1907 Desiccated coconut factory in Parramatta

Making desiccated coconut. Australian Town and Country Journal, 1 December 1894

Where would Australia be without desiccated coconut? We wouldn’t have the lamington for a start. And we’d be limited to the coconut-free version of the Anzac biscuit. So, although we don’t have our own coconut industry, it’s worth looking into the history of this ubiquitous pantry ingredient and when it first arrived in Australia.

As with so many innovations, there are widely varying origin stories. One source claims desiccated coconut (or cocoanut, as it was originally known) was first manufactured from imported nuts in England and the USA in the early 1880s.  Another goes so far as to name an American inventor, Leopold Schepp, and a date – 1886. Yet another industry source attributes the invention to an Englishman named George Burt in the early 1900s.

The problem with these accounts is that an 1867 article in the Pittston Gazette, in Maryland USA, called readers’ attention to a new article “handsomely put up in pound packages”.

Here in Australia, by 1878, the Avoca Mail was informing cooks that “When it is not convenient to use fresh coconut, the desiccated makes a good substitute. There seems to be a difference in the packages – it is sometimes a little rancid, and occasionally equal to the fresh.” The first time a recipe using the product appeared in an Australian newspaper seems to be in 1880 when the Sydney Mail published instructions for making Cocoanut Puffs and Cocoa-nut Pudding in an article titled “Canadian Recipes”. Desiccated coconut was clearly in use well before the early 1880s.

It was a while before the dried form took over from freshly grated coconut as a staple in home kitchens, despite the significant advantage of its keeping quality. In 1891, The Queenslander, reporting on the establishment of the Pacific Desiccating Company in Fiji, begins its article saying “This article having come into such general use within the last few years…”. This was just a year after the first Lamington recipe was published.

We’ll probably never know who the world’s first producer of desiccated coconut was, but we do know when it was first manufactured in Australia. Henry W. Meggitt had experience in the oil seed industry and arrived in Australia in 1895 to work for Lever Brothers at their Sunlight Oil works in Balmain, Sydney. He later became involved in cordial manufacture at Parramatta and in 1906-7 converted a factory in that city to produce the coconut. Two years later, Meggitt also began what became his main business – a linseed crushing plant producing oil and stockfeed. It’s not clear how long the coconut operation lasted although an article in The Daily Telegraph in 1911 claimed (erroneously) that: “Outside of Colombo, Parramatta has the only factory in the world for the production of desiccated coconut…with a plant which is capable of dealing with an output of about four tons per week.”

In the 1920s, there was a mild buzz about the establishment of a desiccated coconut industry in Papua (New Guinea), which was then a protectorate of Australia. Four experts from Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) were imported to help set up a plant in Port Moresby, which was opened by the Lieutenant-Governor in 1929. By the following year, there was a plant on the Papuan island of Samarai. These operations could export their product to Australia free of duty while there was an impost on imports from Britain (2 pence per pound) and other countries (3 pence per pound).

In 1953, the Papuan industry was damaged by a scandal.  Desiccated coconut was thought to be responsible for spreading typhoid bacteria, with a health inspector connecting an outbreak in Melbourne to homemade marshmallow “Snowballs” dipped in coconut. Health authorities warned householders to destroy their supplies of the product. Later testing showed some coconut had been contaminated with salmonella bacteria. Eventually, the problem was isolated to a product branded “Pacific Snow”, from Papua while coconut from Ceylon was deemed safe to use.

Today, desiccated coconut is no longer made in Australia but imported from the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. It means that what many have acclaimed as Australia’s national dish relies heavily on a product of foreign shores.

Image: Monica Shaw, Wikipedia Creative Commons

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