Making connections - the s.s. Tainui Disaster

I snap thousands of grave and memorial photos.  Of course sometimes they 'ring bells' in my head as the various facts come together during research.   New Zealand is a small world after all and  lives of those who have crossed each others paths for some reason or other does happen.

Here are a couple that have that connection and one of them, Charles WILLIAMS provided a few surprises.

The s.s. Tainui Disaster


The Tainui which was a wooden cargo vessel, was carrying a load of benzine that it was ill equipped to do so.  The inevitable happened, she exploded near Shag Rock on the Canterbury Coast, off Gore Bay in North Canterbury and all but 1 of the 9 crew were drowned on 16th September 1919.

Excerpts from Paperspast well cover the story.

Bay of Plenty Times, Volume XVIII, Issue 7221, 17 September 1919, Page 5
Lifeboat Capsizes when Launched

The Tainui went ashore about four miles North of Gore Bay, the spot being marked by clouds of black smoke. The fire is still raging, although the ship looks a mere skeleton of iron. The only survivor (the cook, William H. Farrand) states that an explosion occurred at 3 a.m., which blew off part of the forward hatch cover. Immediately afterwards an attempt was made to launch the ship's lifeboat, but it was swamped and capsized immediately it reached the water. All the members of the crew were thrown into the water, and with the exception of the cook were drowned. He was saved by hanging on to the lifeboat until it was washed up on the beach about four miles from the scene of the explosion. He was much exhausted when he reached the beach, Farrand added that after the life boat capsized some of the men clung to it, but gradually they dropped off. Captain Cowan was almost into the breakers before he became exhausted and let go.

The Tainui is lying broadside on to the beach. She was devoured all day by the flames, while overhead dense smoke blackened the sky. The explosion must have been terrific, for heavy timber and wreckage, splintered and twisted, were washed ashore.

Five bodies have been washed ashore, and three have been identified as Greenwood, Townsend and Fuller. There were no marks on the bodies to indicate that they had been injured by the explosion. Captain Cowan's body has not yet been recovered.


Colonist, Volume LXII, Issue 15216, 1 November 1919, Page 5

Manawatu Standard, Volume XLIII, Issue 1751, 27 February 1920, Page 5
Three charges under the War Regulations arising out of the disaster to the steamer Tainui near Cheviot last September occupied the Magistrate's Court today. Frederick John Needham, managing the shipping department of the New Zealand Refrigerating Company, which owned the Tainui, and Claude Smellie, shipping clerk in the employ of the same company, were charged with endangering the safety of the ship by loading benzine in leaking receptacles and improperly stowed. Frederick William Partridge, manager of the Vacuum Oil Company at Christchurch, was charged with procuring the said loading.[2]

This brings me to the graves of two of those that perished.

Grave of Sailor Donald MCLEAN

Donald was interred at Rutherford Street Cemetery, Christchurch on Friday 19th September 1919. [4]
He appears in newspaper articles as Daniel and the cemetery database has him noted albeit in brackets as David beside the name Donald.  NZ Department of Internal Affairs historic Birth, Death and Marriage indexes note him as Donald - death registration 1919/8578.

 Grave of Sailor Charles Williams D.S.M

 Charles who, in his 38 short years, had not only won a Distinguished Service Medal in WW1 "for conspicuous bravery during the engagement off Dover between H.M.S. Broke and H.M.S. Swift and six German warships" but he had also been to Antarctica twice, once with Captain Scott and another time with Captain EVANS of whom he had also served under in WW1.

He also held both the "Antarctic Medal and that of the Geographical Society."   A fuller account of his deeds below.

Charles is buried in Bromley Cemetery, Christchurch
Block 35 Plot 33.[5]   His plaque has gone but partial headstone plinth show Royal Navy and Distinguished Service Medal abbreviation with guns [see photo above].

His parents are buried with him and there is a memorial to his brother Corporal Andrew Frank Sylvester WILLIAMS who died of influenza and pneumonia on 15 November 1918 aged 21 at Trentham Military Camp.

Press, Volume LV, Issue 16705, 13 December 1919, Page 8
A particularly well known member of the crew of the Tainui [7] who lost his life was Seaman Charles Williams, D.S.M., son of Captain H. Williams, of Tuam street, Christchurch. His career was marked by dauntless courage, and the 38 years of his life were crowded with adventure.

Williams entered the merchant service on a schooner engaged in the New Zealand trade in 1897, when 16 years of age. Shortly after leaving school at Lyttelton he received his first naval training, as a member of the New Zealand Naval Reserve, and later served on H.M.S. Tauranga. It was on board this boat he first revealed his reckless courage in succouring (sic) the crew during a terrific gale. In 1909 Williams received his discharge from the Navy, and a year later he went to Antarctica in the Terra  Nova. In a terrific storm the pumps of the little ship became choked, and Williams went down between the boilers in the blistering heat and relieved the obstruction. His action was the means of saving the ship from foundering. He had been twice to Antarctica, first with Captain Scott, and afterwards with the relief expedition under Commander Evans.
He possessed the Antarctic Medal and that of the Geographical Society.

At the outbreak of the war he volunteered for service with the North Sea Fleet as a stoker. Williams was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for conspicuous bravery during the engagement off Dover between H.M.S. Broke and H.M.S. Swift and six German warships. Stoker Williams was serving under Commander Evans on the Broke. Feeling secure in their superiority of numbers the Germans essayed to sink their opponents. The two British boats were surrounded and put up a magnificent fight. Stoker Williams was asleep in his hammock when the fight began. He went on deck and devoted his attention to carrying the wounded to safety below deck, a work which was attended by extreme danger, when the German sailors boarded the Broke and hand-to-hand fighting ensued. Commander Evans recommended Stoker Williams for the D.S.M. for his bravery.

Previously Williams was on H.M.S. Viking, which struck a mine in the North Sea, and later he was on H.M.S. Conquest. He took part in the Zeebrugge fight, and was one of the volunteers from the Broke who landed on the mole there. [6]

Press, Volume LV, Issue 16633, 20 September 1919, Page 2
A sad feature in connexion (sic) with the death of Charles Williams, one of the victims of the Tainui disaster, was that he intended shortly to return to England to bring back his Fiancée to New Zealand as his bride.[7]

Wairarapa Daily Times, Volume 45, Issue 13938, 23 September 1919, Page 4
There is a superstitious saying among those who go down to the sea in ships, "Never hang the picture of a shipwreck near the photo of a sailor" In connection with the death of the late Charles Williams, of Christchurch, one of the victims of the Tainui disaster, a Christchurch reporter was told of a remarkable coincidence. In the drawing room of the home of the deceased's parents is an enlarged framed photograph of the deceased, and immediately beneath is a photograph of a ship on fire off a hilly shore.  The most remarkable, thing about the coincidence, which was not noted until Friday, is that the vessel in the picture exactly tallies in appearance with the Tainui, and the coastline, which is only two or three miles away, is an excellent representation of the country off which the Tainui met her end.[8]

Press, Volume LV, Issue 16705, 13 December 1919, Page 8
At the Lyttelton District High School yesterday afternoon, a portrait of the late Seaman Charles Williams, who lost his life in the Tainui disaster, was unveiled. Among those present were the Deputy-Mayor (Mr J. T. Norton, and Councillors, Mr W. G, Carson (chairman), and the members of the school committee, and Captain J. H. Williams and Mrs Williams, parents of Seaman Williams.

Before unveiling the portrait, Captain J A H Marciel said that he felt it a great honour to unveil the portrait of one of the bravest of the brave. He supposed he had been asked because he had been a superintendent of the Mercantile Marine for the last 23 years, and because he was a seaman, too. He had known Captain Williams, the father of the late Seaman Williams, for many years, and he could say that Captain Williams bore the white flower of a blameless life. To the mother he tendered his heartfelt sympathy, but he was sure that pride in her son would temper her great sorrow. 

Charles Williams had some years before been a pupil of the school. He was a good scholar and son and loved his father and  mother. When he left school the old sea-blood called him, and be became a sailor in the Mercantile Marine.  Later he served in the Royal Navy. Then the spirit of adventure called him, and he joined that band of gallant adventurers who went down into the Antarctic to see what God had stowed away there amid the ice and snow. He went a second time, when disaster overtook the leader, Captain Scott, and it was significant that his commander, Captain Evans, always picked him out first. He was preparing to go again with Captain Evans when war broke out, and that officer sent him a message, '"Never mind the South Pole, I want you here," and he went; along  with a lot of other brave men, who were prepared to give all for freedom. ln the Broke’s memorable light he had saved his commander's life, when a shell was coming, by pushing him off the bridge. That brave action earned for him the Distinguished Service Medal, that medal which he (the speaker) now held before them. Although costing only a few shillings to make, all the gold in the world could not buy the D.S.M., it had to be earned. 

When Seaman Williams came back a few months ago, he had visited the speaker to have a yarn, and all he talked about was his commander Captain Evans, whom  he was devoted to, and about his father and mother.  When questioned about his own exploits, he said, he hoped that he had done his duty pretty well, and then grew red in the face, as a truly brave man would do.

Addressing the children, Captain Marciel said he hoped that when they saw the portrait of Seaman Williams in the schoolroom, they would also try to do their duty. To do one's duty was all that could be expected of any man. No one would do any good if he adopted the ”go slow” policy; but whatsoever they found to do, they should do it with all their might.

Captain Marciel then unveiled the portrait, present standing with bared heads.

 The portrait, which is in oils, by Mr [illegible] Williamson, shows the late Seaman Williams in naval uniform, wearing the D.S.M. and the Antarctic Medal. It was presented to the school by fellow seamen and some residents of Lyttelton.

Mr W. G. Carson accepted the portrait from Captain Marciel on behalf of the School Committee, and expressed a hope that it would Be the forerunner of many portraits of old scholars." [9]

As a footnote to this, I emailed Lyttelton Main School on 22 January 2014 inquiring about the painting above - I've not received a reply and in May 2014 Lyttelton Main and Lyttelton West schools amalgamated to become Lyttelton Primary School due to the effect of the earthquakes.  I wonder where that painting is now.

Later, in February 1920, there was notice in the paper regarding correspondence received by Charles's father from Commander EVANS.

A letter has just been received by Captain H. W. Williams, of Tuam Street, Christchurch, from Commander E. R. G. R. Evans, C.B., D.S.0., R.N., offering his condolences on the death of Captain Williams's  son, Seaman Charles Williams, D.S.M., who lost his life on the ill-fated Tainui, off Gore Bay, near Cheviot, on September 16.
Writing from London, Commander Evans says: —"It is with the greatest sorrow that I learn of the death of your son, Charles. I had grown to look upon him as a friend and a man to be implicitly relied upon. In those long gales and buffetings which we encountered in that dreary stretch of ocean between New Zealand and the Antarctic Continent, your son was always to the fore - a tower of strength and a lion in courage. As you know, he served in the Viking, Crusader,  Broke and Active under my command. We were in many a bombardment and destroyer action together, and of no man I know can it, be better said that he was a steel-true, modest, gallant British sailor….My heart goes out to you in your great sorrow. The list of those gallant Terra Novas is dwindling fast, for we lost many in the War. The nation can ill afford to lose such men at such an age."[10]

Seafarers Trust mentions the men and some more information

Ship's Cook - William Henry FARRAND - only survivor
Farrand - sole survivor of the s.s. Tainui disaster - taken directly after rescue [31]

 Farrand's version of what happened in detail

In 1923 a writ was issued at the instance of W. H. Farrand, sole survivor of the disaster to the Tainui in September, 1919, claiming £786 damages from the New Zealand Refrigerating Company, Limited, owners of the vessel. [14]

on 15 September 1934 he was noted as living at 71 Cambridge Terrace, Wellington when he recounted his story for the Evening Post.

A quick search i can find no mention of his death either online nor in the NZ Department Internal Affairs historic BDM indexes.  There is also no probate evident.

A search in NZ Archives portal 'Archway' locates Farrand's WW1 military file.   Attestated WW1, 12 November 1917 with service number 79261.  He was born 24 May 1880, Manchester, England.  His last employer was Wanganui Steam Ship Company.  He married Polly NAPOLEON at Wanganui on 4 May 1916 and at time of enlisting had 2 children - Harry born 24 February 1916  and Frank born 24 June 1917.  His wife was next of kin and residing at 14 Little Nixon Street, Wanganui.
He was 5ft 8.5 inches; auburn hair; brown eyes and fair complexion.  He was of good character.
He had previously served in the Duke of Lancaster Yeomanry

Miscellaneous information relating to the others who died

Captain James Cairns COWAN
In February 1900 he is noted as being a seaman aged volunteer in the Otago and Southland Regiment for the South African war and in camp.[18]

James was married to Zenobia [15] Evelyn/Eveline FERGUSON c1903.  She died 15 June 1943 aged 65 and was cremated at Karori Cemetery & crematoria. [16]  Her husband James is noted on her plot as being lost at sea.[17]

In 1912 he was connected with the stranding of the steamer s.s. Himitangi at the Chathams on 11th February but was absolved from any blame[19]

Engineer Ephraim GREENWOOD
Evening Post, Volume XCVIII, Issue 68, 18 September 1919, Page 1
GREENWOOD.—On the 16th September, 1919, Ephraim Greenwood, engineer s.s. Tainui, and late of Telford-terrace, Oriental Bay, drowned at sea off Gore Bay, near Cheviot.[3]

Ephraim aged 67 was buried on 20 September 1919 in Karori Cemetery, Wellington.  
Section: CH ENG Plot: 151 [11]

His son Reg placed a memorial notice for him in The Press, 1920

FIreman William TOWNSEND
William aged 49 had a joint funeral service with Ephraim and is also buried at Karori Cemetery, Wellington 
Section: CH ENG2 Plot: 342 E


Seaman John Henry Leslie HOWARD
His body was washed ashore at Cheviot, North Canterbury c16 February 1920.[20]  It was much decomposed and unidentifiable and to be conveyed by pack horse to Cheviot township for identification.[21]  He was buried at Lyttelton Anglican cemetery on 19 February 1920 with many seamen in port attending the funeral.[23]

He had only signed on to the vessel on 8th September replacing F BILLINGTON [22]

Fireman Alexander FULLER
"Fuller, one of the fireman, in addition, to his life belt, had a small water cask to support him while swimming, but he was unable to last it out."[27]

All newspaper items note him as FULLER, however the Christchurch City Council online cemetery database names him as FULLEN, probably in error.[25] 

"One of the victims of the Tainui disaster is a son of Mrs. W. J. Fuller, of Westport. The deceased was a native of Victoria, 44 years of age, married, with wife, and family of five children living in Wanganui. He was a fireman on the Tainui. He had been all through the Anchor fleet.
 Owing to the illness of the mother, deceased visited Westport about three weeks."[24]

 He is buried in Bromley Cemetery, Christchurch - Block 27 Plot 25.

Mate WIlliam  Hardie STEVENS

Otago Daily Times , Issue 17756, 15 October 1919, Page 10

Wanganui Chronicle, Volume LXXIV, Issue 17686, 11 October 1919, Page 4


Information sourced from forum
"b. abt 1862 England. Son of William Alfred Stevens (Police Constable) & Rosina Hardie. William H. married his first wife Christina Curry, they had 3 children, 2 sons,1 daughter. One son named William John Christopher d. 1949, Otahuhu, Auckland, New Zealand. Christina Curry d. 02/06/1911.
William H. emigarated (sic) to New Zealand.
Married Eleanor Rose Ada Weir, 04/04/1913, Wanganui, New Zealand. They had 2 children:
Harold Hardie Stevens b. 19/02/1914, & Muriel Ada Peace Stevens b. 12/11/1918.
William H. d. 16/09/1919 by drowning when his ship the S.S. Tainui exploded of the North Canterbury Coast, New Zealand.
William H. was a Master Mariner, and a member of the Masonic Lodge."[29]


NZ Department Internal Affairs historic BDM index: Marriage registration 1903/3120.  However they have her name incorrectly spelt her forename as Zamabia.  Her birth entry is also spelt incorrectly as Genobia.  Birth registration 1884/19620, daughter of Ella Jane and George Ferguson.
His name does not appear on the cemetery online database

©2015 Sarndra Lees


  1. Thank you for this really interesting article. It meant I may have been able to solve the truth about a family story that was intriguing us.
    S Mees UK family tree enthusiast

    1. Hi there!
      That's fabulous! Glad I could help out...unknowingly ... in any way *grin*.

  2. Thank you for this really interesting and informative article. I believe it has helped me solve a family story passed down through my husband's family.

    1. This is excellent news thank you :) Love smashing those walls for people!

      Have a wonderful festive season


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