Although not the first Australian to develop a commercial ice-making plant, Sydney businessman Thomas Mort saw the advantages of freezing works for his meat and dairy operations and, in 1866, enlisted Frenchman Eugene Nicolle to develop an improved system. This led to the founding of his New South Wales Fresh Food & Ice Co., which was launched with an extravagant picnic in Lithgow.
Thomas Mort had arrived in Sydney from England in 1838 and began work as a clerk with companies involved in local and international trade. He set up his own business as an auctioneer, trading in wool and progressing to livestock and pastoral property sales. He invested in many business ventures including mining, tin-smelting, engineering works and dairy farming.
Mort’s focus on refrigeration was an extension of these business interests. He financed Nicolle to conduct experiments to produce refrigeration machinery. The system Nicolle developed used liquefied ammonia as a refrigerant, as opposed to the ether previously employed by James Harrison of Geelong. The aim was to develop a system capable of conveying frozen meat to Britain; however, this was not achieved in Mort’s lifetime.
The New South Wales Fresh Food & Ice Co. began operation in 1875 with a cold store at Darling Harbour, Sydney. The company also had a slaughtering and chilling works at Bowenfels near Lithgow in the Blue Mountains, milk depots in the Southern Tablelands, and refrigerated railway vans for meat and milk.
The Fresh Food & Ice Co. celebrated its launch by transporting around 300 ‘gentlemen’ (evidently no ladies) over the Blue Mountains by train, arriving in Lithgow at three o’clock. After inspecting the abattoirs (always guaranteed to stimulate the appetite) the assembled guests sat down to luncheon, presumably at around 5 pm.
But this was no ordinary repast. “Everything on the tables,” reported the Sydney Morning Herald, “excepting the liquors, had been prepared many weeks – and in some instances, such as the beef and mutton – eighteen months before.” Sydney Living Museums’ The Cook and the Curator quotes the menu as follows:
Round of Beef; Roast Sirloin; Saddle of Mutton; Leg and Loin of Mutton; Roast Turkey; Roast Fowl; Ham; Tongue
Beefsteak Pie; Pigeon Pie; Raised Pork Pie; Chicken Pie; Wonga Pie
Aspic Jelly; Mayonnaise; Lobster in Jelly; Lobster Salad
Apple Tart; Raspberry Jam Tart; Tartlets; Custards; Charlotte Russe; Quince Tart; Cheese Cakes; Blancmange; Jelly; Trifles
ICES – Apricot Cream; Vanille; Raspberry Cream; Ice Pudding
Judging by the number of congratulatory toasts proposed, the luncheon was an outstanding success.
Thomas Mort died just three years after this triumphant launch. There is a statue of him in Sydney’s Macquarie Place, financed by subscriptions from a group of working men.
The New South Wales Fresh Food & Ice Co. Ltd. operated until 1952 when it was taken over by Peters Consolidated Milk Industries, which became Consolidated Milk Industries, which in turn was subsumed into Petersville Australia Limited in 1969.