The experience of The Sheffield Choir

In June 1911, the Wimmera endured cyclonic conditions on her passage from Sydney to Auckland. On board at this time were members of the Sheffield Choir. Such were the harrowing conditions that were experienced the vessel was nicknamed the “Swimmera” and the tale recorded, as follows, in Sir Henry Coward’s memoirs of the Choir’s world tour:

Sir Henry Coward
Lantern Slide. Author’s Collection.


And now for the voyage so full of disagreeable, pathetic and dramatic incidents, which might have ended tragically.

The journey had hardly begun before we had to stop to decide the “sailor shanty” problem, “What shall we do to the drunken sailor?” Two inebriates had come aboard uninvited, and Captain Walter [sic] had to bundle them into a boat to return ashore. This caused another delay, which was annoying, because we had been delayed three hours in order to give the afternoon concert. The inconvenience and strain of this “extra” was mollified by a grant of each singer and special fees to the principals.

A fairly strong wind was blowing, and when this was mentioned the Captain said, “Oh, this is a good sea boat”. To those “in the know” it was ominous, as it meant it rolls tremendously. This was true of the “Wimmera”, but she rolled tremendously-and-a-half!! As a joker remarked, “This is more than a roll, it’s a roly-poly boat”. Within an hour we ran into a sou’-west storm. The Captain said it was the worst he had known for twenty years, and the Chief Officer declared that he had made fifteen voyages in her, and he had never had such a time.

Those South Pacific waves simply played shuttlecock with the “roly-poly”. They tossed her up and down, they swished and gurgled from end to end of the deck. They made everyone rise from dinner to feed the fishes, and go straight to bed!

The Captain collected as many as he could into the saloon to sing “Eternal Father, strong to save”, etc., and after a short prayer, committed us to the hands of God. He advised us to put on lifebelts, go to bed and try to sleep, and he would come and inform us if danger threatened.

A cyclone burst on us about midnight, and a tenor, a yachtsman, came to tell me that he had heard the Captain say to the Chief Officer, “We can do no more, put her head to the wind and let her drift”. This was done, and the vessel drifted 77 miles out of her course. Meanwhile, the roaring waves, which rose higher and higher still, burst through all the barriers, destroyed a port-hole, flooded every cabin, lifted portmanteaux, handbags, hats, clothes, etc., from their moorings, and sent them swish-swashing from one end of the cabin to the other. Beds, bedding and blankets were soaking, and the members were in dripping bath dresses. Those occupying rooms could not stir as the water was so deep. Dr. Harriss and half a dozen others were in the smoking room, and there they had to stay. One venturesome member tried to change his cabin, and was thrown all of a heap into the scuppers—a very, very near shave from drowning.

Ladies and gentlemen were mixed up in the same rooms, helpless. One lady wailed, “Oh, dear, this will end the World Tour”, to which a man replied, “If so, it will be the beginning of becoming angels sooner than we thought”.

Those who were in bunks were bruised by being banged from side to side. It was all terrible and horrible. After five hours of this perilous time the storm began to abate, then hope returned, but not appetite. Scarcely anyone could eat on Thursday, and many did not recover till we got to Auckland on Monday. Two ladies did not sing for a week.

As the day wore on we could take stock of some of the damage done by the storm. There was a long list of personal injuries and upsets. Dr. MacDougal, the doctor and physician to the Choir, worked liked a Trojan during the turmoil at great personal risk. These labours he continued all week.

The boat deck and bridge deck were washed away, the ironwork being twisted as though it were paper. A bulkhead was smashed in, a sailor smashed up, another knocked insensible, and a stewardess badly injured by being thrown out of her bunk. It was not until Thursday that we became aware of our dire peril, and that it is not a mere figment of fancy is evident from the fact that, some time after, the “Wimmera” turned turtle and “Davy Jones” claimed her for his “locker”. Thus ends the story of the “Swimmera”, the name by which she was always called during the journey and after. The Captain himself said it was a case of “touch and go”, and it was a good thing that we were all too ill to realize the danger we were in.

Friday was calmer and more came on deck. The sun shone brightly, but still the boat was “pitching” if not “tossing”. Those who were well stayed up to see another glorious sunset and the unique brilliance of the Southern Cross and the Milky Way.

Saturday was spent by the well ones looking after and cheeing up the ill ones, who were fortunately in numbers “growing smaller by degrees and beautifully less”. One little incident deserves mention. In the midst of the misery, eleven ladies in the Music Room, who had not had meals all day, were in a sorry plight when, in the evening, a good Samaritan reeled into the Social Hall. He had his pockets stuffed with fruit and was hailed with delight. Then the fun began. The ship was rocking so badly that he could not walk to them. He thereupon dropped on his hands and knees and crawled slowly from bunk to bunk, distributing oranges, pears, apples, etc., and slowly “mopped his fevered brow”.

Sunday was really beautiful, and most of the Choir could say “Richard’s himself again”.

For diversion we had a good look at Three Kings Island and Marie Van Diemen Cape. We were followed by beautiful albatrosses and somewhat smaller mollyhawks. There were also flying fish about.

Monday: All were roused at 6 a.m. to be ready for the doctor’s examination at 7. By the time this was over we had arrived at the wharf at 9 a.m. and were given a great welcome by a crowd of good souls who had waited all Sunday afternoon and had turned up again on Monday morning…

The Sheffield Choir arrives in New Zealand: The crowd at the side of the Wimmera on Monday morning last.
The Sheffield Choir arrives in New Zealand: The crowd at the side of the Wimmera on Monday morning last.
Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 29 JUNE 1911 p012
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19110629-12-5

Feature Image:
Sheffield Choir on Lyttelton Wharf. J.G. 2.7.11
Detail from Postcard. Author’s Collection.

© Ralph L. Sanderson 2004-2021