Viewpoints from Aussie Cuisine

  • Thomas Sutcliffe Mort was an English-born auction entrepreneur based in Sydney, who envisioned the transport of perishable Australian produce to Britain. He had financed the development of a freezing technique capable of keeping food frozen over an extensive period.

  • Mort had invited some of Sydney’s elite to a grand picnic in Lithgow on the 2nd of September 1875. The picnic’s food was prepared one year before the actual picnic and ‘had been subjected to a cold preserving process before being defrosted, and served, in the process losing none of the sweetness or flavour’, points out Overington.

  • In order to celebrate Mort’s achievements, a re-enactment of the epic picnic and the return journey from Sydney to Lithgow took place on the 9th of September 2017. ‘An old steam train [retraced] the route from Sydney to Lithgow, with descendants of the original picnickers on board’, while the menu at the picnic’s re-enactment ‘was fairly close to the original, with tongue in aspic, and ginger biscuits, from Mrs Mort’s recipe books’, says the author.

  • A bronze statue was raised in Mort’s honour, which presently stands in Bridge Street, in Sydney’s CBD. The inscription on his statue reads: ‘The first to make exports of perishable food possible by refrigeration; and to provide docks for the reception of the world’s shipping … and foremost in every movement for the care and welfare of his fellow citizens.’

By Caroline Overington

Are you the kind of person who enjoys a ride on an old train? How about a nice little picnic? A trip back in time? A slice of pigeon pie?

OK, maybe not the pie, but for the trip back, read on.

The date was September 2 1875, and pretty much everyone who was anyone in the colony of New South Wales — which is to say, every politician, banker, wool merchant, industrialist and pastoralist — had gathered on a platform at Sydney’s Central Station. None knew for certain what was in store but all were invited to a grand picnic in the picturesque village of Lithgow.

The location was something of a surprise. Not all that many years earlier, if you wanted to eat in Lithgow, you had to shoot a kangaroo. It was going to take all day for the group to get there by steam train and, following delays on the line, nobody would get back to Sydney before 2am.

And yet 300 people, including the then-premier, John Robertson, and his immediate predecessor, Henry Parkes, climbed aboard, and toot-toot, off they went, chugging out of Sydney, and who was their host?

Thomas Sutcliffe Mort.

Born in England in 1816, Mort had arrived in New South Wales in 1838 where he set up as an auctioneer, and soon became rich, dealing in wool, cattle, iron, brass, gold, copper, and soap. He was a generous philanthropist, providing funds to build St Mark’s Church in Darling Point, and St Paul’s College at the University of Sydney; and he was an eccentric, collecting such things as suits of armour, and writing at a desk once owned by Marie Antoinette, but the only thing on his mind on the day of the picnic was the food.

Would the food be all right? Or would his guests retch and gag and spew?

It took five hours for the train carrying Mort’s guests to arrive at Lithgow, after which all these important people — there were 300, in total — disembarked to take their seats at Mort’s tables. We know what they ate, because the menu survives: there was a saddle of mutton, roast turkey, roast fowl, tongue in aspic, lobsters in jelly, cheese cake, quince tart, and pigeons baked into a Wonga pie.

The servants brought the platters.

Silver forks were raised.

Mort held his breath … and it was fine! In fact, it was wonderful, with a reporter from the Australian Town and Country Journal declaring the meal “excellent” and Mort, feeling “like a man who had just recovered from seasickness”, rose to tumultuous applause, and why?

Because everything on the tables, including the meat and fish; the pastries, custards and the blancmange, had been prepared not days or weeks but a full year earlier, and all had been subjected to a “cold preserving process” before being defrosted, and served, in the process losing “none of the sweetness or flavour.” Even the pie — listed on the menu as containing “Birds Shot March, 1874” — had a crust that tasted like it had been made that morning.

Guests were agog but as far as Mort was concerned, this was just the beginning. In a rollicking speech reprinted in full in the next day’s newspapers, Mort announced a radical plan to build an enterprise capable of sending not live sheep, but frozen meat to England. To that end, he had financed a French-born settler and inventor, Eugene D. Nicolle, who was trying out new technologies to keep food frozen over long periods of time. He had spent 100,000 pounds to date, he said, building a monumental freezing room at Darling Harbour, with walls a metre thick, and a space inside large enough to contain 600 bullocks hanging whole and he had been ridiculed, with even the London Times, in a lead article, looking upon him “as a good but very misguided colonist.”

And yet Mort had persevered because he believed that “no work in the world” was greater than that in which he was engaged.

“God provides enough for every creature he sends into the world but the conditions are often not in accord,” he said.

“Where the food is the people are not, and where the people are, the food is not. It is, however, within the power of man to adjust these things, and I hope you will all join me in believing that the first grand steps have been taken.”

The guests rose and cheered.

“And do you know, that story, of that picnic had largely been lost,” says David Mort, 67, of Mudgee, who is Thomas Mort’s great-great-grandson. “Back when I was a boy, my father used to tell me: ‘Your great, great grandfather once organised this amazing event’ and I thought, wouldn’t it be great to do something to celebrate his achievements?”

Which brings us to yesterday’s re-enactment.

Just like Thomas Mort, the group behind the idea — an old steam train re-tracing the route from Sydney to Lithgow, with descendants of the original picnickers on board — encountered many obstacles. First up, they couldn’t get a steam train.

“We tried, but it was impossible,’ said David Mort. “We had to settle for a Tin Hare, which is a different kind of train, which dates from 1923, which isn’t really relevant, but it’s still special. And with the menu, people just didn’t want to make pigeon pie. And we had to change the date. We were going to do it on the actual anniversary of the picnic — September 2 — but NSW was digging up the rail so we thought, okay, September 9 will have to do.”

The idea was to remind revellers of Mort’s achievements, but also his towering ambition. He returned from his picnic full of optimism, and the company he founded would continue to grow, merging over time with the Goldsbrough Company, then with Elders, and then with Henry James IXL, to form Elders IXL, now known simply as Elders, which still feeds the world today.

As for getting meat to England, Mort’s first two attempts failed, but they got there on the third go, with a sliver of formerly-frozen mutton being served to Queen Victoria, who declared it delicious. But Thomas Mort did not live to see it. Just three years after his grand picnic, he contracted pneumonia and died, prompting his grieving workforce to raise a bronze statue in his honour.

That statue stands today in Bridge Street, one of many to our colonial forebears. The inscription reads: “A pioneer of Australian resources …. The first to make exports of perishable food possible by refrigeration; and to provide docks for the reception of the world’s shipping … and foremost in every movement for the care and welfare of his fellow citizens.”

As for the menu at yesterday’s re-enactment, it was fairly close to the original, with “tongue in aspic, and ginger biscuits, from Mrs Mort’s recipe books,” says Mort. There was no pigeon pie because, well, pigeons are gross, but there was wine, with which to toast the original host: to Thomas Mort, the entrepreneur, and philanthropist. To Mort, the dreamer, and doer.

The original guest list

Did any of your ancestors attend the 1875 picnic in Lithgow where defrosted meats, fish and sweets were served? Search the guest list here:

The chair was occupied by Mr. T.S. Mort, and among the guests were the Hon. John Hay (President of the Legislative Council), Hon. J. Docker, M.L.C., Hon. Dr. Smith, M.LC, Hon. Saul Samuel, C M.G, M.L.C Hon. S D. Gordon, M L C, Hon. Sir E Deas Thomson, C B M.L.C, Hon. T. Holt, M L C, Hon. W. Innes M L C, Hon. E.K. Cox, M L C, Hon. John Frazer, M L.C., Hon. L F. DeSalis, M L C, Hon. G.W. Allen (speaker of the Legislative Assembly), Hon. John Robertson, M L.A., (then the Premier); Hon. J. Lackey, M.L.A, Hon. J, F. Burns, M.L.A Hon. John Lucas, M.L.A Mr. H. Parkes (the former and soon to be again Premier) M L, A., Mr. John Sutherland, M L A, Mr. G.R. Dibbs, (a future premier) MLA;VAla LAA.; Mr. J Farnell, M L A.; Mr. H. C. Dangar, M L A., Mr. John Davies, M L A., Mr. J. Macintosh, MU; Mr. G.A. Lloyd, MLA., Mr. J. Booth, M.L.A., Mr. H L Nelson, M L A.; Mr. R.P. Abbott, M L.A., Mr. WK. Piddington, M.L A; Mr.T. Brown, M.L.A.; Mr. G. Lord, MLA, Mr. C J. Stevens, M L A.; Sir George Verdon, Rev. T Kemmis, Mr. John Watson, Mr. J. Barnett, Dr. Brereton, Mr. E. Nicholle, Mr. E. Knox, Mr. B. Palmer (Mayor of Sydney) Mr. T. A Dibbs, Mr E Flood, Dr. Bennett, Mr. M. Metcalf, Mr. E. Fosbery, Mr. G. Thornton, Mr. Charles Newton, Mr. C. Lett, Mr. Augustus Morris; Mr James Manning, M.A., Mr A. Bruce, Mr. J.G. Ross, Dr. Fraser, Mr. J. Alger, Captain Dixon, Captain McLean, Captain J. Broomfield, Captain Fairclough, Captain Watson, Captain Fox, Mr. H. Broderick, Dr. Jenkins, Mr. P. N. Trebeck, Mr. E. Hill, Mr. J.Woods, Mr. W. M. Alderson, Mr. C. J Manning, Mr. A. Murray, Mr J. Rae, Mr. H. Prince, Mr.J.B. Rundle, Mr. R.P. Richardson, Mr. G M. Pitt, Hon. J.B. Wilson, Mr. J. Russell, Mr. John Keep, Mr. W. F Buchanan, Mr. District Court Judge Dowling, Mr. A. Roberts, Mr. E. Monirty, Mr. G. Thorne, Mr E.W. Cameron, Mr. J. Mullens, Mr. Loche, Mr. Downs, and “many other gentlemen.”

Speeches were delivered by Mr. T S Mort, Hon. John Hay, Hon. John Robertson (then the premier) Hon. G. W Allen, Mr. Nicholle, Mr. A. Morris, and Sir G. Verdon.

What did they eat?

Round of Beef

Saddle of Mutton

Roast Turkey


Beefsteak Pie

Pigeon Pie

Aspic Jelly


Roast Sirloin

Leg and Loin of Mutton

Roast Fowl


Raised Pork Pie

Chicken Pie

Wonga Pie (Birds Shot March, 1874.)

Lobster in Jelly

Lobster Salad

Apple Tart

Raspberry Jam Tart



Charlotte Russe

Quince Tart

Cheese Cakes

Blanc Mange



Apricot Cream

Vanilla Ices

Raspberry Cream

Rice Pudding

(The whole of the above, inclusive of the Pastry and Sweets, have been preserved by the Freezing Process for some time past.)



Overington, C. (10 September 2017). Remembering Thomas Mort’s 1875 picnic, where guests ate food frozen and defrosted. The Australian. Retrieved from


Croucher, J.(10 September 2017). David Mort in Lithgow where yesterday’s picnic was held. The Australian. Retrieved from