The Blue Ensign – “[flown by] vessels of the merchant service commanded by retired offices of the R.N. or by officers of the R.N.R., provided that a quota of officers and crew belong to the R.N.R.”
Cigarette Card. Author’s Collection.

It was mid-morning on Thursday 6th of October 1904 when the Wimmera finally slipped from her berth at James Watt Dock, Greenock and began her maiden voyage to her new home on the other side of the globe. Her master, Thomas Free, was Huddart Parker’s marine superintendent. He was also a lieutenant in the Royal Navy Reserve and had, together with his ship, been granted a Blue Ensign warrant. With over ten of her crew as naval reservists, the Wimmera made her way out into the Clyde with the blue ensign fluttering at her sternpost. Although the warrant was to remain in effect for a number of years, Thomas Free never again captained the Wimmera and after her maiden voyage she never again flew the blue ensign.

Her other officers and senior crew were William Henry South, chief officer; David J. Morris, second officer; Robert Darroch, third officer; William T. Appleton, purser (who was in future to become the Chairman and Managing-Director of the Company); Dr. Smith-Hozier, surgeon; James Cocks, first engineer (the company’s engineer superindentent); W.A. Bateman, second engineer; Walter Richard Hutchinson, third engineer; Charles Joseph Bates, fourth engineer; and Thomas William Miles, Chief Steward. Most of her officers were or had been in the employ of Huddart Parker before joining the vessel. Several, including South, Morris and Bateman, had earlier resigned their positions in Australia and had returned to England with the expectation of returning with the new vessel.

The Wimmera’s departure from Greenock was not without incident, for at six o’clock the evening before Catherine Kennedy (nee Munro), wife of iron moulder, Donald Kennedy and a sister of one of the Wimmera‘s new crew members, was speaking with her brother when she tripped over a rope and fell into the water besides the quay. The accident was noticed by Greenock-born Robert Darroch, the ship’s new third officer, who jumped into the dark and freezing water to rescue the drowning woman. Darroch’s bravery in carrying out the rescue was later brought to the attention of the Royal Humane Society.

Aboard the Wimmera on her departure from Greenock for Australia were only three passengers – 28 year old Mrs Ellen Rhoda (Nellie) Henzell (nee South) and her two children Josephine Nellie (Joy) nearly 4 years of age, and Robert Charles (Roy) aged 1. The family were from Sunderland in County Durham and were, respectively, the sister, niece and nephew of the newly appointed First Officer of the Wimmera, William Henry South. The husband of Rhoda (Nellie) was Robert Henzell, who was then living in Australia and was the Chief Engineer aboard Huddart Parker’s Corio. He was the 2nd Engineer aboard the company’s SS Victoria on its maiden voyage from England to Australia in late 1902.

The Henzell family would have the ship to themselves for half the voyage as, through agents in South Africa, further passengers were booked from her first port of call – Durban, in Natal Province.

The Wimmera‘s route to Durban appears to have been via the North and South Atlantic Oceans instead of the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal as not only do shipping records indicate a passenger to Australia who embarked at the Island of St. Helena but also that the Wimmera was ‘spoken’ by the Aberdeen liner Sophocles while off Cape Point, South Africa, prior to the Wimmera‘s arrival in Durban.

Durban, Natal

West Street, Durban, Natal Province.
Postcard. Author’s Collection.

The Wimmera arrived in Durban on the morning of 30 October, after a celebrated voyage of less than 24 days over a distance of some 6986 nautical miles. Her stay in the African port was brief but busy. In less than a day and half she embarked 212 passengers, took on mail plus 149 tons of cargo for Sydney, Melbourne and Fremantle; replenished her food and medical supplies and receive 42,000 gallons of fresh water.

The Wharf – Durban.
Postcard. Author’s Collection.

Amongst her cargo was one case of Pilsener Beer consigned to the Fosters Brewing Co., Melbourne!

The Wimmera departed Durban at 5 pm on the 1st of November with a full passenger complement of 215 of whom 49 were children under the age of 12 years.

Throughout her voyage the Wimmera was recorded as having maintained an average speed of 13 1/2 knots and consumed an average 45 tons of coal per day. Despite “having met with fine weather for the greater portion of the trip…one or two rather severe storms were encountered during which the vessel showed her splendid sea-going qualities.” She experienced several stretches of bad weather that proved a test to her seaworthiness. However, all expectations of her were met.

The Wimmera‘s voyage across the Indian Ocean took her to Latitude 39º South. She had fresh favourable winds and despite a heavy south-west gale on 8 November deck sports were reported to have continued without a break.

Deck Games – A Ladies Cricket Match
Postcard. Author’s Collection.

The long voyage to Australia would have brought both excitement and tedium to her passengers. Daytime activities such as cricket, quoits and deck billiards would have provided amusement and relieved the boredom, whilst nightly concerts around the vessel’s two Broadwood pianos would have helped pass the evenings. A fancy dress ball was held onboard the Wimmera several days out of Durban on the night of 11 November.

[A Broadwood piano – two of which were supplied to the Wimmera]
Postcard. Author’s Collection.

Fremantle, Western Australia

The Mail Wharf, Fremantle, W.A.
Postcard. Author’s Collection.

The Wimmera’s first port of call in Australia was Fremantle, Western Australia where she berthed at 1 p.m. on Tuesday 16 November 1904. News of her arrival was reported in The West Australian…:

“From passengers on board…it was learnt that things in South Africa [were] at a very low ebb. Australians, who flocked to the country at the termination of the [Boer] war, are now returning as quickly as they possibly can. In Johannesburg alone there are over six thousand homeless people, and the Town Council of Pretoria are paying white road workers on relief 3s. a day. The Wimmera brought back from the Cape a large number of Australians, all of who expressed their relief at getting back to the Commonwealth.”

Victoria Quay, Fremantle.
Detail from postcard. Author’s Collection.

Twenty-three of her 215 passengers disembarked at Fremantle. They were Mesdames Coghill, Thompson, Williams ; Misses Tomkins, Thompson, Coghill, and Williams; Messrs. Kidd, Comper, Mattin, Ross, Williams, Davis, Guest, Conder, and Captain Todd, D.S.O., and seven third-class passengers. Cargo of 105 tons of scenery for the Brough Comedy Company was off-loaded at the port.

New Zealander Captain Thomas John Todd, a returning officer aboard the Wimmera, was awarded his Distinguished Service Order (D.S.O.) in 1901 when serving as a Lieutenant with the New Zealand forces during the Boer War. He later settled in Western Australia and helped form (and later commanded) the Australian 10th Light Horse Regiment at the beginning of the First World War. Todd saw service with the Light Horse at Gallipoli, Egypt and Palestine, was promoted to Colonel and awarded the CMG (Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George).  He died in Egypt from heart failure following the War’s end in January 1919 and was buried in the Old Cairo Cemetery.

‘The Returning Officer’
Postcard. Author’s Collection.

It was in Fremantle also that the Wimmera’s first passengers, Rhoda Nellie Henzell and her two children were to disembark. They would catch another steamer east to Adelaide where they would settle and call home.

A number of additional passengers joined the Wimmera at Fremantle for her passage to the East and she steamed out of port shortly after 12.30 p.m. on Wednesday 16 November.

Melbourne, Victoria

Port Melbourne Pier
Detail from Postcard. Author’s Collection.

The final run of her maiden voyage, across the Great Australian Bight to Port Phillip Heads, took 126 hours. She arrived at the Heads at 7.20 pm on the evening of Monday 21 November 1904 – a day of squally south-westerly weather and rough seas – before entering Port Phillip Bay and making her way up the Bay to her home port of Melbourne. She berthed alongside the wharf the following morning.

The arrival of the latest addition to the Huddart Parker fleet caused great interest and favourable press. Amongst other papers, the Argus reported that:

The chief object of interest in shipping circles yesterday was the new Huddart, Parker line steamer Wimmera, which arrived alongside the wharf in the morning. She bears a most striking likeness to the well-known Victoria, of the same line, and, excepting that her accommodation is even superior to that of the Victoria, she is generally a counterpart of the latter vessel. To travellers liable to mal-de-mer the situation of the dining-saloon on the Wimmera will commend itself. The apartment may be entered from the promenade deck. The sensation of “stuffiness” experienced in vessels having their saloons “below” is unknown on the Wimmera, and the greatest possible inducements in dine in comfort are offered to passengers. The high reputation enjoyed by the Victoria as a comfortable sea-boat no doubt led Huddart, Parker, and Co. Prop. Ltd. to have the Wimmera built on similar lines, and, judging from the remarks made by passengers by the new vessel, she promises to rapidly establish herself as a public favourite. The saloon, social hall, and smokingroom are enclosed in steel houses on the promenade deck. The first-named apartment is capable of seating 80 persons, and is tastefully arranged. The woodwork is of hand-painted white oak, of floral design, the chairs being upholstered in crimson. Ample light is afforded by a spacious and handsome stained-glass dome in the centre of the saloon. The music-room is panelled in hand-carved walnut and oak, and upholstered in dark green plush, whilst a stained-glass dome gives an imposing and cheerful appearance to the apartment. The smokingroom is panelled in dull oak, and the seats are upholstered in somewhat sombre-looking Morocco to match the walls, the whole arrangement conveying an impression of warmth and comfort. In each apartment the ceiling is of white and gold. The cabins are roomy, well lighted, and replete with all the latest improvements for passenger comfort, whilst the results of the great attention given to ventilation and other sanitary matters are observable everywhere. Retiring-rooms, hot and cold shower and spray baths are fitted, nothing in the way of expense or effort being wanting to ensure the most complete comfort of travellers.
The second-class accommodation is forward of the bridge, and is all that could be desired. The cabins are large and airy, the fittings and furnishings being only inferior to those of the first saloon is point of finish. The dining-hall is of polished mahogany, the upholstering being in crimson maquette. Light and ventilation are striking features of the accommodation, which is superior in every respect to the first saloon in some steamers still employed in the interstate passenger trade. The vessel has a double bottom throughout her entire length, thus ensuring greater safety in the event of striking an object at sea. The engines, boilers, and all other machinery were supplied by the builders, Messres. Caird and Co., of Greenock. The engines are triple-expansion, having cylinders of 27 1/2in., 45in., and 72in. in diameter respectively, with a 48in. stroke. There are three boilers, two double-ended and one single-ended, working at a pressure of 180lb. to the square inch. Refrigerating machinery is installed for the preservation of ship’s stores.
On the voyage from Greenoch only two of the boilers were used, and an average speed of 13 1/2 knots per hours was maintained to Fremantle, but with all her power employed the vessel could easily have improved this speed by an additional knot and a half. Several stretches of heavy weather were experienced, affording the Wimmera suitable opportunities of showing her seaworthiness, and on all occasions she more than answered the high expectations formed of her. Consequently there was very little sickness among the large company of passenger on board. The vessel made the run from Fremantle to Port Phillip Heads in 126 hours, and her daily coal consumption throught the voyage was 45 tons.
Among the many notable features of the Wimmera is the Welin system of quadrant davits for clearing the boats. In this patent the old arrangement of swinging davits is done away with, and the new process is so simple and expeditious that during a course of boat drill on board two inexperienced persons cleared a large lifeboat in under 30 seconds.
The Wimmera made a call at Durban en route, and was joined there by a large number of passengers, having no fewer than 215 in all classes on board when she left that port. …”

The Argus, Wednesday July 23, 1904, p6

© Ralph L. Sanderson 2009-2021