A lifetime at the works

Retired freezing worker Bert Meikle holds a cattle pithing spear he used in the Mataura meatworks...
Retired freezing worker Bert Meikle holds a cattle pithing spear he used in the Mataura meatworks, which is celebrating its 130th anniversary. PHOTO: SHAWN MCAVINUE
As a meat processing plant in Mataura celebrates its 130th anniversary, former freezing worker Bert Meikle remembers 60 years of making a living at the works.

The Southland Frozen Meat and Produce Export Company purchased land on the west bank of the Mataura River to build a meat processing plant, which opened in 1893.

Mr Meikle, 85, was raised in a three-bedroom home in Mataura and money was tight.

In the house lived his grandmother, three uncles, his parents and five children.

His family shared a room and he top-and-tailed in a bed with his siblings.

The men worked trapping rabbits for meat export from Mataura to England, he said.

At age 14, he left school to join the family and earn half a crown for each rabbit trapped.

A career change came after a foreman at the meatworks asked his father if he thought Bert would be capable of the work.

The pay was better than rabbiting so he accepted a role of sweeping the floor of the "mutton board" from January 1953.

"It was just after the war and jobs were hard to get and money was tight and if you didn’t work, you starved."

With his first pay, he paid a deposit on a washing machine to replace the wash copper his wheelchair-bound mother used.

Future pays were used to pay off the washing machine.

After a year of sweeping, he was promoted to a job of making sure there were enough skids and gambrels available to move carcasses along the chain.

He then moved on to skinning sheep and was also part of a team of butchers killing cattle in the beef house.

His role was to drive a pithing spear through a hole in a pen into the back of the neck of the cattle beast inside.

The stunned beast would then have its neck slit.

"It was a gruesome job."

He believed he was the last person to use the spear in Mataura in 1955.

During his time at the meatworks he butchered cattle, sheep and pigs.

The butchering of calves was the job he enjoyed the least.

"The s ... would get on your hands and it would be like tar."

He recalled cattle being moved on hoof down the main street of Mataura and on the road to Clinton and needing to cross the river to get to the works.

Over time, improvements were made on animal welfare and to ensure the farmers were paid correctly for the animals they supplied.

Bert was a volunteer firefighter in Mataura for more than 30 years and was deputy chief on retirement.

When a fire siren sounded, firefighters on the chain were able to attend the blaze and still get paid, he said.

He remained employed during the offseason, doing duties including sharpening knives, treating water and managing a staff hostel.

He believed he was the longest-serving fulltime worker at Mataura.

His late brother Russell also worked 58 years at the same meatworks.

Mr Meikle and his wife Aileen raised three children — two sons and a daughter. The couple moved from Mataura to Gore this year and recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.

Bert retired from the works in 2013, age 75, and mostly had fond memories of his career.

"I enjoyed the work but it was all that I knew. I made a lot of friends and bugger all enemies."

The Alliance Group has owned the meatworks since 1989.

shawn.mcavinue@alliedpress.co.nz

 

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