We mined clay in this country before mining coal, and back in February over 100 folk from all over the South Island gathered near Pukerau to celebrate the Norton family who has extracted clay since the 1880s. PETER OWENS was among the guests.
Family and old customers gathered at Camp Columba near Pukerau to watch a film on the Norton’s Brick and Tile Company.
The operation carries the oldest quarrying licence in the country of a company still being owned and operated by the same family – four generations of the Norton family.
The audience included members of the widespread Norton whanau who had travelled long distances for the event, and a large number of farmers, and retired farmers, who have patronised the business over the years.
The film was made by Fergus Sutherland, a well-known southern educationalist and environmentalist, with the assistance of his wife Mary. The couple was deluged with requests for copies of the video after the screening.
The business and its plant at Pukerau in Southland were founded by John Norton, who came out from England in 1875 looking for a suitable place for the manufacture and sale of bricks and “pipes” (as field tiles were known in those days). He found and bought a site in Pukerau near the rural servicing town of Gore and close to the just completed railway line between Dunedin and Invercargill. The site had a good source of clay and coal for the kilns.
The business has remained on the same site ever since, but no longer makes bricks after a fire in the 1990s destroyed the technology used in their manufacture. Since then, the business has concentrated on only making and selling field tiles, for which there is strong demand.
The original plant built in 1880 was moved in 1915. The old site is now a bird sanctuary and a favourite refuge for the local ducks during the shooting season.
The ‘new’ plant where the field tiles are made, fired and sold is bounded to the north by the South Island Main Trunk Railway and to the south by State Highway 1. In 1902 the company purchased 20 acres of land on the other side of the State Highway as a source of raw clay for its operations.
In 1915 the company received the approval of the then Southland County Council to excavate a tunnel under State Highway 1 linking its two properties. This tunnel still functions daily and is lined with bricks made in the company’s plant. A 20-inch light railway line was laid between the two properties through the tunnel, and used to convey clay in wheeled bins from the excavation face to the plant.
At first it was driven by a hand-operated continuous wire rope. These days the bins are pulled back and forth by a small petrol-driven locomotive designed and built by the present company manager, Dayle Norton, the son of John Norton II.
The Pukerau site was not only chosen because of the clay resource – it also had coal nearby for the kilns. In 1957 the company installed a fully automatic diesel-fired kiln, but with the escalation of fuel costs, the company reverted to using coal.
The Nortons have kept the operation as simple as the original. John Norton II, who recently retired as general manager of the company, says tried and true methods remain ideal for the business and, over the years, no other methods have been found to be better. Despite the cynical attitudes of other business people when the company reverted to coal-fired kilns, John Norton says coal firing is as efficient as electrical energy and much less expensive.
Nor has the company reverted to decimalisation. Field tiles are still made and ordered sized in inches.
From the beginnings of the business until relatively recently, the company dispatched thousands of field tiles and bricks all over the South from the nearby main trunk railway that borders its land. These days either the farmers collect the field tiles themselves in their own vehicles, or else they arrange for a carrier to collect and deliver them.
In 1915, John Norton, the founder of the company retired as manager and was succeeded by his son Frank. Frank managed the business until 1966, then he in turn was succeeded by his sons, John and Eric. Eric Norton however withdrew from the business in 1974 and from that time until recently John Norton II managed the company. These days it is managed by his son, Dayle Norton.
John Norton II and his wife Anita still live in Pukerau in a two-storey dwelling adjoining the plant, while Dayle and his wife Margaret live just across State Highway 1 from the site.
The technology is simple but effective. Clay is mined from on one side of the road by a machine, railed through the tunnel to the plant and mixed with water. It is then extruded under pressure into moulds and expressed in a long tube. This is then cut to the desired length by a machine designed by the Norton family in 1929. The tiles are then baked at about 1000 degrees Celsius in the coal-fired kilns.