Erasing the Past, or a Future of Layered Memories? Tokoroa, New Zealand 

Fiona Hurd & Suzette Dyer

Whether mining, forestry, meat works or railways, the mainstay of Post-WWII industry and employment policy was small town New Zealand. Many of these may not be ‘single industry’ in the sense of the ‘company town’ found in the United Kingdom or North America, but the major employers in these towns dominated economic activity and growth for the best part of forty years. Indeed, for many of us, these were the communities we grew up in, and where our parents worked, and where our friends and families lived. These towns are often seen as a relic of an outdated industrial past, of a working era before global value chains, knowledge work and industry 4.0.

When we look deeper, the organising of communities around work is not a relic of the past, but a pattern that follows cycles of industrial development. In Australasia, the development was seen during early mining booms, and later during post-WWII Keynesian industry-employment policy; in New Zealand we saw the development of Mill towns such as Kawerau and Tokoroa. Since the 1980s, across these countries we have seen the move from manufacturing to service and knowledge-based roles, which has led to a downsizing of traditional industries, and for many of these towns, a period of decline. However, we should not take this decline as an indication that this practice has stopped, as during this same period, we saw industry towns and cities emerge, including the development of economic zones in China, professional service clusters in India, and around new technologies, such as the concentration of technological ventures in Silicon Valley. While previous work has often focused on the historical aspect of these communities, the pattern of organising community life around work, oftentimes in conjunction with state policy, is an ongoing phenomenon. 

In our research on Tokoroa, what struck us was the way in which the development of the local industry, and in fact the founding industrialist himself, shaped not only the memories of the town, but also ongoing understandings of what it means to live and work in the town. We could see that these influences – the early Indigenous land use, the development of industry, and the ‘founding father’ were overlaid with more recent events of the downsizing of the industry and decline in population. It was as though, rather than each more recent event erasing the past, the inscription of the past seemed to underlay and influence current events. The first layer of inscriptions, for example, included the importance of the location to local Indigenous settlements, who did not live on the land, but for whom the land was the central hunting and meeting ground between hapu (sub-tribe). Other elements of the early inscription included a small farming community which subsequently dwindled after the volcanic land was found lacking in cobalt essential for animal health.  Reshaping the landscape, by planting the Central North Island Forests as part of  employment policies during the Great Depression, cemented the area as a centre for the future forestry industry.

The development of this area into a pulp and paper mill town was again driven by Government employment policy, this time targeting return servicemen following WWII. Seeing the potential, an industrialist originally from Scotland, David Henry, purchased a large tract of land and promptly applied  for New Zealand’s first pulp and paper license. Henry went about planning the Mill and designing a true company town that aligned with the approach taken in industrial Britain. Thus, the town was built on company land and financed  initially with company and private philanthropic funds. This makes Tokoroa one of the only true examples of a ‘company town’ in New Zealand, whose development had very little funding from the New Zealand government.

Henry’s approach to developing the town and company  reflected his upbringing and personal values. For example, Henry named the Mill after a pulp paper plant near Edinburgh where he worked as a young man, and his approach to welfare reflected his strong Presbyterian background. Moreover, his strong commitment to internationalisation shaped his fundraising efforts to establish the Mill. Although Henry passed away in 1963, just 9 years after the opening of the mill, we found that these aspects of Henry have an enduring influence to the present day. One participant, who arrived in the town after Henry’s death, commented:

Sir David Henry, the founder of New Zealand Forest Products, a Scotsman… [he] had the foresight to see he could turn those trees into paper and wood, and so he went around the world raising money and founded New Zealand Forest Products, and then that, he chose the site, and then continued onto to build the mill… and then, at the same time built the town as well.

The philanthropic ethos extended beyond Henry, with another commenting ‘the company here had the same attitude to its staff, it didn’t matter who they were…Philanthropic to the extent that my biggest asset is my men, and women in the staff, I’ll look after them, to hell with everybody else’. The story of Kinleith and Tokoroa does not end with David Henry, however. The past 30 years has seen the company sold to international interests, the downsizing of the mill and its workforce, and a subsequent decline in the town’s population; a common story for single industry towns throughout the world. Interestingly, although this period of change and decline has persisted over a much longer period than the initial development of the town, the narrative of David Henry and by extension New Zealand Forest Products, remains strong amongst residents, including those only recently settled in the area. It seems that the enduring presence of the industrial ‘father’ has served to retain an illusion of industrial family, community and stability. This helps us to understand that history is not erased by more recent events, but rather the layering of past and present contributes to how we understand the world around us.

Our research reminds us that communities of work, such as single industry towns, are an example of a locality where the organisational realm merges with the fabric of individual and community life. Moreover, these towns have experienced significant change through the process of increased globalisation and changes to work. These towns serve not only as an important part of our social fabric, and for many of us, our personal identity (albeit a distant memory for some), but also serve as a reminder that businesses do not operate in isolation, they are part of a wider industrial, political and societal context. These examples should lead us to consider the longer-term impacts of our business decisions on those communities we are located within, prompting us to move beyond the traditional short-term metrics guiding our decision-making. We need to move to consider how our business actions are shaping communities, landscapes, whanau history. Moreover, by placing the experience of those whose lives we are shaping front and centre in our decisions, we are drawn to reflect on how the impacts of global changes to organisation and work are not only unevenly experienced but are significant and permanent.

Fiona Hurd is a Senior Lecturer at the Auckland University of Technology. Suzette Dyer is Senior Lecturer at the University of Waikato. This piece is drawn from their article in Labour History, No. 1, 2021.

Radical Currents, Labour Histories, No. 1 Autumn 2022, 29-30.