Caught below decks amid accelerating smoke, flames and heat, outbreak of fire has always been a particular dread for men and women who live and work on and around ships.
Culprits come many and varied: cigarettes thoughtlessly discarded; sparks from oxy-acetylene torches during refits; oil inlet pipes not properly screwed up to burners when boilers are set away. Other reasons include coal smouldering deep inside bunkers, and electrical wires short-circuiting behind wood panels.
On the morning of 19 July 1921, at Lyttelton New Zealand, a steward went into the master’s cabin aboard the steamer Maori (3,399/1907. Sea Breezes August-September 2014) to remove dirty coffee cups. While there, he dropped a cigarette into the waste-paper basket under the master’s writing desk. It was Dundeeborn Captain WD Cameron himself, watching passengers disembark from the Maori which had just arrived from Wellington, who first noticed his cabin was on fire. Smoke began seeping then billowing from its windows port-side on the boat deck under the flying bridge where he stood. The ship’s crew responded very quickly, quelling the flames, but not before they had charred furnishings, carpet runners and curtains. The master’s writing desk, made of solid mahogany, suffered the worst damage.
TSS Maori’s owner, the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand Ltd, did not go to the expense of procuring a new, replacement desk. Instead, its directors had shore carpenters cover the burned mahogany with plywood, resulting in a hodgepodge of cheap and best-quality timber intended to serve as a lesson in vigilance against fire to all the cabin’s future occupants. It’s said that a lingering taint of burnt wood never left the master’s cabin aboard TSS Maori, no matter how diligently a succession of chief and second stewards tried to ventilate it.
Manifold were the hazards in the grand old days of steamer travel when woodlined boiler and engine casings rose deck upon deck through a vessel’s passenger accommodation. Soot, coal dust and oily residue accumulated behind timber panelling coated with thick varnish or lead paint, waiting to be ignited by extreme heat from boiler uptakes. Use of fire-resistant materials gave much more protection against this threat in the post-WWII era, as did the fitting of sprinklers and smoke detection cabinets. But fire is a demon ever-ready to seize its opportunity. On the night of 7-8 May 1959, a grim little tragedy, largely forgotten today, took place at the port of Lyttelton, scene of the Maori’s escape thirty-eight years before, when fire broke out aboard the nearly-new flagship of Holm & Company Ltd ‘Ship [a] ‘death trap,’ ‘crew [a] ‘disorganised rabble,’ ‘too much drinking by crew’ blared some of many lurid headlines in the fire’s aftermath.
THE DUTCH-BUILT FLAGSHIP
So powerful became the Union Steam Ship Company, owner of TSS Maori and the largest fleet in the southern hemisphere, that few ship owners gained commercial air to breathe on New Zealand’s waterfront, on the Tasman Sea and in the South Pacific during the company’s 124-year life. From founding at Dunedin in 1875, to disposal of its last assets in 1999, competitors knew the Union Company as ‘the southern octopus.’ Tentacles reached into the board rooms and shareholdings of ship owners who dared intrude into the Union Company’s trades and profits. Some were allowed to persevere, but not for long and always under a jaundiced, watchful eye from the company’s branch managers and wharf superintendents.
Arguably, the most successful breach of the fortress was made by Captain Ferdinand Holm and his merchant seafarer sons and grandsons. Born at Arboga, Sweden in 1844, Ferdinand Holm landed at Wellington in 1868 as an able seaman aboard a sailing barque out of Melbourne. He began his family’s ownership of ships by purchasing a half-share in a 328-ton sailing barque called Malay in 1880. In 1906, when he and two other ship’s masters formed the Maoriland Steamship Company, its existence was tolerated only because Sir James Mills, the Union Company’s chairman and founder, personally held Captain Holm in high esteem as a friend. Felicitous though the chairman might outwardly have been, discreetly the Union Company infiltrated its shareholding until, in 1915, it owned the Maoriland Steamship Company’s entire fleet of three ships. An individualist never willing to concede, Captain Holm travelled to Great Britain to buy another steamer with which to start again.
He returned to Wellington in command of a 342 grt vessel named John, built in 1899 at the Whitehall Dockyard of Thomas Turnbull & Son in Whitby, North Yorkshire. For the first time, her funnel carried the emerald-green with black top that became the livery of Holm & Company Ltd, ship owner and agent. Based at Wanganui and under the management of Captain Holm’s oldest surviving son, Captain Sydney Holm, the company owned, chartered and managed a number of ships working the New Zealand coast. True to form, by 1930 the Union Company had acquired a controlling interest. The agricultural export boom of the 1950s brought cargo in abundance for all ships and so Holm & Company was permitted to expand its fleet with, for the first time, the building of new tonnage.
An order for MV Holmwood (797/1953) first of four refrigerated and general-purpose coasters, was awarded to Bodewes Scheepswerven NV. Longestablished at Martenshoek in the Dutch province of Groningen, renamed Royal Bodewes on celebrating its 200th jubilee in 2012, this shipyard two years later produced a second coaster for Holm & Company, MV Holmglen (485/1955). Very impressed with the sturdy seakeeping qualities of its new vessels, at the beginning of 1957, Holm & Company’s directors returned to Bodewes Scheepswerven NV with a third order. More substantial at 845 grt, costing NZ£250,000, Yard Number 430 became her owner’s flagship and very first with passenger accommodation. Her keel was laid in March 1957.
Holm & Company maintained a regular trade between Lyttelton and the Chatham Islands; for this, the new ship’s design included four passenger cabins, two with three berths, one four-berth and one two-berth, occupying her lower deck starboard side above the engine room. Part of New Zealand, the Chatham Islands is an archipelago in the South Pacific about 850 kilometres east of Christchurch. Its inhabitants, numbering 600 in the 2013 Census, are fisherfolk and farmers. Voyages under charter to the New Zealand government were also envisaged, transporting supplies and personnel to the meteorological stations on Raoul Island, north-east of New Zealand, and to Campbell Island deep in the Southern Ocean.
Holm & Company’s superintending engineer, Mr Errol S Donne, supervised construction at Martenshoek then became the new ship’s chief engineer for her delivery voyage. She had six watertight bulkheads, a straight raked stem, cruiser stern and shell plating that was clencher built. On 21 August 1957, Mrs G Bodewes, wife of a director of the shipyard, named and launched Holmburn into the Winschoterdiep Canal, the vessel entering the water sideways. After fitting-out, she ran her acceptance trials in the North Sea on 16 December 1957, achieving a top speed of 14.4 knots.