From March 1915 the British government purchased New Zealand’s entire output of frozen meat to help ensure a regular flow of food to the British public and the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium. Over the remaining years of the war, this bulk purchase arrangement – known variously as the ‘requisition’ or the ‘imperial commandeer’ – was gradually extended to cover most of New Zealand’s other primary products. It rapidly grew into an industrial counterpart to the work of sending men abroad to join the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF). To co-ordinate the process, the New Zealand government created an Imperial Government Supplies Department which linked the scattered local producers with the British government’s supply chain.
Meat and dairy to Britain
In 1914, the export of meat, dairy and other agricultural products generated about 90% of New Zealand’s export income, with a further 5% generated by the mining industry. Over 80% of this output went to the United Kingdom, where it helped sustain a British population increasingly dependent on imported food. The New Zealand government facilitated the expansion of agricultural trade by building roads and railways, by making land – and the means of developing it – available, and by inspecting agricultural products before export to ensure the high quality of the New Zealand brand. The government took no role in the trade itself, however, with private dairy factories and freezing works selling New Zealand produce directly to British distributors. Private shipping companies carried these exports to the waiting consumers in Britain.
The health of the shipping industry was key to the entire process, which would break down if insufficient ships were available to transport these goods at a viable cost. In 1914 a large number of ships handled New Zealand’s trade with Europe (mainly with the UK). Most belonged to three British-owned businesses: the New Zealand Shipping Company and Federal Steam Navigation Company alliance; Shaw Savill & Albion; and the Commonwealth & Dominion Line (the Port Line). Later generations would call them the Conference Lines, but insiders then referred to them as the Direct Lines or simply ‘the Liners’. To many New Zealanders these ships, often household names, were simply the ‘Home boats’. The Union Company held a small share of the trade and the Vestey-owned Blue Star Line would break into the business during the war, but it was generally a tightly-run oligarchy, overseen by the New Zealand Overseas Shipowners’ Committee (NZOSC) and in many cases linked closely to the freezing works companies. Competition between the shipping companies was much less vigorous than exporters, politicians or the public assumed.
The commandeer begins
The outbreak of war in August 1914 disrupted international trade and made the sea lanes used by the ‘Home boats’ vulnerable to raids by enemy warships. It also increased the British demand for agricultural imports to help fuel the war effort. New Zealand had contributed to the South African War more than a decade earlier, supplying soldiers, horses and foodstuffs, and even converting several freighters into troopships. But the demands of the First World War would be much greater. The need for food grew steadily as the number of soldiers – and the pressure on the British economy – increased. Wartime demand soon forced the British government to bypass ordinary business channels to get the goods it needed, and it introduced controls over both the imported food trade and the shipping industry which facilitated it.
In early 1915 the British government introduced a commandeer system, agreeing to buy the entire national output of certain commodities beyond the requirements of the domestic market. Frozen meat was commandeered first, in March 1915, followed by the tungsten ore scheelite, used in armament manufacturing (September 1915), cheese (November 1915), wool (December 1916), sheepskins (February 1917), hides and slipe wool (March 1917), and finally butter (November 1917). The United Kingdom made similar arrangements with Australia, India, Ceylon, Egypt, the United States (from 1917), the Philippines, Russia, and even France.
The government created a Department of Imperial Government Supplies (initially known as the Imperial Government Meat Supply Branch) to facilitate the process. The new department was outside the control of the public service commissioner and was intended to last only as long as the war. Head office in Wellington would oversee the work of the many staff in the regions who liaised with local firms. By 1918, the department was co-ordinating the work of 85 wool and skin brokers, 40 freezing works, 33 wool-scouring works, 23 fellmongeries and a number of other industries to keep the commander running smoothly. In turn, it distributed British payments to the producers.
The department at work
The Department of Imperial Government Supplies started work on 3 March 1915, the day frozen meat was first requisitioned. Everything was done in a rush. Robert Triggs, an assistant public service commissioner, headed the branch, which was squeezed into Room 64 of the General Post Office Building. For his key staff he chose F.H. Taylor from Dalgety & Co’s shipping section, D. Rutherford from the Post and Telegraph Department and – under agreement with the livestock division of the Department of Agriculture – Chief Veterinarian C.J. Reakes. They had to work hard, for on 9 March, the liner Ruahine, the first imperial food ship, slipped out of Wellington bound for London with a cargo of 4324 carcasses of mutton and 22,975 of lamb, paid for by the British government (£24,562) and tallied up by the new unit. For the rest of the life of the scheme the prime minister, ministers and interested parties would be given returns showing the tallies of shipments on every vessel.
Staff numbers grew along with the work. Initially, when the purchasing scheme covered only frozen meat, a little cheese and scheelite, the staff was just six-strong. Life grew steadily more cramped as mail sacks flooded the department’s small office. The department had 11 staff when it moved to bigger premises in Norwich Chambers on Customhouse Quay in December 1916, and 44 when it moved again in September 1917 to Lambton Chambers on Lambton Quay. By 1918 there were 59 staff in head office, although Triggs assured his minister that only six were on the public service’s permanent payroll. In 1917 they had taken over the outside work previously done by the New Zealand Government Requisitions Committee, mainly valuing wool and sheepskins for the British government. This brought in a large number of wool inspectors who were supported by three additional clerks.
Triggs’ enthusiasm for automation meant that telephones, mechanical calculators and adding machines competed with staff for office space. While some worked with the shipping companies, valued wool or inspected farms and woolstores alongside people from Agriculture and Customs, most departmental staff sat at their desks processing information and accounts. Newspapers reported that £1.25 million (equivalent to about $163 million in 2015) was passing through the office each week by mid-war.
The department set prices, allocated customers and enforced markings and logos on goods. Its staff also worked closely and co-operatively with other departments, overseas governments, and the agricultural and shipping sectors. It worked most closely with the Department of Agriculture, Industries and Commerce. In 1917 Agriculture’s livestock division formed a committee to undertake the extra work which had followed the addition of wool and sheepskins to the commandeer; this had taken up considerable staff time.
The shipping crisis
The demands on the available shipping increased as ships were taken over for use as hospital ships and troop transports, and for other purposes. Britain began requisitioning insulated spaces in ships for the carriage of meat, breaking the old arrangements between shipping companies, shipping agents and their customers such as freezing companies and wool brokers. From 1915 the Wellington-based NZOSC (with Triggs as the government representative) worked with like bodies in Australia and Britain. The NZOSC met daily to assess information from Imperial Supplies on the quantities of meat held in the freezing works and estimates of future killings. The flow of data increased as other commodities were brought into the scheme.
The commandeer drove an increase in primary production despite the shortage of manpower. Many dairy factories and freezing works were established or expanded to meet the increased business, some with government subsidies. Production only slowed in the later years of the war, when the demand for shipping space outstripped availability, thanks in part to attacks on British shipping by German U-boats. In 1918 the department reported that refrigerated tonnage with a carrying capacity of 1,761,800 standard carcasses of meat had been lost during the war.
The number of ships calling at New Zealand ports declined, and meat and dairy products piled up in cool stores for want of transport. New Zealand producers and politicians worried that ships were being diverted to Argentina and Uruguay, from where they could make two shorter voyages for every single long trip from New Zealand. When Britain’s Shipping Controller took over all the empire’s deep-sea shipping between 1917 and 1919 under the Liner Requisition Scheme, Prime Minister William Massey protested strongly, but with limited success. Sailings from New Zealand to the UK fell from 99 in 1914 to 78 in 1916 and 62 in 1917, while carcass numbers shipped dropped from 8.8 million to 5.6 million over these years.
Britain’s orders kept the department’s staff busy, but they occasionally did some purely local work. Late in 1916 Cabinet fixed the price at which butter could be sold in the dominion and imposed a levy on butter and cheese factories to ensure that butter sold locally earned farmers as much as the export product. Imperial Government Supplies’ work was made more complicated when the government set the levy too high and more than £50,000 had to be refunded. Two years later the department found itself buying cheese for the Defence Department, and at about the same time it purchased Australian wheat on behalf of the Board of Trade.
Praise and brickbats
Most farmers liked the commandeer, which guaranteed good prices for all they could produce. They had to put up with some extra bureaucracy, but that was nothing new for growers used to having their produce inspected, wool brands registered and products packed and marked to purchasers’ requirements. People from the shipping and storage industries also appreciated the commandeer. W.S. Bennett, Wellington manager for Dalgetys, claimed that ‘God only knows what would have happened to New Zealand if the Imperial Government had not taken over our produce. It practically saved this country from bankruptcy.’ 
There were some complaints. In 1915 Poverty Bay farmers fearful of losing trade to South American competitors wanted more ships to call. At Wairoa in December 1917, farmers complained not about purchase prices but about the size of deductions to cover the cost of extracting seed from fleeces – some districts had seedier wool than others. In March 1920, woolgrower W.D. Lysnar observed that though the war was well and truly over, farmers were still being denied the higher prices a free market might offer.
A stronger cause of grievance was the shortage of shipping and its allocation to ports. By mid-war Home boats were permitted to call at no more than four ports – and only one if the ship had loaded in Australia before coming to New Zealand. Under this policy, ports such as Oamaru lost their UK trade during the war while others such as Tokomaru Bay boomed. Other ports and local producers grumbled that they were not getting their fair share of the reduced number of visits. In November 1917, for example, the secretary of the Otago branch of the Farmers’ Union complained that too much power was being exerted by the Shipping Controller in London. While Triggs had been appointed to the tonnage committee of the NZOSC, this had limited influence and allocations were almost always made in London. The Otago farmers’ leader suspected that Wellington’s central geographical position gave it an advantage over ports such as his own.
Woolgrowers were probably the stroppiest farmers. Wool had not been commandeered until December 1916 and growers, buyers and brokers were concerned about the impact on their incomes and businesses. In fact co-operation between government officials and the sector proved strong and enduring. A new Dominion Woolgrowers’ Committee advised officials and the brokers rationalised valuation points to wool stores in Auckland, Gisborne, Napier, Wellington, Christchurch, Timaru, Dunedin and Invercargill.
Away from the farm, others sometimes criticised the scheme. Trade union leaders unhappy about rising prices looked askance at farmers’ incomes, although the historian James Watson observes that all prices rose during the war and that ‘the commandeer kept those [already high] prices down and assured supplies for the empire and some of its allies at the expense of other markets.’ 
The end of the commandeer
The war’s influence lingered long after the signing of the Armistice in November 1918. Shipping was still in very short supply and it would take many months for New Zealand’s soldiers to be returned to the dominion. Government departments took their place in increasingly long queues as governments and shipping lines juggled their requirements, handling repatriations, ship refits and the ordinary needs of vital trades such as coal.
While the final tally for the commandeer would be nearly £160 million, a table published just before the Armistice sums up its busiest years. Note the importance of meat and wool. The figures are in pounds sterling (£):
|Cheese, 1915-16 season||917,748|
|Cheese, 1916-17 season||3,295,557|
|Cheese, 1917-18 season||4,811,228|
|Butter, 1917-18 season||2,816,457|
|Freezing Cos’ slipe wool||3,270,332|
As business wound down departmental staff were laid off or transferred, although a few appointments such as that of George Christie as auditor in mid-1919 continued to be made to fill vital roles. During the Second World War Britain would again commandeer New Zealand’s major export commodities, but the main business would be handled by producer boards working with the shipping lines and other government departments rather than by a specialist government department. The first such board, the New Zealand Meat Producers’ Board, hired Thomas Lees in 1922 as its first secretary. For a short while Lees also retained the position of Controller of the Department of Imperial Government Supplies, which he had assumed in April 1921 following Triggs’ death a few months earlier in order to wind up the department after seeing off its final wool shipments.
The steamer Westmoreland sailed from Wellington in September 1922 with the last bales of wool purchased by the British government. The 1921/22 season had seen 314,903 bales shipped, nearly half to London and the remainder to Liverpool, Hull and Manchester. The commandeer was officially over.
This article was written by Tim Shoebridge and Gavin McLean and produced by the NZHistory team. It was commissioned by the State Services Commission. A fully footnoted version is available to download as a pdf here.
The booklet Food-ships for Britain by Will Lawson (Government Printer, Wellington, 1918) provided much of the information for this article, along with contemporary newspaper reports and the annual reports of government departments published in the Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives.
- Bill Carter and John MacGibbon, Wool: a history of New Zealand’s wool industry, Ngaio Press, Wellington, 2003
- James Watson, ‘Patriotism, profits and problems: New Zealand farming during the Great War’, in John Crawford and Ian McGibbon (eds), New Zealand’s Great War: New Zealand, the Allies and the First World War, Exisle Publishing, Auckland, 2013
 Will Lawson, Food-ships for Britain, an account of the work of the Department of Imperial Government Supplies in New Zealand to the end of August, 1918, Government Printer, Wellington, 1918, p. 24
 James Watson, ‘Patriotism, profits and problems: New Zealand farming during the Great War’, in John Crawford and Ian McGibbon (eds), New Zealand’s Great War: New Zealand, the Allies and the First World War, Exisle Publishing, Auckland, 2013, pp. 539-40