A. B. Donald Ltd.

founded 1868

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 3rd version, edited by Dr. Claudia Orange, written by W.A. Laxon, Jack Leigh, 'The ABD of Fruit and Veg' (NZ Herald 1993), obituary NZ Herald 1922. Post 1922 content prepared by A. Donald.

 

**Information about the formation of Produce Markets Ltd has been reproduced from 'Sons of the Soil' with the kind permission of Ms Lily Lee and Ms Ruth Lam, and The Dominion Federation of New Zealand Chinese Commercial Growers Inc.**

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, with 5 pounds in his pocket, he shipped as a cabin boy. After about 7 years at sea, Donald signed off in Dunedin, New Zealand, to head for the gold diggings at Gabriels Gully. Fortune did not come his way and by 1868 he was in Auckland where, after working with an undertaker, he set up business as sailmaker in Queen Street . A family anecdote has Alex finding rest in a coffin for his first few nights in Auckland. 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. In the late 19th century 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, 'Agnes Donald', some of his paintings in payment. During the voyage the Master decided the paintings weren't much good and threw them overboard. The artist's name - Paul Gauguin** (1848-1903) !

** The posthumously famous French artist, Paul Gauguin, born in 1848 started working life at sea, then became a Paris Stockbroker before discovering his passion as an artist who lived by his art. This re-direction of his life was not so successful and he fell into extreme penury, struggling to merely exist. He lost his marriage, leaving Paris to wander to Panama, Martinique and eventually Tahiti. He became very ill and died in The Marquesas Islands in 1903. During his later life he travelled on 2 A.B.Donald Ltd vessels – the SS Richmond in 1895 out of Auckland when he returned to Tahiti  and the Schooner Agnes Donald when he travelled from Papeete to the Marquesas Islands in 1901.**

 

The company's later, more well known 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. These were the last of many company owned trading schooners, starting with the 'Agnes Donald', a 64 tonner built in 1874, followed by a least 15 others of varying size.

 

By the early 20th century Donald's sons were playing an increasing part in the business. James, later Sir James Donald, a cabinet minister and Post Master General from 1928-1931 in the United Government, was responsible for the Auckland end, Alex 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 business expanded rapidly under the able leadership of John Donald and in 1931 Produce Markets Ltd commenced trading as a subsidiary of A.B. Donald Ltd,  with many local Chinese market gardener shareholders.

 

**In 1929 the Donald Family, owners of A.B. Donald Ltd, General Merchants & Island Traders, and Auckland  Chinese Market Gardeners, organised by Messrs. Clement Ah Chee and Thomas Doo Jnr were instrumental in setting up and becoming foundation shareholders in  a new market company – Produce Markets Ltd.  Formed in 1930, with the first general meeting of shareholders of Produce Markets Ltd  held on 17th October 1930 with shares held by the Chinese growers and the Donalds, Produce Markets Ltd commenced operation on July 7th 1931. Mr Thomas Doo Jnr and Mr John Donald were joint Managers. Mr. W.A. (Alan) Donald, a lawyer and John’s brother, was Chairman of Directors, with Messrs. Fong Foo Soy, Thomas Wong Doo Senior and Thomas Wong Doo Junior as Directors. It's head office and auction floor were in Customs Street West. Eighty percent of Auckland’s Chinese Growers signed up to supply the new Chinese market.  The first Chinese Directors were Messrs. Thomas Doo Snr, Thomas Doo Jnr and Fong Foo Soy of Quong Lee & Co,  Panmure. Fong Foo Soy played a leading role in the establishment and ongoing operations  of Produce Markets Ltd being the longest serving Chinese Director for 17 years until June 1947.** The death of Mr John Donald in February 1945 saw his son, Mr Alexander (Bob) Donald become Managing Director.

 

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, Nash, Renault, Rover, Vauxhall, 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. His second son, Alexander (Bob) returned from serving with the NZ Army Artillery in the Pacific during the World War II to immediately step into the role of Managing Director of Produce Markets Ltd. His younger brother, Euan, after war service as a pilot with the NZ Air Force, took up the role of Managing Director of Reo Motors Ltd following the retirement of Norman Donald.

 

The senior shareholders and management of A.B. Donald Ltd played a large role in sponsoring early Chinese immigration to New Zealand, mainly from Canton, establishing them on company land in the Auckland and Franklin districts. 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. The early untimely death of Alexander (Bob) Donald in December 1972, led to the breakup and separate sale of  the various group entities during the next year.

 

A.B. Donald Ltd was re-established in 1978 by Alex B. Donald, the great grandson of the founder Alexander Bell Donald, and his wife Linda.

 

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