William Gregg was an entrepreneurial merchant adventurer, who founded what was to become one of Dunedin's best known firms. For decades, Gregg's Club Coffee in its distinctive tins was a national institution, and his products, proudly proclaiming their quality and purity, won over 50 medals in exhibitions here and in Australia.
William Gregg was born in 1836 at Ballymena in Northern Ireland, to the farming family of John and Grace Gregg. As a lad Gregg emigrated to Australia, setting himself up as a coffee and spice manufacturer in Ballarat, Victoria. Presumably he was drawn to Dunedin by the 1861 gold rush, when it had a population of just 5,500, setting up shop in Moray Place and later at 33 Princes Street.
Primarily a merchant, who also roasted and ground coffee in his Rattray Street mill, he developed a growing line of products in the 1880's at Pelichet Bay, including pure pepper and spices, starch, soda crystals and flavouring essences. W Gregg and Co were the first company in New Zealand to manufacture wax vestas (matches) and starch. Gregg's Eagle Starch and Gregg's Club Coffee became household names throughout New Zealand. Eventually the whole enterprise was shifted to Forth Street, the current site of the Dunedin factory.
In 1865 he married Eleanor Rosetta Lovell, and by 1884 presided over his family of nine children at Dale House in Queen Street. A 'splendid father' he took pains with his children's education. His more retiring wife had wealth of her own, which helped to bail him out of trouble when his speculations in gold shares, and slap-dash accounting, bankrupted him in 1894. He had 'too many irons in the fire', such as buying land up and down the country, running a chicory farm and manufacturing starch, wax vestas, and sulphates at Pelichet Bay.
Undaunted, he somehow managed to repurchase the slimmed-down firm, and even persuaded the Australian firm of Robert Harper to extend him credit. It became an incorporated company in 1897 with Gregg as managing director and made steady profits, and again branched out into unusual areas such as cigarettes, whose packaging bore a remarkable resemblance to the popular Vanity Fair variety.
In his final years he struggled with sickness, eventually dying of apoplexy at the age of 65 on 9 May 1901 at his residence in York Street. Gregg is buried in a family plot in Dunedin's Northern Cemetery. Always genial and courteous, and sometimes too sanguine for his own good, he had nonetheless laid the foundations of a large, sound merchant firm with manufacturing as a side-line. The ups and downs of his career, and the rough edges to his character, mirror the adventure of the frontier society he loved so much.
Thank you to Peter C Matheson, M.A, for permission to use his research from the W. Gregg & Co. Ltd Company History, 1961, compiled for the company's 100th anniversary.