Nov 10, 2008

The Port Lytteltons

Two passenger carrying refrigerated cargo vessels have carried the name of the Port to which they were both regular vsitors.

The first Port Lyttelton was built at Belfast in 1902 as the twin screw Niwaru. With a length of 135 metres and a beam of 17 metres, she was delivered to the Tyser Line in March of that year.

At a service speed of 12 knots, she regularly carried frozen meat from New Zealand to Britain, but her 22 year career was not uneventful. On her second voyage, the 6,444 ton cargo liner, took on water in a heavy sea and charcoal from the insulation of the refrigerating chambers clogged her bilge pumps. 26,000 carcases had to be jettisoned overboard.

In August of 1903 the Niwaru was holed when she grounded off Napier. A mat covering the hole was carried away and the net inflow increased to twelve inches per hour, but the vessel managed to return to Napier under her own steam.

But her place in history was assured when she departed from Wellington on the 29th January 1903 with Katherine Mansfield as a passenger. The entire passenger accommodation was occupied by nine members of the Beauchamp family. Niwaru sailed via Cape Horn and the Canary Islands, where a photograph was taken of the family with the ship’s officers.

In verses that she wrote during the voyage, Mansfield mentioned a Tiger cub, which the Chief Officer kept in the No. 2 hold during the day and exercised on deck at night, to the alarm of the women passengers. But of that incident apparently little memory remained nearly twenty years after, when she wrote to her father: “... I still I have a very soft corner in my heart for the Niwaru. Do you remember how Mother used to enjoy the triangular shaped pieces of toast for tea? Awfully good they were, too, on a cold afternoon in the vicinity of the Horn. How I should love to make a long sea voyage again one of these days! But I always connect such experiences with a vision of Mother in her little Sealskin jacket with the collar turned up. I can see her as I write.”

Most of the family returned to Wellington, but for the next three years Katherine remained in London as a pupil at the Queen’s College in Harley Street.

In 1914 Niwaru's owners were instrumental in bringing about the formation of the Commonwealth & Dominion Line, later to become the Port Line, contributing eight ships and their houseflag, which never changed. Although not a huge fleet, Tyser and Company's ships were considered to be the finest on the Australasian run and set the standard for the first thirteen ships built by the new Commonwealth & Dominion Line.

Renamed Port Lyttelton in April 1916, the vessel was subsequently seconded by the Royal Navy and converted to a troop ship as His Majesty's Auxillary Transport Port Lyttelton.

Returned to her owners in 1919, her career ended on the 23rd January 1924, when she ran on to the rocks at Beauty Point near the entrance to Tasmania's Tamar River. Salvaged the following month, the Port Lyttelton was sold for scrap at the time when there was a worldwide surplus of tonnage. She arrived in Italy in September where the ship was broken up.

By comparison the second Port Lyttelton enjoyed a somewhat less eventful 25 year career. Her greatest claim upon posterity appears to have been her role in New Zealand's waterfront strike of 1951. Local Wharfies (Stevedores) were charged with conspiracy relating to the loading of the vessel at Wellington in that year.

Launched at Newcastle in 1947 by R & W Hawthorn, Leslie & Company, the 10,780 ton ship was only slightly larger than her ill fated predecessor at a length 148.47 metres and a beam of 18.95 metres.

The emergence of container shipping sealed her fate and she was sold to Shipbreakers in 1972. The second Port Lyttelton was broken up the following year at Faslane in Scotland.

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