Alexander Bell Donald history
A brief history of Alexander Bell Donald and the establishment of the A.B. Donald Ltd. group of companies. Produce Markets Ltd, Reo Motors Ltd, Les Etablissments Donald Tahiti, A.B. Donald Ltd Rarotonga.
From entry in The Dictionary of New Zealand biography V3 edited by Dr. Claudia Orange. Written by W.A. Laxon, J. Leigh 'The ABD of fruit and veg', obituary New Zealand Herald 09.03.1922. Content after 1922 prepared by A. Donald.
Alexander Bell Donald was born in Inverkeithing, Fife, Scotland, on 18th August 1842, the son of John Donald and his wife Agnes Bell. Brought up in a busy trading port, Alex soon decided to go to sea and at the age of 12 shipped as a cabin boy. After about 7 years at sea, Donald jumped ship in Dunedin, New Zealand, to head for the gold diggings at Gabriels Gully. Fortune did not come his way and by 1870 he was in Auckland where, after working with an undertaker, he set up business as sailmaker in Queen Street. Around 1878, as his enterprise prospered he expanded into ships' chandlery and was soon dealing with the owners and masters of the many small sailing ships which crowded Auckland Harbour.
At Auckland, on the 2nd April 1874 Alexander Donald married Charlotte Wright, the sister of his landlady. They had met when he rowed out to the incoming migrant ship to assist her ashore. The couple were to have 6 children.
In 1875 Donald had his first cargo carrying vessel built, the 61 ton schooner 'Agnes Donald' , named after his mother. Following the withdrawal in 1879 of Owen and Graham from the Pacific Islands produce trade, Donald seized his opportunity and soon took the leading position. Around this time he was joined in partnership by Charles Edenborough. Over the next 30 years the firm of Donald and Edenborough bought about 15 ships for the trades from Auckland to Rarotonga, Samoa and Tahiti.
All inward cargo had to be picked and loaded to reach the Auckland Markets at it's peak. A newly arrived island schooner at the Auckland wharves, its decks piled high with sweet smelling tropical fruit, had great appeal, yet the trade was fraught with hazards. With transport dependent on small sailing ships with no refrigeration, a storm or contrary winds could make the difference between profit and disaster. Donald was unwilling to leave the timing to the judgement of others and often travelled on his vessels, supervising the buying and selling.
In July 1881 Charles Edenborough and his wife Grace, were among the survivors on board the firm's 'Ovalau' when it was wrecked at Huahine in the Society Islands. Three of the firm's ships were cast ashore when a tropical cyclone struck the exposed anchorage at Rarotonga on 17th December 1883. Two of them, the recently built 'Makea Ariki' and 'Agnes Bell', were total losses and 6 crew members died; but the older 'Atlantic' was eventually salvaged and returned to service, only to be wrecked again in the same place in January 1888. Insurance for island traders could be obtained only at prohibitive cost, so the total burden of the losses fell on the partners.
Nevertheless they inaugurated a steamer service. After a mail contract was obtained with the New Zealand Government for a 2 monthly service from Dunedin and Auckland to Tonga, Samoa, Rarotonga and Tahiti, in April 1885 the 779 ton 'Janet Nicoll' was chartered to test it's viability. The success of the steamer service led to the purchase of the 628 ton 'Richmond' in June 1887, and in 1889 the 130 ton 'Little Agnes' was launched by her namesake, Donald's only daughter, to provide tender services at Rarotonga. The sailing ships were thereafter confined to the interisland services, except for the occaisonal return to Auckland for a refit.
Donald and Edenborough became involved in political developments in the eastern Pacific area. The firm's agent in Rarotonga, Richard Exham, was the British Consul there, and was charged by the New Zealand Government with responsibility for the proclamation of a British protectorate over the southern Cook Islands in 1888. Charles Edenborough was at the centre of an incident at Apia in 1889 at the height of tension between Britain, Germany and The United States over control of the Samoan group. The 'Richmond' was accused by the German naval commander of supplying arms to the Samoans, and only the intervention of the commander of HMS 'Royalist' secured her release.
The increasing prosperity of the business enabled Donald to build a substantial home at O'Rorke Street, Auckland, and to assume complete ownership of the business when Edenborough retired in the mid 1890s. The firm was incorporated in 1896 as A.B. Donald Ltd. The prospect of stepped up competition from the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand brought about the disposal of both the 'Richmond' and Donald's interest in the direct New Zealand shipping service in December 1896. Thereafter the firm's New Zealand activities were confined to dealing with importers of produce; the ship owning was based in the islands. Interesting anecdotal stories of these times abound, but one especially springs to mind. A struggling artist needed to travel from Papeete to one of the islands of the outer Marquesas group but had no means of paying for his passage so offered the Master of the Etablissements Donald vessel some of his paintings in payment. During the voyage the Master decided the paintings were rubbish and threw them overboard. The artist's name - Paul Gauguin!
The company's schooners 'Tiare Taporo' and 'Vaitere' added romance to the often dangerous business of island trade and the local expertise and knowledge of experienced skippers such as Captain Andy Thompson were held in very high regard. The 'Tiare Taporo' was launched in 1913 and sailed for A.B. Donald Ltd until the mid '60s whilst the 'Vaitere' was a later fleet addition.
By the early 20th century Donald's sons were playing an increasing part in the business. James, later Sir James Donald, was responsible for the Auckland end, Alec for the Tahitian enterprise, which traded under the name Les Etablissements Donald.
Alexander Donald retired in about 1907 and returned to the United Kingdom. He made one final visit to New Zealand in 1920 and died at his English home in Wimbourne Minster, Dorset, on March 7th 1922, survived by his wife , Charlotte, five sons and a daughter. His legacy was one of Auckland's major Pacific Island trading companies, which his sons expanded to take a leading role in the region.
After 1922 the New Zealand produce trading and auctioneering business expanded rapidly under the able leadership of John Donald and in 1932 Produce Markets Ltd was established as a subsidiary of A.B. Donald Ltd, with it's head office in Customs Street West. In the decade prior A.B. Donald Ltd engaged in vehicle importing and assembly through it's motor division Reo Motors Ltd, headed by Norman Donald, from premises first in Customs Street West and later in Federal Street. The very successful import and assembly of Reo trucks and cars launched the business on it's way and in later years the company held the franchises for Armstrong Siddeley, Renault, Rover, Holden and Chevrolet.
The fruit and vegetable trading enterprise went from strength to strength with branches established throughout the North Island - A.B. Donald Hamilton Ltd, C.H. Slater Ltd Hastings and Bowie, Donald, Townsend & Paul in Wellington. Throughout the time of this New Zealand expansion the Pacific Island trading operations continued to grow in the Cook Islands and French Polynesia. Agencies were established in Western Samoa and Fiji.
John Donald died in 1945 leaving 3 sons and 2 daughters. The second son, Alexander (Bob) returned from the war to immediately step into the role of Managing Director of Produce Markets Ltd. His younger brother, Euan, took up the role of Managing Director of Reo Motors Ltd after the death of Norman Donald.
The senior shareholders and management of Produce Markets Ltd played a large role in sponsoring early Chinese immigration to New Zealand establishing them on company owned land in the Franklin district. The many large Chinese commercial grower families in the Pukekohe area today are descendents of these early C20 immigrants. In many cases the land was freeholded by the hardworking Chinese forming the basis of successful horticulture in the area.
By the early 1970's the senior shareholders were all elderly and semi retired with the A.B. Donald company group, a large, mature New Zealand corporation. In 1972 the early untimely death of Alexander (Bob) Donald led to the breakup and separate sale of the various group entities.
A.B. Donald Ltd was re-established in 1978 by Alex Donald, the great grandson of the founder Alexander Bell Donald, and his wife Linda.