“Add a little fairy to your tub” Taranaki households were urged during the 1940s and 1950s - or how about a Tiki in the bath? New Plymouth's Crusader Soap Products were used on wash days throughout the province.

Fresh home from fighting behind enemy lines in World War Two Walter Rail and his mates didn't know what to do - so they made soap. Walter served with the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) in the Middle East before returning home with his new wife Audrey to life in New Plymouth in 1945.

"There were four of us come out of the army: Phil Stokes, Jim Hastie, Ted Burbery and me, and we didn't know what to do. We heard that the Crusader Products factory was up for sale so blindly we said 'We'll have a go at this!'" says Walter. Rehabilitation scheme money from the Government helped pay for the factory.

Bacon to bubbles

A former bacon factory, the huge concrete building on the edge of the Waiwhakaiho River had been supplying soap to the New Zealand government to be sent overseas during the war.

Walter and Audrey moved into the little house next to the factory, wedged between the Waiwhakaiho River, the main road, and the railway line that ran along the embankment behind the home. It was in the days of steam power and during hot summers the Rail family would sometimes have to rush out to beat back little grass fires set alight by cinders from the passing engines.

Walter put his hand up for the position of chief soap maker at the factory. "The others said to me 'Would you like a go at it?' I said 'Yeah, I'll have a go at anything!'"

The manager from Lever Bros - the company that made Sunlight Soap - came up to check the factory out for the men before they bought it. "He asked me – ‘Do you know anything about soap?' I said 'Other than that you wash with it - no!’" The manager invited Walter down to Wellington for a couple of weeks to work in the factory and learn the intricacies of soap making. "I came back and they said - 'Do you know how to make soap now?' And I said 'No! But I'll give it a go!'"

A recipe for soap

Each week 12 drums of tallow from the Waitara abattoirs, Borthwicks, would be melted down in a large tank. This would be pumped into a vat where caustic soda was carefully added. "You then turned the steam on to get the mix boiling but you had to be very careful you didn't overdo it - otherwise it would come over the top of the vat!"

One day someone forgot to turn off the steam - the thick porridge-like liquid soap boiled over and oozed over the factory floor before anyone realised. "What a mess to clean up! It took us about a week to do it - but everything turned out alright."

Once the caustic was mixed through, the soap would be pumped into a mixer where soda ash was added as a neutraliser. The soda ash had been dug out of five big tanks by pick and shovel.

From the mixer the soap was poured onto a trolley where it would be left over the weekend to cool and set into a half-tonne slab. Before the boys came along everything at the factory was done by hand - including cutting the soap into bars or tablets. The new owners modernised the factory - cutting out a lot of the time consuming tasks. "Our engineer Happy Jones made this automatic thing that would push the slab through wires and cut it into certain sizes. Then it would be wrapped in paper."

Tiki and fairies

"We used to make a carbolic soap, sold in long bars, and Tiki soap." The men imported a German stamper to imprint the word Tiki on the tablets of soap.

Then there was Fairy Wonder - the soap powder with the slogan “Try a little fairy in your tub”. Walter said: "We thought that wouldn't be very politically correct today!" Another slogan used was “Makes clothes white as Egmont snows”.

To make Fairy Wonder a normal batch of soap was mixed, perfume added, then it was blown by machine up into a tank where it was mixed and dried into flakes before travelling down a chute into boxes ready for grocery store shelves. "Then we added the fairy!" The little blue and yellow boxes with a picture of the mountain stamped on the front were a common sight in home laundries around Taranaki.

A little Kiwi ingenuity

Sales were good - so good that the little company needed a new steam boiler to cope with the workload. A huge second hand boiler was found in Opunake, dismantled and brought home on the back of a truck. "A local engineer came out and said ‘Who are you going to get to put it together?’ We didn't know anything about boilers but said ‘We'll do it ourselves!’"

As he was the smallest Walter had the job of working inside the tank, resting on the Waiwhakaiho River bank. "I had nightmares about going over the bank stuck in the tank!" Using good old Kiwi ingenuity the men eventually raised the boiler into place and got it working. "It was through our army training, I think, that we were able to solve these problems."

The new boiler provided the men with a little harmless entertainment. In those days the railway line used to cross the road near the factory, as the steam-driven trains approached the crossing the engine driver would blow the whistle to warn oncoming traffic.

After the new boiler was put in Jim suggested putting a whistle on it. "We used to watch people come home about 5 o-clock at night and to work early in the morning and we'd blow the whistle on the boiler - of course they'd stop their cars because they thought a train was coming - once they realised what it was they'd call us all the names under the sun! They were good days. We used to have a lot of fun at the factory - there was a certain amount of humour!"

The Queen's tour of New Zealand in1953-1954 was a time of great excitement for the people of New Plymouth. Crusader Products joined in the fun. "She came across the Waiwhakaiho Bridge into town so we decorated the factory with ponga fronds and spelt ‘Welcome’ in the hedge with hydrangea blooms" recalls Walter. "We all stood out the front and stood to attention."

Bubble battles

As New Zealand recovered from the war Phil and Jim went off and got other jobs. While Walter made the soap Ted took to the streets and sold it. He headed out every day restocking shops and developing new markets.

Competition in the soap industry was fierce. At that time Lever Bros had the New Zealand market washed up and were not happy when the little company from New Plymouth tried to enter the Auckland market. "They rang up and more or less told us not to encroach on their territory. They could do that at the time - they were giving away washing machines and that sort of thing – well, we couldn't cope with that. But local people were really supportive especially considering the amount of competition out there."

The little factory diversified into selling soda crystals to local dairy factories - the crystals were used to sterilise vats. Then they made bone dust - grinding down bones collected from local butchers to make fertiliser.

After ten years competition proved too tough and the men decided to close the factory. Walter went on to work on the dredge for the Taranaki Harbours Board. But he never forgot his time as a soap maker. "We could do anything - that was our attitude, everybody was like family, it was a good life."


McQueen, A. (2004). The king of Sunlight: how William Lever cleaned up the world. London: Bantam.

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