Nelson ships and World War I
Port Nelson, Nelson shipping and Nelson seamen, had a role to play during World War I.
Wave the Red Duster
Each year on 3 September, New Zealand acknowledges the Merchant Navy when ‘The Red Duster’ is paraded at the National War Memorial in Wellington. The Red Ensign has been the symbol of British and Commonwealth merchant ships for 150 years.
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Merchant sailors gave outstanding service and sacrifice during WW1; over 14,000 casualties and 2500 allied ships were lost. In recognition for service, in 1928, King George V acknowledged the British Empire & Commonwealth Merchant Navy as the 4th Arm of the Armed Services.
In both World Wars the allied combat effort was made possible by sea transportation. Merchant ships carried raw materials so that local industry could build the weapons of war, and shipped those items, troops and supplies to all areas of conflict. New Zealand was an important provider of food both to local and overseas markets. Nelson had meat and fruit in abundance and the Kirkpatrick factory’s canned food was used in troops supplies.
WWI Merchant Ships
New Zealand had no Navy, but merchant boats were co-opted for vital war work. Late in 1916 a Government-appointed Shipping Controller took over routing of more valuable shipping, including refrigerated cargo liners. Skilled local crews kept boats operating in New Zealand waters, including Nelson. Other crews worked on co-opted boats or chose to serve in the British Navy.
One company dominated New Zealand shipping at the time War broke out in 1914 – The Union Steam Ship Company, nicknamed ‘The Southern Octopus’. The Company, formed in 1875 by James Mills of Dunedin, bought shipyards and closed them down to keep a monopoly that dominated New Zealand and Trans-Tasman routes. By 1917 it was the largest shipping line in the Southern Hemisphere. Despite changing from New Zealand to British ownership (P&O Steamship Co.), it remained a largely New Zealand-staffed and Pacific-oriented line.
Locally, merchant shipping was strongly represented in Nelson with The Anchor Shipping and Foundry Co. Ltd. that was incorporated in 1901 from the earlier companies of Nathaniel Edwards & Co (1857-1880) and The Anchor Steam Shipping Company (1880-1901). In a drive to control shipping, ‘The Southern Octopus’ acquired a 50% shareholding of the local Nelson company in 1908, in a secret transaction by the use of nominees.
‘The Southern Octopus’ had its larger boats based in Dunedin while Nelson was served by smaller, coastal steamers. Between 1914–18 these included the Alexander (377 ton, 1903-50); the Koi (124 ton, 1906–30); the Waimea (454 ton, 1909–28); the Nikau (284 ton, 1909–54); the Kaitoa (304 ton, 1909–50) and the Regulus (584 ton, 1913–35). With the larger boats commandeered for war work, the smaller boats were kept busy around the Nelson region despite wartime rationing of shipping services.
Troops shipped out
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Throughout WW1 Port Nelson was the scene of many troop departures, regattas and victory celebrations. Hundreds of Nelsonians gathered wharf side for prayers, speeches and flag waving as local men went off to military camps within New Zealand and overseas into service. Civilians were often allowed onto the boats for a limited time before departure. Accompanying craft sometimes sailed or motored alongside the troop carriers out to The Cut.
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Anchor to the rescue
In September 1917 the Regulus, on a routine trip to Westport, encountered two lifeboats containing sixty men and towed them to Port Nelson. The crew had survived the unexpected sinking of the Port Kembla twenty miles off Farewell Spit when it hit a mine. The mine was one of many positioned around the New Zealand coast by the German raider Wolf.
The Port Kembla had left Australia laden with food for Britain, travelling via Wellington, with a cargo valued at over one million dollars. Although the cargo was lost there was no loss of life, thanks to the action of the Regulus.
Battle cruiser in Nelson
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HMS New Zealand was one of three Indefatigable-class battle cruisers built for the defence of the British Empire. Launched in 1911, the ship was funded by the New Zealand Government as a gift to Britain. During 1913, HMS New Zealand was sent on a ten-month tour of the British Dominions including nine ports in New Zealand, coming to Nelson in June 1913. Too large to enter the Port, the ship required anchoring in Tasman Bay. Excited visitors were ferried out to inspect the pride of the nation.
A gift of a Māori piupiu (warrior's skirt) and hei-tiki (pendant) was made to the captain to ward off evil. The ‘lucky’ ship went on to contribute to the destruction of two cruisers during her wartime service and was hit by enemy fire only once, sustaining no casualties. As part of the British Navy, the ship participated in all three of the major North Sea battles.
Sold for scrap in 1922, the ship’s 4-inch guns were sent back to New Zealand and were the main armament of the land batteries that protected harbour entrances at Auckland, Wellington and Lyttelton during World War 2.
A Nelson Boatbuilding family
Generations of Nelson families have been involved in boatbuilding and crewing ships and local expertise was called on during WW1. Albert Nalder, who had skippered The Union Steam Ship Company boat Storm when he was 19, worked his way to Britain in 1914 as first mate on the Kaikōura to join the English Navy. He survived several sinkings. When Sub-lieutenant of HMS Champagne in 1917, the ship was torpedoed and sunk. Albert drifted over 11 hours in the North sea clinging to the mast of a submerged raft, before being rescued. He continued to serve on the Dover patrol boats protecting the English Channel from submarine attack, returning to New Zealand at the end of the war. The Nalder family is still strongly associated with shipping today.
This information was produced for a Nelson City Council Heritage Panel, 2014
Updated Dec 2020
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Further sources - Nelson ships and World War I
- Allan, R.M. (1954) The history of Port Nelson Wellington, N.Z.: Whitcombe & Tombs.
- Kirk, A.A & Cannington, S. (1967) Anchor Ships and Anchor Men. Wellington, N.Z.: Reed.
- Parr, W.H. (1979) Port Nelson - Gateway to the sea Nelson, N.Z.: Nelson Harbour Board.
- Farquhar, I. J. (1976) Union fleet 1875-1975: being a list of ships owned by the Union Steam Ship Company of N.Z. Ltd, since its inception in Dunedin in 1875, together with a list of some of the significant dates in the history of the line (2nd rev. ed) Wellington, N.Z.: New Zealand Ship and Marine Society.
- Mclean, G. (1989) Ships of the Union Company. Wellington, N.Z.: GP Books.
- McLean, G. (1990) The southern octopus: the rise of a shipping empire. Wellington, N.Z.: New Zealand Ship & Marine Society and the Wellington Harbour Board Maritime Museum.
- The Union Steam Ship Company. In The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Nelson, Marlborough & Westland Provincial Districts] (1906) The Cyclopedia Company, Limited, 1906, Christchurch.
- Waters, S.D.(1952) Union line: a short history of the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand Ltd 1875 - 1951. Wellington, N.Z.:Coulls Somerville Wilkie Ltd.
- Kirk, A.A (1967) Ships and sailormen Nelson Historical Society Journal, 2(2), 13
- HMS New Zealand due tomorrow. Arrangements for reception.(1913, June 7) Nelson Evening Mail. Page 5
- McGibbon, I (2012) First World War - Preparing for the European campaign. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 16-Nov-12
- Merchant Navy timeline - the Merchant Navy. (2012) New Zealand History Online. (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012
- New Zealand Red Ensign (2013) New Zealand History Online. (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 15-Jul-2013