Topic: M.V. Taranaki visits New Plymouth

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The MV Taranaki was built in 1927 by the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company in Glasgow. It was one of four new motor-vessels in the fleet of the Shaw Savill & Albion Line, a British company operating routes between the United Kingdom and Australasia. The other three were the Zealandic, the Coptic and the Karamea. Costing around £750,000 [over NZ$7 million in 2018], the Taranaki had over 11,300 cubic metres of insulated space for refrigerated produce and cargo, accommodation for eight passengers and a service speed of 15 knots. She was described in the press at the time as being “luxurious as a liner”.

The Taranaki first called in to New Plymouth on 25 July 1928 during her maiden voyage, and on a second visit in December of that year was presented with a specially inscribed bell by the people of the region. A large crowd, including three mayors and the Taranaki Regimental Band, gathered on board for the festivities – the ship went on to carry over a million crates of cheese from Port Taranaki.

Taranaki experienced many adventures before visiting New Plymouth again. The ship was anchored just offshore in Napier when the 1931 earthquake struck and her crew were among the first to offer help to the devastated town, rescuing injured residents, setting up an emergency hospital and eventually transporting the first group of Napier ‘refugees’ up to Auckland. Two years later the Taranaki collided with and sank a steamer called the Lairdsmoor, luckily managing to rescue all passengers and crew before it went down. There was another dramatic collision with the Waipiata at the entrance to Wellington Harbour on the evening of 5 May 1950. The two vessels limped into Clyde Quay Wharf with the Waipiata impaled on the bow of the Taranaki, looking as one crew member put it “like a large letter T”.

MV Taranaki.

In 1952 enquiries were made about the ship’s bell, which was believed to have been lost. But it was discovered that it had merely been painted to stop it flashing dangerously in the sunlight during the Second World War (when the Taranaki had remained on commercial service, emerging from the conflict unscathed). The layers of paint were duly removed and its inscription – the word ‘Taranaki’ – revealed once more.

Taranaki next arrived in New Plymouth from Wellington at noon on Tuesday 10 May 1955. A British junior engineer on the ship at the time later recalled a number of locals coming on board while they were in port, possibly to view the bell, a testament to Taranaki’s pride in the ship that bore its name. The same junior engineer also remembered leaving the ship to stretch his legs one day and going for a walk towards Mount Taranaki. He was bemused to see the ‘Six O’Clock Swill’ in action in Auckland (which seemed “very clean; at home we still had the coal pits where I lived”) where the Taranaki stopped for more cargo on the same voyage: “When it was 5pm the chairs and tables were pushed against the walls to allow for more customers who finished work at 5… [because] the bar closed at 6pm.  A lot of the men picked up a carry-out to take home. The barman mentioned to us that after 6 we could come back through a door at the back. When we went back quite a few men, including a policeman, were there [drinking].” Taranaki left New Plymouth on Tuesday 17 May 1955 for Greece, which the junior engineer remembered as being a long voyage:

“When we left New Zealand we went across the Indian Ocean… entered the Red Sea, made our way through the Suez Canal and went to Piraeus in Greece.  There we discharged some of the cargo and then proceeded to Italy.  Afterwards we sailed to London. The trip took a long time because the engines were restricted to about 10 knots in good weather. They had recently been overhauled and converted from blast injection (which caused a mist in the cylinders) to ‘solid’ injection (as is more common in diesel engines). The whole voyage took approximately six months and was the only voyage I made with that company.”

By the time she was scrapped in 1963 this pioneering motor-vessel had travelled more than three million kilometres, passed through the Suez Canal 22 times and the Panama Canal 74 times. The parent of a child attending Spotswood Primary School, Mrs Betty Baldock, read of its impending destruction and wrote to Shaw, Savill & Albion asking if the school could have the inscribed bell that was gifted to the ship back in 1928. Her father, Ernest Harrison, had been a deckhand on a Shaw Savill ship called Waiwera as a boy and this fact, along with the connection with the inscription, persuaded the company to give the bell to a school in Taranaki instead of Napier, which had also applied for it (but had to be satisfied with a replica). The bell, approximately 38 centimetres high, was presented to Spotswood Primary in December of 1963 and later mounted in the school grounds. The official unveiling took place on 21 October 1965, the 160th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. Unfortunately, this historic bell was stolen in 2001 and never returned, despite the offer of a $200 reward.

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