Number eight wire mentality

by Andy Bryenton

We’re enjoined to ask where we’d be without our gumboots by the famous Fred Dagg song, but where would New Zealand be without Henry Bessemer? The ‘father of modern steel’ is also the man who made fencing wire possible, and as such, he’s an unsung hero of our farmlands.

Bessemer lived in the height of the industrial revolution, in the era when steam and steel ruled the waves, made empires and meant big, big money.

The kind of wire old steelmaking processes produced was short runs of thick and brittle stock; not much use for fencing the miles and miles of open land to be found in the new colonies of New Zealand and Australia.

Bessemer invented a new kind of furnace, which blew oxygen through ‘pig iron’ while it was liquid hot, blasting away impurities and making inexpensive steel. The result was perfect for ‘ductile’ use; it could be coiled out into massive long runs of wire.

There was no way New Zealand was ignoring this innovation. Bessemer kicked production into high gear in the mid-1850s, and by 1866 John Grigg of Ashburton called for tenders for 20 miles (32 kilometres) of wire fencing. Orari Gorge Station had 48 kilometres of fencing up by 1871 and had doubled that by 1874.

Moa Flat Station, between Dunedin and Alexandra, had 402 kilometres of wire fencing by 1879.

Number eight wire had landed, and using it in innovative ways made this product a byword for ingenuity.

Fencing has been a vital activity for farmers here since the introduction of livestock, thanks to the wily and persistent nature of sheep themselves.

Today, fencing contractors don’t have to rely on products such as the pre-rolled, iron-battened ‘colonial sheep fence’, which was shipped here from Sheffield, England in pioneering times. A tried and true method evolved in the 1960s with the advent of 12.5 gauge wire and tanalised posts treated with copper arsenate.

The future may well hold posts reforged from old milk bottles if recent innovations take hold.

Tractor-mounted post drivers and ATV vehicles have made it easier to access those long and lonely runs of wire singing in the wind, but expertise is what keeps them strong.

We’re certain that old Mr Bessemer would approve.