Monday, September 26, 2011

Port Bowen: the wreck worth her weight in gold

The ship Port Bowen aground, Wanganui, 22 July 1939. Shows the tugs  Terawhiti (far right), and Kahanui (foreground). Unidentified lighters  are taking off the cargo. The two other boats are  unidentified. Evening  Post (newspaper) photograph. Photographer unidentified. Reference 1/4-048929-G, Alexander Turnbull Library

My friend Tony Goodwin happened to mention to me last week that a wreck called the Port Bowen in 1939 had been salvaged, with parts of her re-used during World War II for munitions and armoured vehicles. Intrigued, I took a look.

On 15 July 1939, the steel twin-screw steamer Port Bowen, built in Belfast in 1916 and operated by the Commonwealth and Dominion Line Ltd (Port Line from 1937),  became stranded just off Castlecliffe near Wanganui. The master was later blamed for the stranding in the inquiry, but didn't lose his certificate, the error of judgement felt to be from lack of local knowledge rather than a culpable act. All attempts to tow the vessel off failed, and she was abandoned as a total loss. The area near Castlecliffe had a bit of a creputation already, before the Port Bowen incident. Another ship, the Cyrena had stranded near the same spot in May 1925 -- also a total loss.

In the Cyrena's case, though, she was broken up by the sea and the winds. The Port Bowen had a different fate.

The tugs Terawhiti (at stern of liner), Tola, and Kahanui (right) trying to pull the Port Bowen off the beach at Wanganui at high tide yesterday afternoon. Alongside the stranded liner are the lighters being used to transfer her cargo to the shore.

Somewhere between 40,000 to 50,000 frozen meat carcases were successfully unloaded from her hold, apparently undamaged, and ready to be conveyed to storage ashore. A valuable consignment of wool salvaged from her, however, was reloaded onto another ship, the Doric Star -- which sank on 2 December 1939, after being struck by gunfire from the Admiral Graf Spee. 

While the Port Bowen was adrift close to the shore, she became a local tourist attraction, providing a mini-boom for Wanganui's economy as visitors travelled up from Wellington to gaze at the sight.

The stranded Port Bowen after breaking her anchorage and drifting nearer the shore. Evening Post 26 July 1939.

The NZ Government began salvaginge of the wreck itself from 1940, the work undertaken by William Cable & Co of Wellington.
 Interest in the Port Bowen wreck at the Castlecliff beach at Wanganui has been revived now that the vessel is to be broken up for scrap metal which will be used for war purposes. William Cable and Co., Ltd., of Wellington, are undertaking the job, preparations for which have already begun. The Public Works Department is to build a gangway to facilitate the passage of workmen to and from the vessel at any tide. A jetty for the use of the motor-lorries and a landing stage will also be built by the Department. Already a certain amount of material has been deposited on the beach preparatory to this work being put in hand.
Evening Post 3 July 1940

Consider the stranding of the overseas steamer Port Bowen at Wanganui. The abandoned ship was given to the Government for munition and other war purposes. It represents a windfall for the State. The wreck today is a scene of great activity. Great quantities of timber, steel, nonferrous metals, refrigerating gear, winches, and ship's equipment are being recovered. Nearly all these commodities are in short supply, and they constitute an invaluable acquisition to the country's stock of raw materials. The cool storage plant is of the first importance, and Mr. Sullivan, with the aid of his co-opted members, is arranging for the refrigeration plant to be taken from the ship and installed in suitable premises. Apart from fulfilling a serious need in the matter of refrigeration space, it has saved the Government many thousands of pounds in the provision of new machinery which would have to be imported from overseas. Many of the ship's instruments and much of its gear have been assigned to the Navy Department, timber has been taken over by the Public Works Department, and the great quantities of copper pipe, tubing, and such materials will be used in the making of munitions.

 Evening Post 10 August 1940

Above images: Evening Post 21 September 1940

Some of her refrigerating equipment went to the then-new military camp at Waiouru. Her steel went toward the making of the New Zealand version of the Beaverette armoured car.

Auckland Weekly News, 24 June 1942, ref AWNS-19420624-20-1, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

A policeman guarding the wreck during the salvage operations, Neils Godley French Berntsen was drowned in February 1941.

The body of a police constable guarding the wreck of the Port Bowen on the' beach at Castlecliff was found at high-water mark this morning. The deceased, Constable N. L. Berntsen, was 25 years of age, married, with two children. Apparently he had been fishing off the vessel and at high water on Saturday night his line had fouled. He had decided to go out at low water at 2 o'clock this morning. Evidently he got into difficulties. He was a permanent policeman doing duty at the wreck, taking over his watch when the men dismantling the vessel ceased work each day.

Evening Post 10 February 1941

Steel from the Port Bowen went into the making of huge 80 ton shields built at Temuka used in driving tunnels during the construction of the Tekapo hydro-electric development.

The block-making plant was under construction, and all materials had been received and a start was being made on the construction of the shields at Temuka. The shields, each of which would weigh eighty tons, would be made from steel salvaged from the Port Bowen, which grounded near Wanganui. Describing the part to be played by the shields, Mr. Beck explained that each shield would be pushed forward by hydraulic pressure like a biscuit cutter and the tunnel lining would be erected inside the shields. It was a novel method for New Zealand.
Evening Post 22 February 1941

Three thousand tons of first-class material—steel, iron, and machinery -- was salvaged from the Port Bowen which was stranded at Castlecliff, near Wanganui, said Mr. C. A. Barrell (Government, Hamilton) when he was speaking in the Financial debate yesterday. This material had been distributed in many directions and had helped to repair ships and to construct others.

Mr. Barrell said that amongst the salvaged machinery were 22 winches, which had been taken over by the Navy for the equipment of minesweepers, and other plant had also been transferred to the Navy, including many thousands of feet of copper piping. Much of the material, including the winches, was unprocurable in New Zealand and was worth some thousands of pounds. Much of the steel was in first-class condition.

Hundreds of tons of the material had been used in repairing ships that had come to New Zealand in a damaged condition, and hundreds of tons of plates and other material were still in stock.
 Evening Post 31 July 1941

The 8267-ton steamer Port Bowen, which went ashore at Castlecliff Beach, Wanganui, over three years ago, has been gradually taken to pieces and now presents a dilapidated appearance, states a Wanganui correspondent. Dismantling work is still being carried, out. So far plating and ribbing has been removed to the level of the lowest of the three original decks. The main work at present is in the bow area, which is firmly embedded in the sand. This part of the steamer has been used as an anchor for the larger half when it broke away 18 months ago. There are only a few men employed now, but when dismantling operations began over 100 men were engaged. The only machines left in the Port Bowen are small pumps used to keep water put of the main hold, but so far it has not been possible to remove the propeller shafts from their tubes. They may have to be cut out on account of being bent. The last machinery taken out of the steamer is now being reconditioned, having been under water for almost three years. 

Machinery from the Port Bowen has been put to many uses. Some has gone to freezing works, some to meat dehydration work, some to hospitals, and some to mine-sweepers. One generator was large enough to supply the full electric power needs of the Wanganui Public Hospital. If it had not been for the war it is doubtful whether any steps would have been taken to recover the material in the vessel on account of the expense involved. Because of the shortage of material and the fact that many fittings removed are almost unprocurable elsewhere, the vessel has become almost "worth her weight in gold." 
 Evening Post 5 January 1943

Shed 33 fire, King's Wharf, Wellington. Evening Post 22 February 1943

When a shed at King's Wharf in Wellington was gutted in February 1943, timbers for beams from the Port Bowen were used to rebuild it. This is where the newspaper reports appear to end for the tale of the recycled Port Bowen.


  1. Great research, Lisa, and what a great manner of recycling/reusing to make one ship go to so many uses!

  2. Great Post!!!!! Amazing how a vessel ended up in so many things.

  3. This was the first ship my grandfather served on as a seaman in 1928. His brother was already a serving seaman on the Port Bowen at the time. My grandfather died in 1997 aged 89 and I am now looking at his sea book at the ships he served on.


  4. Thanks, John. I aslways appreciate hearing from those with a connection to things I write about, such as this.
    Cheers, Lisa.

  5. johnnymacenator@gmail.comAugust 4, 2012 at 4:46 AM

    my father was a crew member when she went ashore and while the crew waited for another ship to take them home ,my father started coaching the young boys in wanganui all about football .he was offered a full time job there as a football coach but he turned it down (dont know why)and it was 6 months before the crew were repatriated to britain

    1. how interesting,I recall my mother saying she dated one of the crew. She grew up in Castlecliff & she & her siblings used to swim out to the wreck and back.

  6. I have a photo taken in july 1976 if anyones interested

    1. would love to see 1976 photo of port bowen

    2. Would have been good if the anonymous commenter had put in a name and contact details ...

  7. Most interesting and fascinating comments about the Port Bowen. I was 4 years old when it went aground and we used to go out every weekend to watch the progress made during the stripping down process. There was a small house built from the salvaged timbers erected it a paddock near where we lived in Putiki

  8. Great story as I remember seeing what was left of the wreck buried in the sand at extreme low tide when I was a young boy growing up at Castlecliff back in the 1960’s. Thank you fir this interesting article.

  9. Does anybody know where exactly this ship went aground? As commented before here, my mother used to swim out to it with her siblings, and seeing the images it is not that far from shore. I always wondered how safe that was to swim to. Although they were good strong swimmers. I also would like to know the approx location as I have hers & my father's ashes to take there as was their wish & I figure near that location would be a good place.

    1. Check out 1/4-048894-G at the National Library site. That will show you where the ship ran aground in relation to the city.

  10. I have a Scrap book come photo album of Port Bowen press paper details

    Contact Tel 01473 726300

  11. My Grandmothers younger brother was the young policeman who drowned. She never got over his death. They were a year apart. She died in 2001.

  12. I believe the Ships Bell from the Port Bowen was used at St George's School. I can recall it hanging just outside one of the doorways and was rung to signal the start/end of lessons etc.