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Star of Canada still shines

On Wednesday June 23, it will be 109 years since the Star Of Canada ran aground off Kaiti Beach. A 10-minute video made by Tairawhiti Museum, telling the story of the maritime disaster, and of how the ship continued to play a role in Gisborne after 1912, will go online that day. Museum director Eloise Wallace narrates the film and she spoke to Wynsley Wrigley.

IT’S the ship that never sinks — at least in terms of public profile.

The Star of Canada first attracted the fascination of the Gisborne public when it ran aground on the rocks off Kaiti Beach in June 1912.

No one among the crew of 60 died but the watching public of 1912 was likely more than fascinated.

It was only two months after the sinking of Titanic.

The town turned out in force again months later to watch the vessel’s two-storey wheelhouse and cabin towed along Childers Road to a new location where it became a family home and occasional place to visit for the inquisitive.

At 274 Childers Road the complex, simply known as the Star of Canada, became an iconic part of the city skyline, an apparent ship moored just off one of Gisborne’s main arterial routes, and a familiar sight to generations of the district’s inhabitants.

Then it was on the move again, to its current site in 1985, next door to the then Gisborne Museum and Arts Centre.

The wheelhouse and captain’s cabin has kept the ship “alive”, says museum director Eloise Wallace.

And she explained the story of the twin screw cargo steamer since it was launched in Belfast in 1906 succinctly — three years at sea,73 years a ship, 36 years a museum.

In its years as a museum, Star of Canada has not lost any of its star power.

“It’s the part of the museum I most get asked about,” said Mrs Wallace.

Wednesday is the 109th anniversary of the day Star of Canada became a permanent Gisborne resident.

Two days before, the ship had sailed into its final port of call.

On the evening of the 23rd a sudden storm came in and its intensity led to the decisions to head out to sea, but steam could not be got up immediately.

“At 11pm a hurricane force squall struck and in the blinding rain and hail the weather closed in around the ship, completely obstructing the view towards shore lights and land,” says Mrs Wallace on the video.

“When the rain cleared 10 minutes later they realised the anchor had come away and begun to drag, and before they could let go the port anchor, the vessel struck the reef off Kaiti Beach.

“They tried to back the ship off as it foundered on the reef but the ship kept driving on to shore and by 19 minutes past midnight it had become fast on the rock.

“Distress rockets were let off in the hope of attracting attention from the harbour authorities or any other would-be rescuers.

“Many residents of the town were aroused by the booming of her distress signals, but it was not until H. Amos (of the Post and Telegraph Department) went around and read her Morse code messages that it became known that she was aground.”

The next morning attempts by tugs Karoro and Hipi failed to save the ship.

Instead, men worked hard to salvage most of the cargo — 35,000 carcases of mutton, 10,000 sacks of oats, 1000 casks of tallow and pelts, 300 bales of wool and 300 tons of antimonial lead pigs.

On June 27 a heavy swell eventually broke the Star of Canada’s back.

Salvage operations were suspended on August 5 and the ship was put up for sale.

A court, sitting in July, exonerated the ship’s captain, John Mann Hart, and concluded the accident was the result of pure accident and misadventure.

Captain Hart was described as a most careful, prudent and cautious shipmaster and he went on to have a long and reputable sailing career.

Jeweller William Good bought the bridge-house for £104, and had it towed through town on greased railway lines behind a steam-roller to a section next to his own home at 274 Childers Road. That site is now occupied by Cobden House, the offices of Coates Associates and FMGG.

The Star of Canada became a tourism attraction with one prominent visitor being Gisborne’s Tom Heeney who settled in the US after challenging Gene Tunney for the world heavyweight boxing title in 1928.

Many VIPs visited, with the visitor book (held by the museum today) showing the first signee was Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward who called in on March 4, 1929.

When William Good’s daughter Lorna married in 1927 rooms were added to the rear of the structure to provide a kitchen, bathroom and other facilities to make a home for her.

Lorna Woodfield spent her later years living in the family home next door and kept the Star of Canada as an immaculate private museum.

On her death in 1983 she left the Star of Canada to the citizens of Gisborne.

The public feared for the future of the structure as the execution of her will took some time.

But with Gisborne West Rotary Club leading the way, Star of Canada was moved to its present site in 1985.

And as in 1912 when the original move to Childers Road took place, Gisborne turned out to watch.

A complement from HMNZS Hawea and the Gisborne City Brass Band escorted Star of Canada on its Operation Star Ship journey to its new site.

Star of Canada was formally opened as a museum in 1986 and once more attracted a large crowd of Gisborne admirers.

Mrs Wallace, speaking on the video, says the museum is fortunate to have the building and so many artefacts.

“They help us to tell the story of the ship, her crew, the people involved in her salvage, those who spent hours caring for and restoring the ship, who have visited, and collectively saved what they could so we can stand here in the ship today.”

Star ship

The Star of Canada was the pride of the Star Line.

The Belfast-based Star Line was a fleet of ships owned by timber merchants, Messrs. James P Corry and Co.

When Star of Canada was lost the company had a fleet of modern cargo steamers consisting of Star of Australia, Star of Japan, Star of England, Star of New Zealand, Star of Ireland, Star of Scotland, Star of India and Star of Canada, the company’s first twin-screw steam ship.

It was built by Workman, Clark and Co in Belfast in 1909.

The ship was 7280 tons gross, 143 metres long and manned by a crew of 60.

Workman, Clark and Co pioneered the construction of insulated and refrigerated vessels and the Star of Canada was designed to carry chilled and frozen meat. It had three insulated holds with a carrying capacity of 130,000 carcases of mutton.

By June 1912 Star of Canada had made the journey to and from New Zealand six times, transporting general cargo to Australia and New Zealand and returning with refrigerated meat and produce.

On what was to be her final voyage, Star of Canada left London for Australia, stopping in Melbourne and Sydney, where she picked up general cargo including antimonial lead pigs (similar to ingots), a motor car and silver lead bullion.

She sailed from Sydney and called at Auckland, then on to Napier, Wellington, Bluff and Lyttleton before arriving at Gisborne on the morning of June 21.

Her captain was John Mann Hart.

Captain Hart was born in Liverpool and first went to sea at the age of 14.

By 1912 he was the line’s senior captain and had been at sea for 30 years and in and out of Gisborne for 10.

Film footage

The Tairawhiti Museum video goes online on Wednesday and can be viewed on the museum and Gisborne Herald websites.

The film runs for 10 minutes and 26 seconds.

Museum director Eloise Wallace takes viewers through the present day Star of Canada wheelhouse and captain’s cabin.

She says the cabin today looks much as it did in 1912.

“All of the fixtures and fittings are largely original.”

The film features many artefacts and a wide range of great photographs of the stricken ship and internal shots of the latter day museum it became.

But the film also includes contemporary film footage such as the vessel down by the head off Kaiti Beach on the morning of June 25 in footage shot by Charles Frederick Newham of the Dominion New Zealand Film Company.

It also includes footage of the Star of Canada at its Childers Road home, shot by E.T. Doddrell in 1928.

The story of long-forgotten individuals is also told, including crewman “Russian Jack”, who was actually a Latvian who remained in New Zealand until his death in 1965.

There is even a statue of him in the Wairarapa town of Masterton.

ON THE ROCKS: Star of Canada in a colour reproduction by contemporary Gisborne artist Keith R Wade. Picture courtesy of Tairawhiti Museum
SINKING FEELING: It’s time to leave for these two men working to salvage stock or fittings from the stricken Star of Canada. Picture courtesy of Tairawhiti Museum
STILL A STAR ATTRACTION: Another generation of Gisbornites show their fascination for the Star of Canada. This is when the wheelhouse and captain’s cabin was formally opened as a museum on May 19, 1986. File photo
STAR POWER: Gisborne’s legendary heavyweight boxer Tom Heeney (second from right) visits Star of Canada at its Childers Road site in 1928. Also pictured are back, from left, an unknown nurse, Eileen Good, the wife of William Good who bought the salvaged parts of Star of Canada and their daughter Lorna Woodfield. Front, from left, are Lorna’s husband Alan Woodfield, Mrs Marion Heeney, Mr Good, and possibly boxing referee Alan Maxwell. Picture courtesy of Tairawhiti Museum