Detail of a watercolour by Hans Walter Buser of the construction of the Vestey Group meatworks at Port Darwin, NT, 1916. Courtesy John William Lewin, National Library of Australia.JUST how far, and how fast, Australia has come in meat processing has been documented by Stephen Martyn in his book, World on a Plate.

The book was a seven-year labour of love for Mr Martyn, who has a deep history in the sector. He is currently the national director, processing, of the Australian Meat Industry Council. FarmOnline is publishing extracts over the coming weeks.

As the Australian Agricultural Company (AACo) officially opens its new plant outside Darwin, we look back to the Northern Territory’s first abattoir.

The Darwin Rebellion of 1918THE origins of meatworks in the north of Australia go back to the federal Labor government of 1910–1913, when they proposed a government-owned export meat plant be built in Darwin to help develop the region.

The English Vestey Group’s main focus at the time was Argentina, but it accepted an offer from the conservative Australian government elected in 1914 to build the abattoir themselves in return for huge pastoral leases (12 million acres of crown land on 42-year leases) in the north.

The Vestey Group (established by brothers Lord William Vestey and Sir Edmund Vestey) began building the Darwin plant in 1915 on Bullocky Point, the current site of the Darwin High School. It took over two years to complete.

Opening in 1917, it processed over 60,000 head during the next three years. With capacity of 500 cattle per day, the Darwin works anticipated shipping problems and included storage capacity for 6000 tonnes – the largest in Australia at the time.

It was also the most expensive works of its time, costing around £1 million to build, four times the original estimates.

Some critics saw the abattoir as a token gesture by The Vestey Group to secure the northern pastoral leases, but the company argued that the federal government never kept its promises on rail and other infrastructure to allow the plant to operate profitably.

The plant closed for a time in 1918 putting hundreds out of work. The union and community unrest became so great that an estimated 1000 demonstrators marched on Government House in Darwin.

Additionally, at the time, a conspiracy was alleged between the government and the Vestey Group regarding the illegal takeover of a large pastoral property which had reportedly also involved bribes.

H.E. Carey, who was both government secretary and chief clerk at the meatworks, was accused of collusion. Carey reported to the Administrator Dr John Gilruth.

Known today as the Darwin Rebellion, the federal government ordered the lightly-armed gunboat HMAS Una to protect the Administrator as she anchored off Parliament House.

They then sent the HMAS Encounter to remove Gilruth and Carey from Darwin and take them to Melbourne.

The incident did nothing for the Vestey Group’s image in Australia and the works closed in 1920, the result of continuing industrial action, reduced world demand and the inability to move enough cattle into Darwin without the promised railway.

The Vestey Group’s interest in meat processing in Australia was renewed in 1932 by Imperial Preference, an agreement between the members of the British Commonwealth countries that they (like Australia) should have preference over non-Commonwealth countries such as Argentina in access to the UK market for meat products.

Following this decision, the Vestey Group purchased Australia’s biggest meat processor at the time, William Angliss & Co, from the man himself for £1.5 million.

The Darwin works was rebuilt under the Angliss banner after this decision. It appears the Vestey Group also had plans to build a large meatworks at Katherine before WWII and began work on its foundations, but the project was shelved because of the war. The foundations are still there.

The Darwin works continued as an export meatworks until the late 1970s. It finished its life as a domestic plant in the early 1990s.

An edited extract from World on a Plate: A History of Meat Processing in Australia which is available for purchase online.

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