In 1879, 40 tons of frozen beef and mutton was shipped from Sydney to the UK aboard the Strathleven, arriving in good condition – the first successful frozen meat exports. Subsequently, the Dunedin was fitted with a refrigeration plant and began carrying frozen cargo from New Zealand to England.
The first attempt to export frozen meat to England was made by James Harrison, who had invented the world’s first commercial ice-making plant. In 1872-3, he had exhibited “fresh meat frozen and packed as if for a voyage” at the Melbourne Exhibition and shown that it could be maintained in a frozen condition for long enough to be shipped to England.
A trial shipment was made on the Norfolk in 1876, but the ship was fitted with a type of ice chest, rather than mechanical refrigeration equipment. It was not enough to maintain the meat in a frozen condition through the tropics and the venture failed.
Another Australian who sought to make frozen meat exports was Thomas Mort. He financed experiments by E. D. Nicolle to develop refrigeration machinery suitable for use in ships, trains and cold-storage depots. Although this equipment was used within Australia by Mort’s New South Wales Fresh Food & Ice Co., formed in 1875, Mort died before a successful export venture could be undertaken.
The refrigeration equipment used on the Strathleven in 1879 was not made in Australia. The ship was chartered in Scotland by a group of Queenslanders led by Thomas McIlwraith, and fitted with equipment made by the Glasgow firm Bell and Coleman. It was loaded with meat and butter, which were frozen on board.
After a 58-day voyage, the cargo arrived in London in good condition and sold well. It took some time, however, before there were enough ships fitted with refrigeration equipment to make frozen meat exports a regular occurrence.