An Emigrant’s Tale

I was in my teens when we left Scotland. My father was ordered to take a long sea voyage, and New Zealand was chosen as our destination – the mild climate being a great attraction.

Off Valparaiso

We left Home in the sailing ship Ganges in July [1st], 1863, arriving in Auckland in October [12th], after a good voyage; no bad storms, and no serious illness. There were 12 first class passengers, and about 250 immigrants in the steerage. In those days the conditions of travelling first class were much below those of the third class now-a-days both in accommodation and in commissariat arrangements, there being very small cabins, and very hard bunks, with the most primitive means of lighting. There were no baths; the men and boys used to be hosed down in the early mornings when the decks were cleaned, but the women had to perform their ablutions in tiny basins with very little water.

We carried some crates of thin fowls on deck, which grew tougher and skinnier as the voyage progressed, as did also a few sheep. There were also preserved vegetables, potatoes which were very nasty, and butter, which, unlike the fowls, grew stronger and stronger as time went on. Curiously enough, plum pudding was the most successful dish in the menu. It appeared every Thursday, and was quite the event of the week. But we had a good captain, and our fellow-passengers were so congenial that everyone felt sorry when the voyage ended, and we had to separate and scatter.
A. H. Williams quoted in ‘Tales of Pioneer Women’, Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd., 1940.

The popular captain was Thomas Funnell and there were 22 passengers listed in the main cabin. One steerage passenger, William Kirkwood, had died of pulmonary tuberculosis in September, and one child was stillborn in August. That was certainly a “good voyage” by the standards of the day.

The ship’s second, and last, voyage to New Zealand in 1864/65 with Irish emigrants wasn’t so fortunate. Two crew lost overboard when they fell from the mast, two adult passenger deaths, and 54 children due to an outbreak of whooping cough. The newspaper report and captain’s log make grim reading.

The Evans Bay Slip

The Wellington Patent Slip at Evans Bay, near today’s international airport, was an important feature of the harbour’s industrial shoreline for a hundred years.

Patent slip vintage

This postcard from the early 1900s was printed, and presumably hand coloured, in Berlin and the colourist, never having seen the place, was overly generous with the blue ink. The area around the ship was, of course, dry land and not water.

The Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1897, noted –
“The Patent Slip, owned by a private company, is situated in Evans Bay, about three miles by road and two-and-a-half miles by water from the Queen’s Wharf, and can take vessels up to 2,000 tons not exceeding 300 feet in length or having a greater draught forward than sixteen feet when about to be slipped. The ways are laid to a gradient of one in twenty-three, are 1,070 feet in length, and have a depth at high water of 32 feet at the outer end. The Slip Company own appliances for repairing both wooden and iron vessels, and have machine tools for effecting the smaller class of repairs to iron vessels, but large repairs have to be sent to the foundries in the City. The Company charges for vessels over 200 tons register 1s[hilling] per ton on the gross tonnage for the first day, and 6d. [sixpence] per ton per diem thereafter”.

Although the company was founded in 1871 preparation of the site, especially laying the rails under water at the outer end, took two years. The divers were sometimes swept off their feet in strong currents.

Patent slip Huia

Typical of small coastal steamers in the 19th century, the s.s. Huia (1878-1927) had a reputation for being difficult to steer in some conditions and went aground more than once. This photograph might have been taken at the Patent Slip in June 1907 after she stranded for 20 minutes on Long Point, Kapiti Island, on her regular run from Wanganui to Wellington. A leak was traced to a cracked plate on her port side.

In 1897, as the Cyclopedia explained, the Patent Slip “as a settlement” consisted of “a few cottages……occupied by the engineer in charge and some of the men who are employed” there. Eventually, the city suburbs spread out to engulf it and by mid 20th century coastal shipping had begun to die away under pressure from road, rail and air transport. In 1972 the slip – then under the control of the Harbour Board – didn’t have enough trade to stay in business and was closed. Now the site is preserved alongside Wellington’s most scenic route “around the bays” from the city to Miramar. Unfortunately, due to its low profile, many tourists probably drive past it without noticing.

The site of Wellington's Patent Slip, Evans Bay, (1871-1972).

The track of the original slipway is marked by wooden poles that feature panels explaining the site’s history. The huge cogged wheel at left was part of the steam driven winding gear that hauled vessels out of the water with chains. The chain locker below was 10 metres [about 30 feet] deep.

Patent slip_2

This second slipway, opened in 1922, lies alongside Wellington’s scenic “round the bays” drive.

Interesting trivia – One of the company directors in 1897 was Harold Beauchamp, father of New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield.

The Battle of Denmark Strait

Denmark Strait, North Atlantic, 24 May 1941.

Hood

H.M.S. Hood

In [H.M.S.] Prince of Wales, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen only a handful of men saw Hood’s end with their own eyes: the vast majority were below decks and to them the incredible news came on inter-com and by telephone, second hand. Some simply did not believe it. Prinz Eugen’s executive officer, Commander Stoos, on duty in the lower command post, hearing his captain’s voice announcing the news, said quietly, ‘Some poor fellow up there has gone off his head.’ In Bismarck’s after transmitting station Leading Seaman Eich heard Commander Schneider’s joyous shout, ‘She’s blowing up,’ and would remember the long drawn out ‘uuup’ for the rest of his life. In the after director tower Mullenheim-Rechberg heard it too, and despite orders to stick to the two [British] cruisers, couldn’t resist swinging round to see for himself. The smoke was clearing to show Hood with a broken back, in two pieces, bow and stern pointing towards the sky. As he watched, he saw the two forward turrets of Hood suddenly spit out a final salvo: it was an accident, the circuits must have been closed at the moment she was struck, but to her enemies it seemed like a last defiant and courageous gesture.

Now Prince of Wales, turning to port to obey Holland’s orders, had to go hard a-starboard to avoid the wreckage ahead, and Jasper*, through Prinz Eugen’s main rangefinder, saw on the far side of Prince of Wales a weird thing – the whole forward section of Hood, rearing up from the water like the spire of a cathedral, towering above the upper deck of Prince of Wales, as she steamed by. Inside this foresection were several hundred men, trapped topsy-turvey in the darkness of shell-room and magazine. Then Prince of Wales passed, both parts of Hood slid quickly beneath the waves, taking with them more than 1,400 men, leaving only a wreath of smoke on the surface. ‘Poor devils, poor devils!’ said Jasper aloud, echoing the thoughts of those around him; for as sailors they had just proved what sailors do not care to prove, that no ship, not even Hood, is unsinkable, and that went for Bismarck and Prinz Eugen too.
‘Pursuit, the chase and sinking of the Bismarck’, Ludovic Kennedy. Wm. Collins Sons & Co Ltd, 1974.

*Lieut-Commander Paulus Jasper, First Artillery Officer, Prinz Eugen

R.M.S. Olympic

White Star Line postcard of RMS Olympic.

Olympic and Titanic were the White Star reply to the [Cunard] Lusitania and Mauretania, but designed for more economical operation. Speed was the minimum necessary to allow a sailing every three weeks, but gross tonnage was increased to 40 per cent more than the Cunard greyhounds…… Work on Olympic commenced on December 16th, 1908; on Titanic, March 31st, 1909.

Vintage postcard of Cunard's RMS Mauretania.

Cunard’s Mauretania

Olympic’s maiden departure was on June 14th, 1911….. Westbound on September 20th, she seriously damaged the cruiser [H.M.S.] Hawke in collision in Spithead and had to cancel her voyage. An ingenious theory that the collision was due to suction caused by passage of Olympic’s massive bulk through the water was accepted at the subsequent enquiry but dismissed on appeal……..

Following the most terrible disaster in marine annals [sinking of the Titanic], Olympic made five more voyages and was then ordered to Belfast for major alterations. She had been designed to remain afloat with two compartments flooded, but building a complete inner skin, constructing extra bulkheads and increasing the height of others raised the number to six. Additional lifeboats were fitted to provide room for everyone on board. Olympic returned to work with a revised tonnage of 46,350 and 300 fewer First Class berths. In October 1914 she took the mined battleship [H.M.S.] Audacious in tow, but the warship sank before reaching safety. The White Star liner was afterwards requisitioned for transport work. On May 12th, 1918, when approaching France she was attacked by U.103. The submarine fired a torpedo* which missed the heavily laden troopship, but had approached too closely for her own safety and Olympic sank her assailant by ramming……

Olympic took her first post-war sailing on July 21st, 1920. Reconditioning had included conversion of her furnaces to oil-firing. She passed into the combined Cunard-White Star fleet in 1934 and on May 16th [15th] of that year sank the Nantucket Lightship ……in thick fog. Profitable employment was lacking for Olympic under the new regime and Jarrow shipbreakers bought her the following year.
‘Passenger Liners of the Western Ocean’, C.R. Vernon Gibbs. Staples Press, London. 1952.

*Later accounts confirm the crew of U.103 were unable to fire their torpedo before Olympic attacked.

Maiden voyage

Titanic

The White Star liner R.M.S. Titanic sailed from Southampton on her maiden voyage 105 years ago today.

This painting, ‘Departure into History’, is by the renowned marine artist Colin Verity (1924 – 2011). It was reproduced on a postcard in 1998 by Marine Art Posters of Hull, England.

A bad week at the office

Postcard of RMS Edinburgh Castle arriving at Capetown.

RMS Edinburgh Castle. Photo: Arthur English Colour Prints (PTY) Ltd.

The R.M.S. Edinburgh Castle (1948 – 1976) was one in a long list of Union-Castle liners that serviced the mail run from England to South Africa for three quarters of the 20th century. We can tell by the angle of the sun in this image, and the choice of berth, that she has just arrived at Cape Town “down coast” from Durban, East London and Port Elizabeth. The doors in her side are already open to receive the gangway and two tugs, unseen on her port side, are pushing her towards the dock. Along with other ‘Castles’ she ran to a regular timetable. Like a bus service. Most of the time.

The message on the back of this card, posted in 1970, reveals that life in a shipping company didn’t always run to plan. Some of the people mentioned here are possibly still alive so I’ll use their initials only.

Dear A.,
We leave Capetown at 4p.m. today. Much delayed arrival yesterday after floods and engine trouble in East London. Its been quite a week for our agents what with a fire on Clan Macinnes, all the mailboats late and someone overboard on the Vaal. Spent the evening with R. H. yesterday. Due to our late arrival N. and I have missed each other but hope to have a quick word with him before we sail. Please excuse writing. I’m standing in Heerengracht [Street, Cape Town] with this balanced on my hand. Regards, R.

Poor ‘R’ was so stressed he didn’t know what month it was. He dated the card 2/7/70 (2nd July) but it should have been 2/9/70 (2nd September). The events he mentions didn’t happen until the last week in August. The Clan Macinnes had a fire in a cargo of charcoal off the S.W. African coast but managed to reach Walvis Bay safely. The now legendary case of ‘man overboard’ happened on 26th August when a male passenger fell from the S.A. Vaal and, against all odds, was rescued 11½ hours later after he was reported missing and the captain retraced the ship’s course.

Battleship cats (and rats)

In August 1941 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill embarked on a top-secret mission aboard the battleship H.M.S. Prince of Wales to rendezvous with American President Frankin D. Roosevelt at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. The accord reached by the two men at that meeting became known as the Atlantic Charter. A few trusted (and sworn to secrecy) media representatives were included in the official party, of whom H. V. Morton was one. Three days into the five day journey Morton decided to explore the ship. His visit to the engine room, “in the temperature of Trinidad”, was brief…….

Ascending with relief to more temperate regions, I was in time to be present at one of those domestic interludes which enliven the existence of a battleship, even in war-time.

Three Marines were holding three cats. They held them not as animal lovers, but as soldiers, as if cats were part of their equipment, as if, indeed, they might be ordered to “for inspection, port cats!”; which is precisely what they were doing. An officer came along and, having scrutinised the cats, solemnly dismissed them.

I was told the explanation. When the Prince of Wales returned from the shipyard after a brief refitment following the Bismarck action, a peculiar smell was noticed on one of the decks. This smell, increasing in volume and pungency, inspired two schools of thought: one, that the shipwrights had used some unusually penetrating glue or other material, the other, that one of the ship’s three cats had chosen an inaccessible hiding-place in which to expire. It was therefore decided to muster the cats and solve at least one of the theories which, as I saw, was happily unfounded.

Churchill and Blackie_2

Winston Churchill discourages ‘Blackie’ from following him on to the American destroyer alongside H.M.S. Prince of Wales.

Until her visit to the shipyard, I was told, the Prince of Wales prided herself on her ratlessness. But when she returned to duty a few rats had come aboard and action was immediately taken. It was proclaimed that any sailor who caught a rat would earn half a day ashore, and this made the life of a rat in the Prince of Wales a brief and hazardous affair. The business was arranged with the usual naval precision. Rats having been caught, the trappers were required to parade with them. An inspecting officer cynically remained until he had seen the rats faithfully destroyed. Then the trappers were able to qualify for their reward. I asked if anyone had thought it worth while to import such desirable quarry but I was answered with a stony and disapproving stare.
‘Atlantic Meeting’, H. V. Morton, Methuen & Co. Ltd., London, 1943.

Four months later, on 7th December 1941, Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbour and America entered WWII. On 10th December H.M.S. Prince of Wales, along with H.M.S. Repulse, was sunk off Malaya by repeated Japanese aerial attacks. 327 men from Prince of Wales died, including Vice-Admiral Sir Tom Phillips and Captain John Leach. The fate of the cats is not recorded.