Remembering William Bee
William Bee is an early Oamaru citizen remembered most for the grocery store he owned and operated on the corner of Itchen and Tyne Streets. During his time in Oamaru he was known as the towns leading merchant and was also involved in local public institutions. William is yet another old Oamaru soul buried in the Oamaru Cemetery.
Bee was born in Dalkeith, Scotland in 1843. He was brought up in his families’ grocery business, but by the age of 20 had set his sights on a new life in New Zealand. In 1863 Bee sailed from his homeland to New Zealand aboard the Arima, arriving in Port Chalmers and initially obtaining work as a counterman for a merchant in Dunedin.
A year after his arrival in Dunedin, Bee moved north to Oamaru. It is unclear what he did when he first arrived, but he eventually gained work as a grocer before the prospect of gold caught his attention a year later.
In around 1865 Bee headed to the West Coast in search of gold, he remained in the region for a number of years but after concluding that he was not going to strike it rich, returned to Oamaru. James Bee, the older brother of William, also resided in Oamaru and acquired a grocer store in 1867. When William returned from the West Coast in 1868 the brothers entered into a business partnership under the name of J and W Bee.
The Bee brothers business was a great success; it occupied a large section on the corner of Itchen and Tyne streets. The single story Oamaru stone building designed by Thomas Forrester still stands today and currently houses Enterprise Beads. During the time it operated as J and W Bee, the offices and administration department were located on the Tyne Street side, while the retail grocery store and other retail and wholesale departments operated on the Itchen Street frontage. Eventually a large two story bakehouse was erected behind the premises for baking bread, cakes and biscuits.
In 1869 William Bee married Jemima Stoddart, also of Dalkeith, raising a family that included two daughters and three sons. By 1888 William had taken sole charge of the Bee Brothers business and had made quite a name for himself through his biscuits. He imported the most up-to-date biscuit making machinery for the mass production of baked goods and turned out large quantities of both plain and fancy biscuits. Bee’s biscuits were so popular they were in demand throughout New Zealand and he had 20-30 people employed in the bakehouse.
As well as biscuits and other baked goods, Bee was also in the business of ham and bacon curing. For this side of the business large quantities of pork was purchased from farmers in the North Otago district, preserved by Bee, and sold locally. Bee was also involved in the importing and wholesale of general groceries, alcoholic beverages, glass and crockery. A second Thames Street branch of William Bee, Family Grocer and Importer was opened in 1901 and managed by William’s second son Charles.
William Bee’s pursuits also ventured into the community. He was a dedicated member of the Oamaru Caledonian Society, steward of the North Otago Jockey Club and trustee of the Oamaru racecourse. He was also a Freemason, being a member of the Lodge Oamaru Kilwinning. Bee is also remembered as a past member of the Oamaru Borough Council.
William Bee passed away at the age of 77 on 11 October 1919, his wife Jemima passed away on 26 August 1905; both are buried in the Oamaru Cemetery with their daughter Helen.
All information in this article comes from the North Otago Museum Archive.
Sources for this article:
• McCarthy, C (2002). ‘Forrester and Lemon of Oamaru, Architects’. p.38
• Oamaru Mail (11 October 1919). ‘William Bee Obituary’, p.3.
• The Cyclopedia of New Zealand, Vol. 4, Otago and Southland (1905). ‘Oamaru - ex-Councillors’, p. 503.
• The Cyclopedia of New Zealand, Vol. 4, Otago and Southland (1905). ‘Oamaru - Flourmillers, Grocers, etc’, p. 546.
Written by Shanann Carr, Curator of Archives February 2009 to June 2010.