Cover image of The Dog Watch No. 61 [2004] published by The Shiplovers' Society of Victoria
The Dog Watch No. 61 [2004]
The Shiplovers’ Society of Victoria

A brief article on the SS Wimmera was previously published in The Dog Watch, the annual journal of the now defunct Shiplovers’ Society of Victoria (SLSV). In this article a general history of the ship is provided and may serve as an introduction should you wish to delve further into this website and the many re-discovered aspects of the life, times and loss of the SS Wimmera.
The original article, which appeared in Issue 61 of The Dog Watch in 2004 is reproduced below:

The Wimmera Story – Part 2

Ralph L. Sanderson SLSV

In Dogwatch 60 The Wimmera Story began with an account of the first Wimmera – a wooden sailing ship built in the yards of John Smith of Aberdeen in 1866. After nearly 27 years on the high seas under three owners she disappeared without trace somewhere in the North Atlantic or off the coast of the United States.

After the loss of the barque Wimmera in 1893 over a decade was to lapse before that name again appeared in Lloyd’s Register. And when it did it was like a generational change – from a ship of wood and sail in the old century to a ship of steel and steam in the new. But, like her predecessor, the new Wimmera was also constructed in Scotland and her maiden voyage was to take her to the port of Melbourne, Victoria. This is the potted history of the second Wimmera – a ship destined to become a casualty of war.

On 9 June 1903 at a special meeting of the Board of Directors of the Melbourne-based shipping firm Huddart Parker Ltd, a recommendation was made that the Company proceed with the construction of two new passenger steamers. Within a month the specifications had been submitted and approved and the Company’s Managing Director Thomas Webb had departed for the United Kingdom to call for tenders for the first boat. The Company’s superintendent William Cumming departed shortly after to supervise its construction.

On September 3rd 1903, a Memorandum of Agreement was signed with Caird & Co., Shipbuilders and Engineers, of Greenock, Scotland for the construction of the new vessel. The agreed price for the purchase was £71,500.

She was laid down as vessel No. 304 and over a period of months the new addition to the Huddart Parker fleet took shape. She was very similar to the Company’s Victoria which had been constructed by Gourlay Bros. of Dundee and completed only two years earlier and which, in turn, had been modeled on the successful design of the Westralia.

From the specifications for her construction and newspaper accounts the following brief description is derived:

The Wimmera was a single screw steel passenger and cargo steamer of 3021 tons measuring 335 feet in length and 43 feet in breadth. She was schooner-rigged with two steel pole masts. The vessel had an upright stem and an elliptical stern, a full poop and bridge joined, and a long topgallant forecastle. The vessel’s triple-expansion engines, which were also constructed by Cairds, were placed as nearly amidships as practicable. A steel house was built at the fore end of the bridge and contained a first-class dining saloon, vestibules, staircase, pantry, bar, and lounge room. The boat deck, built over the steel house, was fitted with six lifeboats, the captain’s room, chart room, first and second officers’ rooms, a large stained-glass dome over the centre of the dining saloon, and skylights over the galley and the stairway leading from the vestibule to accommodation. The saloon could seat 80 passengers and its woodwork was of hand-painted white oak, with floral design, and its chairs upholstered in crimson.

A navigating bridge was arranged and fitted at the front of the boat and bridge decks and extended the full width of the ship. It was fitted with a teak steering wheel and brass standard, compasses, telegraphs and speaking tubes.

On the poop deck were three separate steel deckhouses. One house contained a smoking room, another contained two 4-berth staterooms, a social hall or music room, companionways and stairways, and the third house, located at the stern of the vessel contained a steam steering engine and rudder fittings. The smoking room was paneled in dull oak and the seats upholstered in morocco to match the walls. In comparison the music room was paneled in hand-carved walnut and oak, upholstered in dark green plush and lit through another overhead stained-glass dome. The ceilings in each apartment were painted in white and gold.

The lower sides and the deck houses of the steamer were painted white, the top sides were black with boot-topping, the funnel yellow, the cargo battens in holds blue; and the bulwarks and all deck houses were well grained in teak and varnished. Draught marks on the stem and stern were cut in and painted white. A 3-inch white ribbon was painted between the boot topping and black, and a 3-inch white streak applied on the topsides.

In raised brass letters 8 inches high on the stern was located her port of registry – MELBOURNE, and in raised brass letters 10 inches high, on each side of the bow and on the stern, was the vessel’s name – WIMMERA.

It was just on a century ago that at 2.30pm on Monday 15 August 1904 the new steamer Wimmera was officially christened by Alice Cumming, the wife of the superintendent William Cumming, and launched into the Clyde.

Following her fit out, sea trials and provisioning the Wimmera departed Greenock on her maiden voyage to Australia on 6 October 1904. With only two passengers she sailed for Durban, Natal where she embarked a full complement of passengers for Australia. Her homeport of Melbourne was reached on 21 November 1904.

For the briefest of time the Wimmera was to be the crown in the Huddart Parker fleet and was the object of well-deserved attention and interest.  A description of her appearance and features was syndicated and was reported in the press in each port. Well-known identities were feted by her owners and welcomed aboard in ceremonies and pleasure trips to mark her arrival, including the explorer-come-politician Sir John Forrest of Western Australia and the Premier and the Governor of Tasmania during her first visit to Hobart.

Following the initial publicity and promotional events the Wimmera’s timetable was quickly turned to business. Ahead of the Wimmera were two hundred voyages spanning 13½ years of service, only about half of that spent at sea by her sail predecessor, yet her time was to be spent exclusively under one owner and in the Australian or Australian-New Zealand trade.

The SS Wimmera was first employed on the company’s “horseshoe” route which saw her departing her homeport of Melbourne for Hobart before crossing the Tasman Sea to the New Zealand ports of Bluff (Invercargill), Dunedin, Lyttelton and Wellington. She would then proceed across the Tasman to Sydney before returning to Melbourne via the opposite route.

With the arrival of additional new and larger vessels to the Huddart Parker fleet the Wimmera was placed on other routes for various periods. She serviced the shorter Sydney-Auckland-Gisborne-Napier-Wellington-Lyttleton-Dunedin run and the Sydney-Hobart trade. She was not just confined to providing regular passenger and cargo runs for, on special occasions such Boxing Day 1913, she was utilized for a marine excursion for about 450 locals from Hobart to the annual regatta at Southport.  Port Arthur was another of her excursion destinations.

Between 1904 and 1918 the decks of the Wimmera were trod by thousands of passengers journeying between Australian and New Zealand ports and in her holds and on her decks were carried all manner of produce and goods, including livestock of sheep, cattle and horses.

A passage on the Wimmera would prove to be memorable for some passengers, whether it was due to a record-breaking trip in her early days or one where some incident or minor disaster befell her.

The most serious incidents to occur were fires. On one voyage from Wellington to Sydney in 1905 fire broke out in a cargo of flax in her No. 4 hold. It took an hour to overcome and remove the burnt cargo and fortunately it caused neither serious injury nor loss, apart from some cargo, and little, or no disruption to her sailing schedule.

On a number of occasions it was heavy weather that wreaked the most havoc, with gales and high seas damaging doors, screens, ladders, handrails, the stained-glass in the domes over her saloons; and washing overboard deck cargo, seats and even a flagpole.

Amongst the number of mishaps entered in the Company’s Casualties Book were a number of close encounters with other vessels. Some of these, which also made copy in the local press, were collisions with the Sydney Harbour ferries Lady Mary and Lady Manning and the vessels Alva, Clan Campbell, the Werribee, and the Merimbula in July 1917. Following her collision with the Merimbula in Darling Harbour, it was necessary for her to be docked for several days for repairs.

Her schedules were also not immune to interference from industrial disputes of a local nature or linked to wider concerns. Those which directly impacted on her included bans on overtime by waterside workers in Hobart; the refusal of her firemen to sign articles in Sydney due to grievances over a promotion; and strikes by New South Wales coal miners.

With the advent of the Great War in 1914, Australia’s shipping industry profoundly changed. Large numbers of vessels were requisitioned as transports for troops and cargo and, as a result, the services and routes offered by the shipping companies were altered and reduced.

At just over 3000 tons and 10 years of age at the outbreak of war the Wimmera was overlooked for war service in favour of newer and larger vessels of the Huddart Parker fleet – including the Ulimaroa and Zealandia. Vessels still under construction for the Company in Great Britain such as the Nairana and Hebburn were not delivered until War’s end. In conjunction with her sister ships Victoria, Westralia and Riverina, the Wimmera continued in regular trade along the coast or across the Tasman.

At the end of October 1914 she was placed on a new route. Leaving Melbourne every third Saturday she sailed for Hobart before proceeding via the Cook Strait to Wellington then to Lyttelton, Dunedin and Bluff before returning to Hobart and Melbourne. From April 1916 Hobart was dropped from this itinerary.

In March 1917 increased naval censorship came into effect with the result that no publication of the names or times of any vessels arriving or proceeding out of Australian waters was permitted. This included the trans-Tasman services of Huddart Parker Limited, which could now only be obtained upon application. However, it is known that in early 1917 the Wimmera replaced the Westralia on the route from Sydney to Auckland-Gisborne-Napier-Wellington-Lyttelton-Dunedin and return.

It was in 1917 also that the former Hansa Line steamship, Wachtfels, better known as the German raider Wolf made its appearance in the waters off New Zealand and Australia. It was on a night in June, with the Wimmera safely alongside in Dunedin, that the Wolf began to lay the first of several minefields across local sea-lanes.

Two victims were claimed within months, the first of these, the SS Cumberland, struck a mine on 6 July off Gabo Island and the second, the Port Kembla was sunk off Cape Farewell, New Zealand on 18 September. Although internal explosions were publicly considered the cause of both losses the presence of mines was suspected and confidential warnings issued. However, it was not until January 1918 that the first real evidence of the Wolf’s presence and activities were known. A bottle containing a message from a prisoner on the Wolf was discovered in the sea in the Celebes (Indonesia) and its contents quickly relayed to Navy Office. With the Wolf’s safe and triumphant return to Germany in February 1918 – the story of her exploits was soon public knowledge.

It was not long after that Navy Office began to issue specific warnings on the danger areas off Gabo, off Cape Farewell and off North Cape New Zealand where minesweeping operations soon began.

For a year the Wimmera safely continued her trans-Tasman services and whether by luck or circumstance avoided the lurking danger.

By June 1918 the steamship’s schedule had been reduced to a direct Sydney to Auckland service that took the vessel due east of Sydney across the Tasman, past North Cape and south down the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island to Auckland – a voyage of approximately 1275 miles.

Coincidently, it was on the anniversary of the Wolf’s visit off North Cape, on 25 June 1918, that the SS Wimmera slipped her berth at Queens wharf, Auckland and began the return leg of her 200th voyage to Sydney. Aboard were her master, Herbert James Graham Kell, a Scottish-born master mariner and an experienced and long-term employee of the Huddart Parker Line; 74 other officers and crew, and 76 passengers comprising men, women and children. An unglamorous cargo included sand, vanilla beans, broken glass, whale oil, linseed, brandy, stout, onions and drapery although she also carried several racehorses destined for stables in New South Wales.

Suffice to say that just before daybreak on the following morning, as the Wimmera was passing north of North Cape an explosion at her stern signaled the end to her career. Within 20 minutes she had slipped beneath the waves, taking 26 souls to a watery grave and leaving a handful of her lifeboats with 125 survivors aboard to their fate – but that is another story…

© Ralph L. Sanderson 2004-2021