A Delayed Departure

The Wimmera was originally advertised to sail for Sydney at 3 p.m. on the afternoon of Monday 24 June. However, her scheduled departure was interrupted due to the receipt late on the Sunday evening, of a message from the Auckland-bound steamer Cooee.

The Cooee, a 4224-ton vessel, formerly the Neumünster of the German-Australian Line, had recently been transferred to the Commonwealth Government in New York. She had sailed via the Panama Canal with a cargo of petrol but due to a shortage of coal that was occasioned by its extra-long voyage caused by bad weather, the Cooee had become disabled. Arrangements were made with the New Zealand Manager of Huddart Parker, in Wellington, Mr. Cecil W. Jones, to despatch the Wimmera, which was at that time considered the only known ship available to assist.

SS Cooee formerly Neumunster of the German-Australian Line
SS Cooee formerly Neumunster of the German-Australian Line
Detail from postcard. Author’s Collection.

To the annoyance of passengers who had already boarded the Wimmera in preparation for the following day’s sailing they were put off. In the meantime however, it was ascertained that the vessel Whangape, which was near East Cape, could render whatever assistance was necessary to the stricken Cooee. Arrangements were then made for the Whangape to proceed to the vessel. She was later relieved by the Arahura which eventually towed the Cooee into Auckland Harbour about Tuesday 2 July.

The original arrangements for the despatch of the Wimmera were cancelled at 4.15 pm on Monday afternoon through a phone call to Jones. She was then rescheduled to depart the following morning at 10 a.m.

On that Monday also, the Collector of Customs at Auckland, James Percy Ridings, paid a routine visit to Captain Kell. In a conversation that would later be quoted, the two men discussed a recent [January] confidential admiralty instruction and an amendment to those instructions. According to Ridings the Wimmera’s master was “fully aware of that instruction and thoroughly understood it”. On being asked by Ridings whether he required a copy of the amendment, Captain Kell had replied that it did not refer to his ship.

Passenger problems

In the Customs House Passport Department at 9.30am that morning one of the Wimmera’s passengers reportedly overheard a conversation between another would-be passenger, Oscar Fair, and the female officer-in-charge. Fair, who was then employed as a hairdresser in Auckland had enquired about his permit to leave New Zealand by the Wimmera. The permit had not come through and the customs officer queried a discrepancy in the written responses Fair had provided in his paperwork. On one form he wrote he was a British Subject, and on another he stated that he was an American Subject. Despite the discrepancy and the fact that he had not paid a bond, a special permit was issued and he was able to join the ship.

Missing Passengers


Amongst those who intended travelling by the Wimmera, but either missed their passages or changed their minds, were the well-known Aucklander Mr Robert Blaikie and the cross-country horseman S. Henderson. A Miss Greenwood also changed he mind at the last minute, and did not go on board. Mr. Blaikie had secured his passport, and applied for his ticket, but the illness of a friend prevented him from booking his berth. S. Henderson was under the impression that the boat was not leaving until the Thursday, and did not know of the altered timetable until it was too late. As he had to be in Melbourne next week to ride Gluepot at the V.R.C. National Meeting he left Auckland on Wednesday evening to catch a steamer at Wellington.

The Auckland Star, Thursday, June 27, 1918

The Latest News

Three women reading a newspaper
[Three women reading a newspaper]
Postcard. Author’s Collection.

Prior to their departure, some of the passengers may have had the opportunity to catch up with the latest war news. Amongst the news stories ran by the Auckland Star the previous day, was an article relating to the Wolf. The same story was published in several newspapers, including the Ohinemuri Gazette.

Ohinemuri Gazette, Volume XXIX, Issue 3935, 24 June 1918, Page 2

“It is said that a story was in circulation among the prisoners on the German raider Wolf on her homeward passage that had special reference to Dunedin (says the “Otago Daily Times). Several of the German seamen showed quite a hospitable side to their natures and talked freely with their captives, and the interesting fact was divulged on one occasion that the Wolf had actually rounded the South Island, coming down the West Coast, passing to the south of Stewart Island, and making her way to the north, not many miles distant from the East Coast. It was also said that the shipping in the different ports was viewed from an aeroplane, and that an excellent view was obtained of Otago Harbour. The statement may be true, or it may be only idle talk on the part of the German sailors, but it receives corroboration to some extent in the fact that in the early part of last year a Clutha farmer stated that he had seen an aeroplane over the land, and that it had disappeared northwards.”

The Auckland Star, Monday, June 24, 1918, p4


On the wharf prior to sailing an officer of the Customs Department examined all overseas and inter-colonial outward cargo. Cases were opened and some cargo was packed under custom’s supervision. Cargo like flax tow was examined by means of a steel pricker. Almost every package of the passengers’ luggage was also carefully examined – to the extent that at least one passenger complained that the examination was too rigid.

Amongst the four hundred tons of cargo bound for Sydney on this passage were an uninteresting array comprising 2580 sacks of sand, cases of vanilla beans, bags of broken glass, 80 casks of whale oil, sacks of linseed, casks of brandy, cases of stout, bags of onions, packages of drapery, films, tow, pegs, castor oil, lime juice, hides, hams, tongues, salt lick, tobacco leaf, grass seed, deck chair covers and personal effects. 31 tubes of gas liquor were stowed on the well deck forward and six drums of chloride of calcium were stowed on the poop aft. There was also a large quantity of mail destined for Australia and beyond. Of the 46 bags and 19 hampers of mail, 16 bags and 2 hampers were bound for Melbourne; 25 bags and 13 hampers for Sydney; 6 bags and 1 hamper for Brisbane and other Queensland towns; 2 bags and 1 hamper for Adelaide; 3 bags and 1 hamper for Perth and Kalgoorlie; and 4 bags and 1 hamper for Hobart and Launceston.

Not separately described or listed in the manifest of the Wimmera were also a number of artworks. These had originally been brought to New Zealand for exhibition and sale by William Joseph Wadham, a former president of the Adelaide Art Society. Among these unsold works was a piece entitled ‘Tales from Boccacio‘ by Sir James Linton. Wadham did not accompany these consigned works on the Wimmera but had taken an earlier passage to Sydney aboard the RMS Niagara.

Of the 80 casks of whale oil consigned aboard the Wimmera on this trip, a number were the product of a pod of 25 sperm whales washed ashore at Bayley’s Reserve, near Dargaville on the west coast at Easter time. Despite a dispute over ownership, and the whales being both washed out to sea and then ashore again, they were eventually cut up and their blubber boiled down. It was reported that “…the syndicate connected with the boiling down of the blubber…succeeded in securing 1500 gallons of oil, and also ambergris valued at several thousand pounds.” The impending fate of the Wimmera meant that “parts of the whale[s] returned to [their] native home.”

‘Whales stranded on the West beach, Dargaville in March 1918’
These unfortunate mammals were later boiled down to produce whale oil that was consigned aboard the Wimmera on her final voyage
Postcard. Author’s Collection.


On the morning of her departure, the Wimmera was again delayed due to the late arrival and embarkation of several racehorses – up to half an hour before sailing time. The horses were intended for racing in New South Wales and were to join the stable of T. A. William at Canterbury. They included the three-year-old bay gelding Hymeona, owned by Mr T. H. Cotter. Hymeona was engaged to run in the A.J.C. Epsom Handicap, and had been purchased within the previous fortnight for 1000 guineas. There were also Cotter’s pony, Lady Jack; the five year old chestnut mare, Deep Sleep; Messrs W. and V. Casey’s Informal, a 3-year old chestnut gelding (which had cost 45 guineas as a yearling yet had won £1900 in stakes); and Demotic, a 3 year old brown gelding (which had been bought for 375 guineas).

The local owners Messrs. W. and V. Casey and H. Cotter are to be sympathised with in their heavy loss through the mishap to the Wimmera, in which their horses Informal, Demotic, Hymeona, Lady Jack, and Deep Sleep were lost. Informal was generally conceded to be the best of the early spring two-year-olds, and was the first youngster to win both the Wellington Wellesley Stakes and the A.R.C. Welcome Stakes. A mishap to the son of Demosthenes caused his to lose his form, and a necessarily hurried preparation for his autumn engagements would probably be against him. Nevertheless he ran second to Finmark in the Great Northern Champagne Stakes, and since going into winter retirement improved considerably, furnishing into a nice colt – a bit wayward perhaps, but he had undeniable pace and looked like performing well as a three-year old. Hymeona was brilliant, and over short courses under a medium scale of weights would have picked up plenty of stakes. Demotic and Lady Jack were really not much above the moderate but the latter would have been valuable as a brood mare, while nothing better bred could be found than Deep Sleep, which it was understood was shipped across to be mated with the imported horse Bronzino.

The Auckland Star, Saturday, June 29, 1918

“It was only by the merest chance that Mr. Cotter’s horses were on board, for when they were taken in for shipment on Monday, A. Asprey, who had charge of them, was informed that they departure of the steamer was postponed until Thursday, and the horses were taken home again, as were those of the Messrs. Casey. Soon after they had left for their stables, another alteration was made in the time of the steamer’s departure, and she was fixed to leave at 10 a.m. on the Tuesday. Word was sent to Ellerslie, and Informal and Demotic were got in plenty of time, but A. Asprey did not receive word until breakfast time on the Tuesday morning. The meal was left untouched, and the horses had to be trotted and cantered along the road from Onehunga in order to catch the boat.”

The Auckland Star, Thursday, June 27, 1918

“Shortly before the boat left Auckland, Mr. Sutherland, of Timaru, advised that a war risk for £2300 be taken out on the horses, and this was done, so that the owners w[ould] to some extent be compensated for [any] losses. It was expected that the Australian climate would suit Informal, a speedy two-year-old, who displayed sound form in the Dominion. New Zealand visitors now in Sydney say that few of the youngsters in New Zealand this season showed greater promise. Deep Sleep was also considered a more than average performer. Demotic started in the Auckland St. Leger this (year) and was placed.”.

In his book “A New Zealander looks on,” by Ewen William Alison Jnr., published in 1939, the author recounts a story of the ownership of racehorses and the activities of the Wolf. Contemporaries of Alison were Willie and Victor Casey who had purchased the yearling which they named Informal, for 45 guineas.

”As a two-year-old Informal won the first three classic events of the season, the Avondale Stakes of £400, the Wellesley Stakes of £750, and the Welcome Stakes of £850.

Shortly after winning these races, Informal was temporarily retired from the turf; he had struck himself whist training.  But, at the end of the two-year-old season, he started again and ran second to Finmark in the Champagne Stakes of £1,000.  This was good form.”

In devising a course of action for their promising colt, Victor, who was then living in Sydney, proposed that Informal should be brought to Australia to compete there and the suggestion made that their other racehorse, Demotic, should accompany him. To this proposal Willie agreed and made arrangements for the shipment of the horses with Huddart Parker.

Through a casual meeting with friends, one of whom was an insurance agent, Victor at first declined an offer to insure the horses but yield to an offer of a £5.00 outlay only for a coverage of £1000, war risk only. On the morning of the ship sailing, Willie proceeded to make his own arrangements for insurance coverage of £1000 for the two horses, yet soon declined on learning that the premium for the four-day voyage would cost him £80. He decided to carry the risk with the belief that “There is not much chance of anything happening”.

Once on board the horses were placed in stalls on the Wimmera’s well deck. In charge of them was Charles “Charlie” Hodder, a returned soldier and former trainer.

“C. Hodder…only returned from the front a few months ago, and was engaged to take the horses across. He was only advised on the Tuesday morning that the boat was sailing that day, and yet had the steamer taken her departure at the specified time would have missed his passage. As it was he only reached the ship ten minutes before she left, and after arrangements had been made for the carpenter of the Wimmera to look after the horses.”

The Auckland Star, Thursday, June 27, 1918

Late on the morning of Tuesday 25 June, half an hour before the Wimmera sailed, the Auckland manager of Huddart Parker Ltd, Daniel Ryan, spoke to Captain Kell but gave him no instructions as to course or speed [to follow on his return voyage to Sydney.] (Following the taking in of cargo the draft of the vessel was given as 13ft 9in forward and 19ft 2in aft.)


At 11.30 a.m. Tuesday 25 June 1918 the Wimmera finally slipped her berth at Queens wharf and began her 1275-mile return voyage to Sydney.

Her journey began by making her way out into the Rangitoto channel, a stretch of water about 1¾ miles wide and the principal approach to Auckland Harbour lying between the mainland and Rangitoto Island to the northeast. The island

“…is circular in shape, and about 3½ miles across; it rises gradually to a height of 920 feet with a crater-like summit, on which are three nipples, and it presents the same appearance from every point of view. The island is almost bare of vegetation, its summit being masses of scoria.”

Rangitoto Beacon, Auckland Harbour, N.Z.
Rangitoto Beacon, Auckland Harbour, N.Z.
Postcard. Author’s Collection.

At noon she cleared the Rangitoto Beacon and 50 minutes later passed three miles to the east of the Tiri Lighthouse, a red iron lighthouse, 67 feet high on the southeastern hill of the barren island of Tiri Tiri Matangi (which lay 9½ miles north of Rangitoto Island).

Proceeding further up the coast she passed to the east of Flat Rock, (an outcrop about 100 yards and 4 feet high) and the Maro Tiri Light. (Hen and Chickens)

On watch on the bridge that afternoon was the ship’s second officer, Charles Frederick Wilson, who had come on duty at midday, soon after departure. Although Wilson had served some nine years with Huddart Parker he was a newcomer to the Wimmera, having first joined the vessel on her previous trip. He was a native of West Hartlepool, England and joined the Huddart Parker Company in August 1909 as Chief Officer of the S.I. Kyora. He had previously served with J. & A. Roxburgh, Glasgow; the “Prince” Line Ltd; and W. R. Rea, of Belfast. In addition to the Kyora, his service with Huddart Parker included the Meeanderry, Coogee, Ulimaroa, Riverina, Yarra, Barwon, Corio, Westralia, Moorabool and the Werribee.

During Wilson’s four-hour watch the vessel passed six miles to the eastward of Chicken Island at which time the ship’s course was north, 18 degrees magnetic. It was a fine afternoon and there was a smooth sea with a moderate west-south-west breeze. Wilson noted that the master was frequently on deck. At 4 pm the Chief Officer, Alexander John (Alec) Nichol, relieved Wilson on the bridge.

Nichol was a native of Portgordon, Scotland. At about 40 years of age he was a long-time acquaintance of the master, having also joined Huddart Parker in October 1904 as 3rd Officer of the Barwon. He first served on the Wimmera as 2nd Officer from December 1908 to January 1910.

{He was born about 1878 the son of Alexander John and Jean Nichol. He served on the brigantine” Welcome Home” as an apprentice for four years in the Baltic and coasting trades. …}

He died at the age of 40 leaving a wife, Ella May Nichol and two children who live in Kensington, Sydney. Is a comparatively young man. Has spent practically all his life with the company. Held a masters certificate, and his kindly nature endeared him to all who he became associated. For a number of years he was chief engineer on the paddle steamer HYGEIA. Been several years in service of the Huddart Parker Company, and was, until lately, on the ZEALANDIA, on the West Australian run.

Age 40. Son of Alexander John and Jean Nichol; husband of Ella Mary Nichol, of 31 Park Road, Moore Park Sydney (as at 1928?) Born at Portgordon, Scotland.

Within half an hour of Nichol assuming watch, at 4:29pm, the sun had set and… . The previous evening had been a full moon yet [it still shone bright…??]

At 6 p.m. Charles Wilson returned to the bridge to relieve Nichol, who then went for dinner. He received the same course as earlier, which would cause the ship to pass seven miles east of the Poor Knights.

Lighthouse & Piercy Island. Cape Brett.
Lighthouse & Piercy Island. Cape Brett.
Postcard. Author’s Collection.

The Poor Knights Islands (Tawhiti Rahi) (lat. 35 30′ S., long. 174 45′ E.) are “two islands lying close together north-northwest and south-southeast, in which direction they extend for 2½ miles; the northern island is 590 feet, and the southern 680 feet high, and both are rugged in appearance; the northern end of the islands bears 26 miles 133 deg. from Cape Brett, and they are 11 miles off shore.”

New Zealand Pilot. p. 57.

When the Poor Knights were abeam, at 6.20 p.m., he was ordered to alter the course to north, 58 degrees west.

At half-past six Wilson came off duty until midnight, when the vessel was then half-way between Cape Brett and North Cape.

Cape Brett bears 79 miles 130 deg. from North Cape. The land at about 1¼ miles southward of the cape is 1,220 feet high. There is frequently a set off shore between North Cape and Cape Brett.

New Zealand Pilot. p. 56.

He received the course, north, 71 west magnetic, with orders to call the master when the North Cape was sighted. The weather was then fine and clear, with a moderate southerly breeze.

From midnight the ship was lit with electric lights, in accordance with regulations. All decklights had been extinguished at 11 p.m. and there were no skylights on the vessel which were strongly lit from underneath. All the saloon lights were put out when the passengers went to bed.

During this watch Wilson did not see the lights of any other ship or any ships without lights. Nor did he see any aeroplanes or airships.

After midnight he had no occasion to direct the men at the wheel to steer, fine to counteract the effect of wind and tide. The tide was, he believed, at flood at 8 p.m. He believed that after the ship left the North Cape the swell would affect it more that the tide. Neither the wind nor tide was so strong as to make it necessary after midnight to make any allowance for leeway.

Shortly after 2 am on June 26 Able Seaman Thomas Robinson took the wheel and received a course north 73 west.

**At 2am Robinson was on duty and went aft to put relieving tackles on the rudder quadrant. He afterwards took the wheel at about 2.35am. He received the course N 73 West from the man he relieved. He steered that course til the North Cape was abeam. When the Cape was abeam he heard the Second Officer communicate through the speaking tube with the master. He told the master that the North Cape was abeam and six miles off. He also said that the wind was south westerly and that the wind was freshening. Immediately after that the Second Officer gave Robinson a change of course. It was N 84 West Compass. Robinson remained at the wheel until 4am when he was relieved by Donald(sic). From the time they passed North Cape until Robinson was relieved he got no special orders as to steering. The wind appeared to be getting stronger all the time from time the ship passed North Cape. There was a good swell running. Robinson turned in after 4am.**

This was Robinson’s first trip from Auckland to Sydney in the Wimmera and the previous trip was his first from Sydney to Auckland.

[Robinson’s Deposition]

At 2.30 am a relieving tackle was put on the rudder, in accordance with instructions from the master, to prepare for bad weather. At 2.45 am the North Cape was sighted and Wilson informed the captain, who asked to be again called when the Cape was abeam. This occurred at 3.15 am when the Cape bore south 19 west magnetic, and was then six miles off. The captain ordered the course to be altered to north 84, west, compass, or north 81 west magnetic.

A modern postcard view of North Cape, New Zealand
A modern postcard view of North Cape, New Zealand
Produced by Colourview Publications 2004 Ltd. Oamaru, N.Z.

North Cape or Otau (lat. 34 25′ N., long. 173 04′ E.), the northern extremity of North Island, is a steep flat-topped headland, 792 feet high. It bears from Norteast King Island 48 miles 113 deg; the cape should not be approached within 1 mile.

This instruction was passed on to A.B. Robinson who was at the wheel. From the time North Cape was passed till he (Robinson) was relieved at 4 am he received no special orders. There was a good swell on and the south-west wind appeared to be freshening all the time.

At the North Cape the Wimmera was doing about twelve and a half knots, and after rounding the Cape she was probably doing twelve.

(The scene of the disaster was estimated according to the speed. After Wilson (who, as second officer kept the navigation records of the ship) left the bridge the ship might have been making less speed.)

(The captain) had orders for the chief officer to pass not less than seven miles outside of the north-east King.

“The Three Kings (lat. 34 8′ N., long. 172 8′ E.), a cluster of islands lying about 32 miles 309 deg. from Cape Maria Van Diemen, the northwestern point of North Island, extend northeast and southwest nearly 8 miles. The islands are uninhabited and landing is always dangerous and uncertain.

Northeast Island is about 800 yards across and 407 feet high.

Great Island (Manawa tawi), south-southwestward 1,600 yards from Northeast Island, is in two parts, connected by and isthmus, which together are 1.9 miles long, north and south, and 1.7 miles broad; it attains a height of 995 feet. The island is nearly divided by Northwest and Southeast Bays, where anchorage might be obtained under favorable conditions of wind and weather …

Southwest Island, southwestward 2.6 miles from Great Island, is about 1,400 yards long east and west, ½ mile broad, and 690 feet high. …”

New Zealand Pilot (1920). p. 55

Rock of Ages postcards
Rock of Ages
Postcards. Author’s Collection.

Rock of Ages

Between 5.15 and 5.20am on the morning of Wednesday 26 June 1918, as the master and most of the ship’s company and passengers slept, others, like Oscar Fair, anxious about the safety of the vessel had laid awake all night, others stirred in their bunks and a number were awake and on duty. Able Seaman Joseph Donaghy was at the ship’s wheel maintaining her course, Able Seaman John McFarlane was on lookout duty, (fireman) Alf Thompson and several others were on duty in the stokehold, and Thomas Williams, the engine room storekeeper was going about his duties and preparing to make his way down the shaft tunnel to oil the propeller bearings.

Third Officer Alec Nichol, also on the bridge, quietly hummed to himself a verse from the hymn ”Rock of Ages” as the Wimmera steamed forth under a waning moon when the first muffled explosion was felt and heard.

© Ralph L. Sanderson 2004-2021