Born to go to sea
The Williams family
The Williams family have lived and worked in the Nelson region since 1890. Successive generations have had a long association with the sea.
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Robbie Williams writes:
”My maternal grandfather was dock-master in Dublin before migrating to New Zealand in 1912. My paternal grandfather was a master-mariner and small ship owner in Port Nelson. He owned Felicity and Comet, and lived close by the port in Victoria Road. My father was master-mariner master of his father’s ketches and later became a ship master for the Anchor Shipping Company in charge of MV Taupata and SS Totara during the 1930's and 1940's. My brother, Colin Albert Williams (Bill),went to sea in 1939, aged 16, in the scow Kohi . Bill went on to become a ships' master of MV Kauri and Denny Rose (1950-1970), for the Union Steam Ship Company.
I could not gain my master's certificate, as my eyesight was not up to scratch. I went to sea aged 16 in January 1951. I sailed in various scows, steam and motor ships until coming ashore to become agent for Karamea Shipping Co. and later harbour master at Motueka.
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When I was 18 years old I worked on M.V Willomee with Bruce Toms, the other ordinary seaman, while the vessel was under survey at Port Nelson. The ship was being altered in many ways under the supervision of “Chippy Cameron”. All the cargo working gear was put ashore into the building (still standing) on the town side of the Customhouse Hotel. It had a dirt floor and contained sundry gear from other ships of The Pearl Kasper Shipping Co.. Bruce and I were general dogsbodies to the survey overhauling gear and taking metal gear to the Anchor Foundry on the little four wheeler hand cart for inspection. Nalder & Biddle (a maritime engineering company) was attending to the engineering side of things. Curnow & Wilton, established in 1935 but no longer in existence, was in charge of the alteration. The survey was complete in July 1952 and we signed back on the ship under the command of Capt Barrett (Master) and Horace Hannah (Mate).
Lil Burt had the port shop where we bought our cigarettes and lollies. There were plenty of pubs and, although we were under the age to drink on licensed premises, we drank at all of them, much to “Blossom's” (the port cop) disgust . Constable “Blossom” Lake got his name because of his ruddy complexion. The long suffering Constable Lake served at Port Nelson 1933-1954 and rode everywhere on a bicycle. Dealing with intoxication was his main duty and he once got thrown in the sea by some wharfies
Robbie is a poet and created this poem to capture the spirit of the port as he remembers it:
“PORT NELSON 1953”
I’ll paint you a word picture of Port Nelson way back then;
I hope you’ll see the picture as the words flow from my pen
The Port was such a busy place. The ships they came and went,
With cargoes coming into port while on others the cargo was sent
Such a lot of people were employed there at the Port,
The wharfies and the seamen skilled in the trades that they’d been taught
The cargo not in containers but was handled bit by bit,
With winches slings, trays and snotters. They were bloody good at it.
The ships that served Port Nelson: some of steel and some of wood,
And the crews that manned these little ships, they kept them looking good
“Pearl Kasper” and the “Talisman” are two that come to mind,
And the Nikau and Titoki flew the flag of the anchor line
Now let’s take a look around the port and what went on ashore
There was always something happening people moving and lots more
The three pubs and tobacconist they served the local trade
And all the pubs were quick to know if Blossom the cop was making a raid
Ron Ripley had The Customhouse, Joe Ianson at the pier
And Jim Sim at the Tasman Harley’s, the local brand of beer
The steam train still came to the port with wagons full of freight,
The locomotive could not go on the wharf, if stopped outside the gate
We’ll head towards Tahuna,
Past the Foundry with its noise
And just across the road from this The Yacht Club for the boys
We’ll turn around and head to town,
Past the cop shop and Anchor Co
And Russell Street or Anchorville to the gasworks smell we know
But back to the port we must go for that’s what this poem is about,
You could wander round just anywhere but now they lock you out
But there’s nothing much to see in there,
Unless containers turn you on
And bloody ugly container ships,
The romance of the place gone
All in the name of progress the port changed since fifty three
But the tide will still go in and out they can’t rearrange the sea!
Note: a snotter is a piece of rope with an eye splice in either end mainly used for lifting wool bales.
2014. Updated June 2020
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Further sources - Born to go to sea
- Allan, R.M. (1954) The history of Port Nelson Wellington, N.Z. : Whitcombe & Tombs
- Moore, B. (1990) Shaping up and shipping out: the last years of the Nelson Harbour Board. Nelson, N. Z. : Published by Port Nelson Ltd. under contract to the Board
- Neale, J. (1986). The Nelson Police: the story of the Nelson police district 1841-1986, Nelson [N.Z.] : New Zealand Police, Nelson District.
- Nelson Harbour Board (1980) Port Nelson: the centre of New Zealand. Nelson, N.Z. : Nelson Harbour Board
- Parr, W.H. (1979) Port Nelson - Gateway to the sea Nelson, NZ : Nelson Harbour Board
- Smith, D. (1988) 19th Century Nelson hotels - part II. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 2(2), p.16