The mechanical ice-making machine that James Harrison put into operation at Rocky Point near Geelong, Victoria, was probably the first in the world. Harrison, a Scottish journalist with some scientific knowledge, was editor and manager of the Geelong Advertiser. He first patented the refrigeration process in 1856 and made ice commercially in Geelong and Melbourne.
In 1857 Harrison took his invention to England where he had the London engineering firm Siebe and Co. build several ice-making machines, one of which he brought back to Australia. He set up an ice-making plant in Melbourne and had the Sydney firm P. N. Russell and Co. build refrigerating machines, one of which was installed in Sydney.
Harrison then concentrated on the problem of shipping frozen meat to Britain. At the Melbourne Exhibition of 1871–72 he displayed ‘Fresh Meat frozen and packed as if for a voyage, so that the refrigerating process may be continued for any desired period’. In 1873 he froze meat and packed it with ice in an insulated chamber on the Norfolk bound for Britain. The ice melted long before the ship reached Britain and the cargo was thrown overboard.
The Sydney entrepreneur Thomas Mort took up the idea of shipping frozen meat and supported the French-born engineer Eugene Nicolle in the development of refrigerating machinery for the purpose.
Mort installed refrigeration at his abattoir at Bowenfels near Lithgow and at his cold-store in Sydney. He fitted refrigerating plant in the ship Northam and prepared a consignment of meat for shipment to Britain in 1877. After long delays to fix problems with the refrigeration plant, the ship eventually sailed without its frozen cargo. It was a terrible blow to Mort who died the following year.
In 1879, the Strathleven, with British refrigeration plant installed, left Sydney for London with a shipment of frozen meat arranged by a Queenslander Thomas McIlwraith. The meat arrived in good condition and sold well. The picture is of the Strathleven at sea.
The Australian frozen meat export trade expanded rapidly and by the 1990s had reached 50,000 tons of meat a year.