the Thames 1st August 1867.
1868 Fraser and Tinnes’s Phoenix Foundry in Auckland advertised gold mining equipment.
1869 Charles Judd’s Thames Iron Works was established in Thames.
1871 A&G Price moved some of their facilities from Auckland to Thames on 26th October 1871.
1871 Charles Judd made their first casting in Thames in November 1871.
1871 The depression caused by the British railway bust began to resolve.
1872 After the railway bust overseas, NZ government expanded its nationalized railway system.

A&G Price Timeline

1838 Alfred Price was born, and later apprenticed in pattern making, at Dunbridge Engineering Works near Stroud in Scotland.
1843 George Price was born in Scotland.
1863 Alfred arrived in Auckland in August 1863 (his first trip).
1868 A&G Price was established in Onehunga making flax stripping machines.
1871 In October 1871 A&G Price advertised in the newspaper that they had moved to Thames.
1872 First contract for 10 carriages and 12 wagons was signed with government railways.
1872 The first Big Pump was opened at Imperial Crown Mine by United Pumping Association.
1974 First railway contract was completed at Onehunga.
1874 Onehunga branch of A&G Price closed.
1881 Built the paddle steamer 'Pataki'..
1883 Iron clad 67 ft (20m) 'Despatch’ was built with a triple-expansion steam engine and operated it on Waihou River.
1883 A&G Price bought Prince Imperial Gold Mining Company for its equipment but turned it into a profitable venture.
1884 Highly efficient Pelton wheels were manufactured under license from the patent holder and they began to replace conventional water wheels.
1885 Built a small ‘geared’ steam engine for shunting in small industrial yards. The gear box gave better torque at low RPM for this low speed work.
1889 The Thames branch railway line was opened.
1891 The gold mine was merged with another. By that time, they had extracted 43,094oz of gold in the previous 5 years which would be worth 79 million NZ dollars in 2018.
1895 Constructing a 100 header quartz stamper battery at Waikino for Waihi GMC.
1895 Contract for a 60 head stamper battery at Moanataiari mine (over the road).
1895 40 head stamper battery at Karangahake gold mine.
1895 10 Lancashire boilers were provided for the Hauraki Big Pump project at The Queen of Beauty shaft.
1898 The Hauraki Big Pump started operating.
1903 First railway engine contract for ten 43.5 ton Wf class locomotives (Steam engines).
1906 Opened a branch in Quay Street, Auckland for ship building, light engineering, motor car repairs, gear cutting, and factory repairs.
1907-1909 A&G Price Delivered 10 A-class locomotives to NZ Railways.
1907 George Price died.
1908 An A&G Price steam engine, NZR number 410, pulled the first train from Wellington to Auckland on the Main Trunk Line on 8th August 1908.
1914 Oct. The Hauraki Big Pump stopped when they hit rapid water inflow from the Moanataiari fault at 1000ft(300m).
1916 Alfred Price and John Watson retired. Alfred had founded the School of Mines in Thames, with George and John. He served on the Thames Borough Council and Harbor Board. George had also served on the Borough Council, and was Superintendent of the Thames Fire Brigade for many years. He was a member of the Thames Scottish Volunteers.
1916 George’s nephew, Will Price, became Chairman of the Board and remained Chairman until 1949 (33 years), while George Price Jnr and Peter Watson were directors.
1918 John Watson died.
1924 100th locomotive was completed on April 20th 1924. Eventually 298 engines built.
1926 40 employees just in the Auckland branch.
1927 A Royal Commission recommended that the government-run railways should build their own engines and rolling stock.
1929 A&G Price bought the rights to build Abner Doble steam-powered buses from USA.
1930’s Constructed 100 road graders by World War II.
1940’s Built 87 horsepower rail tractors from farm tractors for the Royal NZ Air Force during World War II.
1940’s Built a range of military equipment for the war effort including ships.
1945 Post-war production of conveyors were provided to Westport Coal Co., The NZ Dairy Board, and Auckland Gas Company.
1945 Military personel carriers with car or truck petrol engines lead to the development of rail cars.
1947 Made bridge girders for Maraetai Hydroelectric Power Station.
1949 A&G Price merged with a similar firm, Cable and Company in Petone.
1945-1990 They constructed barges, trawlers, fork lifts, steam and diesel railway engines, railway jiggers, marine boilers and engines and other shipping equipment including massive propellors and drive shafts, steam and diesel powered stationary winches for timber hauling and shipping, rock crushers for mining, saw mill equipment, equipment for the dairy industry from boilers to butter churns and girders. Over the course of the timber industry they made more than 30,000 timber jacks in addition to numerous pulleys. They also made Deal Frame saws that used multiple vertical saws to cut timber into planks. They made a huge ladle for transporting molten metal for Pacific Steel. They could cast up to 10 tons of liquid metal at a time.
1950’s Built a floating crane for Auckland Harbour Bridge.
1954 Merged with Downer and Company and several smaller companies.
1954 Built a wood processing plant for Tasman Pulp and Paper Company at Kawerau.
1956-1966 Made rolling stock including petrol tankers, diesel shunting engines and even a diesel-hydraulic hybrid engine for NZ Railways. Engine numbers 169 to 223 included 54 engines based on internal combustion engines.
1966 Made a 20 ton casting for Reid Rubber Mills.
1960’s Built a decompression chamber used for treating patients with the Bends.
1964 Contracts for overhauling steam engines ended with locomotive number 155.
1969 Construction of smaller locomotives for private industry continued until 1969 when the construction of a diesel locomotive for a freezing works was completed.
1980’s Railway work was still 80% of the business with construction and maintenance of rolling stock. One contract in the 1960’s was for 400 new carriages.
1980’s A Labour Government was elected (amid nuclear concerns), and they privatized industries including the railways, forcing competition with road transport.
1980’s Think Big projects relied on large overseas manufacturers, cutting out local production.
1980’s The railway branch line from Morrinsville to Thames was closed.
1983 Railway transport was deregulated.
1983 Casting turbines for hydroelectric power stations.
1983 The number of employees peaked at 200 but in 1983 reduced to 140.
1995-2004 A&G Price made keels for Whitbread ocean match racing and the America’s Cup (Black Magic).
2017 Employees numbered about 100.
2017 Poor management appears to have caused an announcement of liquidation.
2017 Employees reduced to a skeleton crew of about 10 to finish existing contracts.
2018 New owners were announced in April 2018 with plans to employ about 45.

References:

  • Goldrush to the Thames: New Zealand 1867 to 1869, by Kae Lewis PhD published by Parawai Press in 2017.
  • The Goldrush Online Database compiled by Kae Lewis.
  • Men of Metal: The Story of A&G Price Ltd., Auckland and Thames 1868 - 1968 Centennial, by C.W. Vennell and Published by Wilson and Horton Ltd. Auckland in 1968.
  • Prices of Thames by Bob Stott published in 1983 by Southern Press Ltd, PO Box 50-134, Porirua, Wellington, New Zealand. ISBN 0908616 06 6.
  • New Zealand Geographic #34 April-June 1997 p80.
  • ‘Flax Dressing Machinery’ Daily Southern Cross, Volume XXV, Issue 3665, 17 April 1869.
  • Thames Star 22nd Jan 1926.
  • Thames Star 21st Dec 1966.
  • ‘A Big Contract’ New Zealand Times, Volume XLIV, Issue 10384, 15 September 1919 from Papers Past.
  • A&G Price Ltd: A Wikipedia article.
  • ‘Accident at Price’s Foundry’ Thames Star Volume XLVII, Issue 10189, 13 April 1912.
  • ‘Flames from a Furnace’ New Zealand Herald, Volume LXII, Issue 22215, 16 September 1935.
  • ‘Crushed at Foundry’ New Zealand Herald on 24th July 1936 Volume LXXIII, Issue 22479 from Papers Past.
  • ‘Fall from Building’ New Zealand Herald on 18 May 1927 Volume LXIV, Issue 19639. from Papers Past.
  • ‘Our Goldfields’ Auckland Star, Volume XXIII, Issue 218, 13 Sept 1892.
  • ‘Large Churn’ New Zealand Herald Volume LXIIV, Issue 22860, 15 October 1937 from Papers Past (this includes a photo).
  • 'Steam Launch’ New Zealand Herald, Volume XVII, Issue 5906, 21 October 1880.
  • The Cricket Club: a photograph held by the Auckland Public Library Heritage Images.
  • ‘Memories of Working at A&G Price, Thames.’ An interview with Errol Ross by the Oral History Group of The Coromandel Heritage Trust on 29 May 2007, Work No.15, Disk 1. Available to purchase at The Treasury or online from The Treasury Shop.
  • The Pleasant Point Railway & Historical Society, Timaru, NZ.
  • A Wikipedia article about the New Zealand Railways AB Class locomotives.
  • Tom Sturgess: Ex-marine Keeps Firms Afloat. Stuff 14 April 2013.
  • A&G Price Foundry Sold and To Be Restored. Stuff 3rd April 2018.
  • The A&G Price, Thames: The Alchemy of Metal.
  • Bella Street Pump House.
  • The Bella Street Timeline



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