By Ian Farquhar  (2005)

The decision to form a New Zealand association of shipmasters, both ashore and afloat, was taken at a dinner in Dunedin on Saturday, 9 June 1928, when 28 master mariners had a convivial time, interspersed with songs and nautical items and proposed several toasts. The first of these was to “The Prince of Wales” who had only recently been given the title of Master of the Merchant Navy and the Fishing Fleet. The other toasts covered “Our Guests”, “Absent Friends” and a toast to “The Merchant Service” proposed by Captain Leonard Vipan RNR, who referred to his early experiences when visiting various ports and to the fine spirit of comradeship which prevailed amongst the masters and officers of the merchant service.

The toast was replied to by Captain Coll McDonald. He said “it gave him great pleasure to be present at a function, the outcome of which, he hoped, would be the founding of an organisation which would be a credit to the masters ashore and afloat. The function had been promoted to celebrate the birth of a most important event, which would continue as a lasting benefit to the seafarer of the mercantile marine. It was hoped that before they parted that night they would place on a sound footing a long felt want of a technical association of some sort which would show the intelligent and well informed seafarer should have a voice in technical matters that might surround his profession, as well as navigating ships over the seas”.

Coll McDonald was firmly in support of the new Company and he was the guest speaker at the inaugural dinner. A self-made man he went to sea on sailing ships in 1882 and joined the Union Steam Ship Company as a quarter-master in 1885. He moved through the ranks becoming master within 12 years and until he was appointed Asst. Marine Superintendent for the Company in 1907, his obituary records he was master of 24 Union Company ships. He became Chief Marine Superintendent of the Union Company in 1914 and retired from this role in 1923 and the company in 1924. Even after he retired he continued to accept new appointments, serving as a member of the Otago Harbour Board  from 1925 until 1933, and was Chairman of the Board 1930 to 1931. He died in Auckland in 1944 at the age of 80.

Captain Robert Fraser, the Superintendent of Mercantile Marine in Dunedin, followed and he said the object of the gathering was to form an association which would prove beneficial to shipmasters. Such an organisation would bring the masters together so that they could discuss matters concerning their profession to their mutual advantage and also for social intercourse. Captains Evans and McLean also spoke in support of the proposal and on the motion of Captain McLean, the Harbour Master at Otago, it was unanimously decided to form a shipmasters association, the title of which would be decided at a later date. In the interim it was decided to invite Sir Charles Statham, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and a Dunedin resident, to become President. Captain Coll McDonald was elected Vice-President and Captain John McLean became the first Secretary. The interim committee comprised Captain Robert Fraser as Chairman and Captains’ Norman Beaumont, W.J. King, and F.J. Duncan.

John McLean and Robert Fraser were the two enthusiasts who had promoted the formation of the organisation and had done much of the preparatory work in making the arrangements for the dinner and ensuring that as many master mariners as were able attended it. Two events had provided the stimulus to bring the master mariners together. The first was the occasion in 1925 when the American fleet visited Dunedin and Captain McLean, as Harbour Master had to find additional pilots to bring all the vessels into port in an orderly and prompt fashion. The fleet comprised the repair and “mother” ship Melville, twelve destroyers and two mine-layers. It sailed from Melbourne on 5 August 1925 and arrived off the Otago Heads early on the morning of 10 August. All the fleet was berthed at Dunedin between 9.00 am and 12.20 pm. The ships were piloted, in the order shown up the 14 mile channel to Dunedin by the following :-
Melville  Capt. J. McLean  Harbour Master
Decatur  Capt. G. Thomson  Former Harbour Master
Kennedy  Capt. F.J. Duncan  Chief Pilot, Otago Harbour Board
Thompson  Capt. F.G. McDonald  Second Pilot, Otago Harbour Board
Farquhar  Capt. J.E. Page  Master of the tug Dunedin
Stoddart  Capt. W.J. King  Wharf Supt., Union Steam Ship Co.
Paul Hamilton  Capt. T.H. Bowling  Union Steam Ship Company
Ludlow  Capt.  F. Hardy  Marine Dept.
Burns   Capt. R. Fraser  Supt. of Mercantile Marine
McDermut  Capt. H. Watson  Master S.S. Waimarino
Sinclair  Capt. R. Scollay   Master Otago Harbour Board dredge 
Moody   Capt. S. Holm   Master S.S. Holmdale
Percival  Capt. Knowles   Master S.S. Ngakuta
Somers   Capt. G.P. Evans  Marine Dept.
J. F. Burnes  Capt. E.F. Watson  Deputy Harbour Master

When the fleet sailed again on 20 August the vessels departed in reverse order employing much the same personnel as pilots. Those that had different voluntary pilots were:-

J.F. Burnes  Capt. R. Manson  Master S.S. Storm
Percival  Capt. J. Eades   Peninsula Ferry Company
Moody   Capt. A.S. Dalgliesh  Union Steam Ship Co.
McDermut  Capt. H.J. Treurn  John Mill & Co Ltd                                                                                                                                                                                                      

The whole operation was an outstanding success and at a special Harbour Board meeting to review the visit of the fleet it was reported that through the Harbour Master each ship had the services of a pilot with an intimate knowledge of the harbour and the thanks of the Board were specially due to those gentlemen, outside the Board’s employ, who so kindly volunteered their services. A letter of appreciation was to be sent to each of the volunteer pilots recruited by Captain McLean. There is little doubt that Captains McLean and Fraser noticed the camaraderie and confident professionalism of the masters involved and it sowed a seed in their minds which came to fruition a few years later.

John McLean, who was born in Rosshire, Scotland in 1882, had gone to sea on sailing ships in 1897 and spent nine years on vessels trading between the United Kingdom and Australia, New Zealand and the Americas before joining the Union Steam Ship Company in 1907. He rose through the ranks to become a master in the company and resigned in 1922 to take up the position as Harbour Master with the Otago Harbour Board. He retained the role for 18 years until his sudden death on 29 October 1940. Robert Fraser was born in Wellington in 1867 and went to sea on New Zealand Shipping Company sailing ships in 1882. His service with the Shipping Company was interrupted  in 1894 when he took a position as Second Officer with the West Indian and Panama Telegraph Company. He subsequently rejoined the Shipping Company and rose to command the sailing ship Waikato and then was Chief Officer on the Company’s steamers Waikato and Kaikoura. In 1901 he went to Scotland for the New Zealand Government to supervise the construction, and deliver to New Zealand, the Government defence steamers Janie Seddon and Lady Roberts.  He then transferred to the Marine Department as Surveyor of Ships for New Zealand, based in Dunedin. He later became Superintendent of Mercantile Marine until he retired in 1931. He was active in the Royal Naval Reserve, becoming a Lieutenant in 1902, and a Lieut. Commander in 1915. During the First World War he sailed from Wellington with the Expeditionary Force as Naval Transport Officer in No 2 Transport (Moeraki) to Samoa. The Government then appointed him a surveyor of transports and in 1919 he became the supervising officer for the British Admiralty and the New Zealand Defence Department for the re-conditioning of transports. He was highly respected. He retired in 1931 and died in Christchurch in 1952. The other members of the Committee, Captains Beaumont, Duncan, and King all had long service with the Union Steam Ship Company.

The second circumstance that influenced the setting up of a Company of Master Mariners was the move to do the same in the United Kingdom. Promoted from a suggestion by Sir Robert Burton-Chadwick, the son of a Liverpool ship-owner, at the Annual Shipmasters dinner in Liverpool on 2 March 1921, a further meeting in July 1923 recommended the establishment of an “Institute” or a “Company” of Master Mariners, the objects of which should be mainly scientific, technical and educational. The Company of Master Mariners was formally registered in London on 25 June 1926 (It was later Incorporated by Royal Charter on 18 August 1930 and became a Livery Company 8 March 1932) and the newly elected Court held its first meeting on 9 September 1926.  Sir Robert Burton-Chadwick subsequently presented the Company its Armorial Bearings in April 1927. Sir Robert also wrote to King George V, who gave strong support and in February 1927, the Prince of Wales was designated “Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets. He also became the first Master of the Company from 1928-1932. On 1 June 1928 the Company of Master Mariners in the United Kingdom was authorised to use the prefix “Honourable”. There is little doubt that John McLean and Robert Fraser would have been aware of the developments in London and may well have approached the Company of Master Mariners there for advice and guidance on the setting up a New Zealand Company.

On 11 August 1928 it was announced that the Company of Master Mariners had been formed and the Governor General, Sir Charles Fergusson, had kindly agreed to be Patron while Sir Francis Dillon Bell (Chairman of the Legislative Council) would be Vice Patron. The members of the interim committee were re-affirmed and Sir Charles Statham was happy to serve as President.

A set of Rules was drawn up and the Objects were set out as follows:-

(a) To watch over and safeguard the interests of shipmasters in all technical matters pertaining to their profession.

(b) To afford advice, assistance, and aid to Master Mariners visiting New Zealand from overseas.

(c) To take such action as may be deemed expedient to give expression to the reasoned views and opinions of practical men on vital matters connected with the sea.

(d) To meet not less than once annually for social intercourse and exchange of views.

(e) To foster and maintain that robust spirit of loyalty to the Crown and person of the Sovereign which has always been an inherent trait of the British Master Mariner.

Every holder of a Master’s Certificate of Competency issued by the Imperial Board of Trade, or any British Dependency, upon payment of ₤1.1.0 could become a member upon application, with the right of any member to demand a ballot, when the casting of two black balls would disqualify the applicant. The Head Office of the Company was specified as Dunedin, and although not in the Rules, it was stated that the official annual dinner should be held at one of the four principal ports in rotation, the other three ports having a dinner, but on a smaller scale.

The badge of the Company showed a square rigged ship under full sail with a kiwi beneath, enclosed in a circle, round the rim of which was the name of the Company and the mottos – DEEDS NOT WORDS on the upper half and FEAR GOD AND HONOUR THE KING on the lower section.

The first Annual Dinner was held in Wellington on 15 July 1929 with the Governor General, Sir Charles Fergusson, as guest of honour. Some thirty members of the Company were present and Captains Fraser, McDonald and McLean came up from Dunedin. In proposing the toast to “The Merchant Navy”, Sir Charles Fergusson said that the motto adopted by one of the Chambers of Shipping in Britain was “The safety of the Realm lies in the mastery of the sea”. He thought that mastery of the sea took two forms. It implied, firstly, that all men might pursue their lawful occasions in the sea without fear. In the other sense mastery was found in knowing all there was to know about the sea and being capable of dealing with it. The master mariners of England had complete mastery of the sea in both senses. Mastery of the sea dated back many centuries – to the days when the Vikings left their stormy seas in the north and struck out westward and settled in England and Normandy. His Excellency said that they had left us their great heritage, the love of the sea and the maritime spirit of Great Britain and much later came the great days of Queen Elizabeth, when the maritime spirit blazed up afresh and English sailors went forth on their adventures in the Mediterranean and farther seas to discover new lands. Those were the days of Drake, Hawkins, Humphrey, Gilbert, John David and of Grenville and many another. There was born the great brotherhood of the sea, when men of all classes were bound by it and by the sternest discipline. They went to sea often without backing, but always ready to fight if need be. Those great days and great seamen had inspired countless generations and would ever inspire British boys. Then the merchant service was the mother of the King’s Navy as it was today the sister of the new Navy.

In the Great War, continued his Excellency, British merchant sailors showed the same spirit and the same mettle as the old Vikings and the Elizabethan adventurers had done. There was no task they did not undertake, and never a case of thinking of not putting to sea. The merchant navy learned many new tricks – to keep station in convoy and to zigzag in formation. Just as the Elizabethan seamen had done, so too the merchant seamen during the war had never refused to fight if necessary. There had been the terrible tragedy of Captain Fryatt, whose only crime was that he had tried to save his ship. (Captain Fryatt was master of a neutral cross Channel ferry and in 1915 he steered his ship Brussel towards a German submarine causing it to hastily dive. A year later he was taken prisoner by the Germans, was court martialled for his 1915 action and shot, an action which caused international condemnation) There was Captain Day of the armed boarding steamer Dundee who had displayed initiative and resource, and shown wonderful courage face to face with an enemy cruiser. There was the wonderful story of Captain Oliver of the Clan MacTavish who, with his one small gun, had fought and badly damaged the heavily-armed cruiser Moewe. It was such heroism that had maintained the traditions of the merchant navy and he concluded with the phrase “All honour to the merchant navy, and to its master mariners and seamen”.

He also said he was honoured to serve as Patron of the Company and valued immensely his association with it. He said he could claim to be an early voyager to these seas in having traveled from England in a sailing ship in 1868 via the Cape of Good Hope and Australia to New Zealand and in 1874 he had returned home via Cape Horn in the ship Halcione. (His father, Sir James Fergusson had been Governor General from 1873-1874). He said he would be returning to Britain in a few months and that they would leave the country with heavy hearts but with the fullest confidence in the master mariner that would take them home.

Sir Charles Statham, said he did not understand why the Company had elected a “landlubber” as its President but he held it as a great honour to occupy the position. He said he was born in Dunedin on 10 May 1875, just when the Union Steam Ship Company was being formed and he had made his first voyage in the little Beautiful Star, the second ship owned by the company. It was a gala occasion and during the evening solos were sung by Mr. Marshall and the members of the Company joined in singing several shanties including “Rio Grande”, “Blow the Man Down” and “Rolling Home”.

The second annual dinner was held in Wellington on 23 August 1930 on a pattern similar to the previous year with thirty-two members of the Company present. Captains’ Norman Beaumont, Robert Fraser, Coll McDonald and John McLean travelled from Dunedin to attend. By this time Lord Bledisloe was the Governor General and in proposing the toast to ‘The Merchant Navy” he said that from the earliest day British mariners had been mainly responsible for the development of their country and the Empire, which had been largely built up by enterprising and courageous seamen. In recent years, as events had shown, no two countries had depended more for their existence and prosperity on the efficiency of the merchant navy man than Britain and New Zealand. That was forcibly demonstrated again and again since the days of Captain Cook, and those of the great pioneer settlers of the ‘forties and ‘fifties of the last century. Britain had long ceased to be self contained in the matter of food supplies, and the war had proved that, but for the skilled and dauntless courage of the men of the merchant navy, her people would have starved.

Speaking from personal experience as a member of the Ministry of Food Control in 1916-1918, and particularly as Sugar Controller, Lord Bledisloe cited facts which he said had caused some of us landlubbers to realise what the merchant navy meant to Britain. Since those days he had acknowledged the enormous dependence on the nation on the skill of the merchant marine, and their calm judgment and self-less courage in the face of emergency. He concluded by citing doughty deeds performed at sea “since the time of Noah, the first master mariner”, and with humorous references to the despotic powers that could be wielded by sea captains and “their extraordinary capacity for the retort courteous to nervous landlubbers”.

One event on 10 July 1930 was the death of Captain Christopher Welch in his 101st year and described as the oldest member of the New Zealand Company of Master Mariners. Captain Welch had gone to sea in 1843 and had a very colourful life all around the world. He first came to New Zealand in 1862 and after a period whaling and in the Australasian trades he settled in Port Chalmers in 1874 and remained there until his death.

In August 1931, Captain S. Holm, chairman of the Wellington section, said the Company decided not to have a dinner but instead contributed ₤50 to the Hawkes Bay Earthquake Fund.

In the years thereafter it seems that there was less publicity on the Company’s affairs and at the annual dinner of the Dunedin branch of the Company in August 1932, the Chairman for the evening, Captain King, said that the movement which had started in Dunedin in 1928 had spread throughout the Dominion until the membership was around 100. The headquarters had remained in Dunedin until 1931 when it was shifted to Wellington, it being considered that the capital city was more central, although he said that decision was not entirely unanimous. The New Zealand Company of Master Mariners Inc. was formally incorporated on 3 July 1933.

The Dunedin branch had a meeting in the early 1930s at which J.T. Paul was the guest speaker. Paul was a prominent trade unionist in Dunedin and served as President of seven unions in the printing, clothing, electrical, retail and clerical unions. He was one of the founding members of the New Zealand Labor Party. He had commenced work as a linotypist and when his attempt to win a sea in Parliament failed in 1919 he joined the editorial staff of the Evening Star and later the Otago Daily Times. He was later Editor of the Otago Witness from 1924 to 1932. His political views are reflected in the speech which is reproduced below:-

Tonight we have gathered together to celebrate one of the oldest professions known to civilization. According to past history it is now 5,300 years since the rulers of Egypt sent ships in charge of Master Mariners from Egypt to Lebanon for timber – a distance as far as from Dunedin to Wellington. Now the experience gained by these Master Mariners was the beginning of the evolution that has taken place in shipping from that time until now.

In my own time I have often been asked why it was that men of the Mercantile Marine who command valuable ships and who have done so much for the spread of civilization  are so much in the background. Well, the reason is not far to seek. In the first place, his occupation is on the high seas, and in consequence he is out of touch with the business community on land and our commercial system that counts so much, for he that has and he that has not, the little that he has must be taken away. Another serious drawback for the best men of the Mercantile Marine is the lack of practical representation in our  Parliament. Of course, the politicians of our time as a general rule have only one marble to play, and this one is kept rolling until it is worn out in their own interests and that of their party, and the rest of the world does not matter.

How many of the people of our Dominion realise the magnitude of the work done by the Merchant Navy for this outpost of our Empire? Living as we are on what may be called Island territory and depending on overseas markets, the value of our imports and exports is well over ₤100,000,000 per year, and it would appear that we require about 4,500,000 tons of shipping per years to carry our needs to and fro over the sea. We have also a large fleet of coasting vessels carrying our requirements from port to port. Besides this, we have the fishing fleet at each port, and harbours are necessary to accommodate all. Now, as far as I know you have no one in Parliament that knows much (if any) at all about the practical working of this great and valuable branch of the Dominion’s operations called the Mercantile Marine.

In fact, I myself have formed the opinion that you have no one in either the Upper or Lower House that knows (as Harry Lauder said) the blunt end of a ship from the sharp end. You can therefore see that the Mercantile Marine has no representation in either the Upper or Lower Houses, while other branches of the Dominion’s operations are more than overstocked in both Houses.

Sir Edward Carson, who was a First Lord of the Admiralty, said the debt our Empire owed to the seafaring men of the Mercantile Marine could not be paid in words, but in deeds.

Again, J.A. Spender, an eminent war correspondent, while writing on the mess that was made of Europe by the last war, said that courage and endurance of the seafaring community of the Royal Navy and Mercantile Marine, who made up their minds to feed the people of England and all the men that the politicians gathered to the trenches.

During my time I have been in connections with three wars, and the experience that I have gained, leads me to form the opinion that the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy live too far apart. In fact, before the last war there were as a whole as far apart as the two poles of the Earth. This had been seen by some of the far seeing men of our Empire, and half hearted steps were taken to alter these conditions. But as past history goes to prove that the greed of mankind and society pomp have been the chief causes of war with very little headway being made to cement the gap, which was so far apart during the first two years of the last war.

But let me say to you Company of Master Mariners that should trouble arise the multitude has to be fed all over our scattered Empire, and it is therefore your duty to see to it that your knowledge of your own  profession and of world’s affairs are kept up to date. For this reason the Company of Master Mariners has asked the present Government to appoint one of your senior men to the Upper House, who could give practical information on mercantile matters, but the monster of the sea got no hearing from the boss of the party in power. But let us not be down hearted, we will carry on the old tradition of giving service to humanity which civilization cannot exist without.

All the same we have the opportunity of reading the Book of Understanding just as well as anyone else can. From it we see other nations are making all efforts to have in all respect an efficient mercantile marine, while we seem to trot along in the same old way to find our place in world’s affairs as best we can, and this at a time when Royal Navies are being reduced to a minimum.

We must see to it that when Mr. Forbes and Mr. Coates go on another trip to London they must go in a full rigged ship round Cape Horn in winter time. The ship must be loaded to her marks with railway iron for the purposes of keeping her compasses in good order in high latitudes. Mr. Forbes must be Master, Mr. Coates must be First Mate, Sir Alexander Herdman must be 2nd Officer, Mr. Savage 3rd Officer and for crew we will give them all the Members of Parliament in both the Lower and Upper Houses. I think you will agree that we need not provide a pilot for this ship of State, for the master will have a good many sky pilots amongst his crew, and while they are all away rounding that corner called Cape Horn we will try to find our way round the prosperous corner that they could see for the last year or so.

But don’t you forget that same ship will have to come back to New Zealand loaded with Cardiff coal to be discharged by the crew into barges at Lautoka, Fiji, and after that round voyage of the State ship her crew will be in a better mood to hear the cry of our Mercantile Marine in the interest of our glorious empire.

In conclusion I am going to say, as the Prince of Wales, our Master, said at a dinner in London. “Should serious trouble arise we require more efficiency than the singing of Rule Britannia.” For this reason let me say to the public of this outpost of our Empire to consider that the monster of the sea, after all, counts as one of the social systems adopted by civilization.

The Dunedin branch had a special dinner on 11 August 1938 to honour Captain K.V. Karlsson, master of the Finnish barque Penang, which had suffered a broken topmast and other damage in severe weather conditions south of Tasmania while she was on passage from Port Victoria, South Australia to Falmouth for orders with a cargo of 2,174 tons of wheat. Although Hobart was closer as a port of refuge, Captain Karlsson felt the prevailing westerly wind would bring her to Otago more quickly. She arrived off the Otago Heads on 12 June 1938 and did not sail again until 18 August after her top mast had been replaced and all her rigging repaired. During the protracted stay of Penang in Dunedin, Captain Karlsson and his officers and crew were very well received and made many new friendships. It had been many years since a deep sea sailing ship was in Dunedin and the Dunedin section of the Company of Master Mariners seized the opportunity to remind the public of the sailing ship era and its importance to New Zealand.

Reference sources

Evening Star, Dunedin
Otago Daily Times, Dunedin
Otago Witness, Dunedin
The Dominion, Wellington
The Honourable Company by M.H. Disney (1974)
J.T. Paul archives (Hocken Collections) MS 0982/644
Southern People –Dictionary of Otago Southland Biography (Jane Thomson, Ed.) (1998)
Otago Harbour, Currents of Controversy by Gavin McLean (1985)
Port Chalmers and its People  by Ian Church (1994)
An Encyclopedia of New Zealand (3 vols) (A.H. McLintock, Editor) 1966
The Merchant Navy World War 1 (3 vols) by Archibald Hurd (1920)


Master Mariners at Auckland c 1936.

4 Responses to History

  1. Olivia McQuillan says:

    Do you have any records of historical nature. My gg Grangfather Robert McQuillan described himself as a Master Mariner. He lived in Dunedin from 1878 to his deather in 1913. Any information would be gladly accepted.

  2. Olivia,

    Our organization was established around 1930, so we do not hold any information of any Master Mariners from earlier days.
    Sorry. You might try nzshipmarine.com instead.
    Cornelis van Kesteren
    NZCMM General Secretary.

  3. Patricia Meiring says:

    I am seeking information about my Great Uncle, David Sturrock, a Scottish Marine Engineer, who owned “Sturrocks Engineering School” in His Majesty’s Arcade and later in the New Zealand Shipping Company Building in Quay Street between 1911 and 1940. He was a Company Secretary between 1940 and 1950.
    Do you have any membership records that would reflect his membership of the Marine Engineers society which I believe is now affiliated with your organisation?
    Thankyou in anticipation of your asssitance.
    Patricia Meiring

  4. Nick maclean says:

    Anyone able to assist me.My grandfather Alexander Maclean (could been misspent mclean)is in 1935 otago electoral rolls as master mariner of S.s.Gale.I believe Gale to be part of Canterbury Coastal Shipping.An older brother (80) describes “papa Sandy as a large amiable warm man.Was a dredge otago harbour 1914 any help or info cool

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