Story: Shipbuilding

Page 2. The iron and steel era

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Iron and steel steamers

As late as the 1920s shipyards were still launching commercial sailing vessels, but powered craft had been dominant for half a century. Shipbuilders in Dunedin, the 19th-century industrial and commercial heart of New Zealand, came into their own as builders of iron- and steel-hulled steamers. In 1873 Kincaid & McQueen built the steamer Fairy mostly from local materials.

During the 1870s Dunedin shipyards turned out ships such as the Jane Douglas, Iron Age, Kakanui, Reynolds and Vulcan. They also built boilers for factories, and for decades they produced large dredges for gold and tin mining in New Zealand and overseas.

From around 1905 most coastal trading ships were 500 tons or more – well beyond the capacity of local shipyards. These now specialised in harbour craft or built small ships for the shallow-draft trades such as wool and timber. The brief burst of shipbuilding activity just before the First World War left one enduring legacy, the 330-ton Lake Wakatipu steamer Earnslaw. It was designed by Dunedin naval architect Hugh McRae, built by John McGregor and Co. in Dunedin, and then dismantled and railed to Kingston on the lake shore. There it was reassembled and launched on 24 February 1912.

Shipbuilding remained a small industry. According to the 1911 census New Zealand’s 29 shipyards employed just 589 people. In 1910 they had launched 95 vessels weighing under 50 tons, five between 50 and 100 tons and just three over 100 tons.

Down and then out

In 1873 the New Zealand Submarine Gold Mining Co. ordered a small submarine, for mining gold underwater, from a Dunedin shipbuilder. It was over 10 metres long and built of iron plate. The Platypus was tested in Otago Harbour on 30 January 1874, when four company representatives and a reporter spent 45 minutes underwater. Unfortunately the next public test went wrong, trapping eight men under water for four hours. Investors lost interest in the Platypus, which sat on the wharf for years before being cut up and carted away.

Victorian yachts

As the colony’s population grew, so did the demand for pleasure craft. From the late 1860s there was enough money around to enable some shipwrights to specialise in keeler yachts. Auckland, with its Anniversary Day Regatta and the Hauraki Gulf as a natural playground, dominated the design and construction of pleasure craft. The Bailey and Logan families established boatyards that became legendary. Building from half models rather than plans, and working in kauri, they and a few rivals turned out elegant keelers. The heyday of these big boats was at the turn of the 20th century, when boats such as the Viking of 1893 and the Ariki of 1904 won races in New Zealand and Australia.

Ship repairing

Britain’s shipyards dominated world output, so New Zealand settled on repairing rather than building ocean-going vessels. In 1868 an Otago syndicate launched a wooden floating dock, and by the early 1900s Port Chalmers had become the centre of the New Zealand ship-repair industry.

Ports at Lyttelton, Auckland and Wellington also built docks, which symbolised local pride and gave work to shipwrights and foundries. Port Chalmers buried its docks in the 1970s when it developed its container terminal, but Auckland’s Calliope and the Lyttelton dock (now a registered historic place) still service ships. Whangārei, Auckland, Nelson and Lyttelton are the main repair centres, but most ports maintain basic facilities.

Wartime shipbuilding

During the Second World War the government encouraged local industry to build warships for the New Zealand navy, and auxiliaries and small merchant vessels for allies. The design of the ‘Castle’ class minesweeping trawlers dated from the previous war. They displaced about 550 tons, carried a 12-pounder gun, machine guns and depth charges, and could make about 10 knots. The first four used reconditioned engines and were of wood and steel construction. The rest were steel-hulled. Most of the seven commissioned by the navy were built at Port Chalmers. Auckland shipbuilders turned out a dozen 34-metre ‘Fairmile’ anti-submarine launches.

New Zealand also built merchant ships for the Americans and others under the direction of Commissioner of Defence Construction James Fletcher. At St Marys Bay in Auckland a consortium built tugboats, powered lighters and small cargo vessels. At Mechanics Bay, Steel Ships built steel tugs. Port Chalmers also built powered lighters.

How to cite this page:

Gavin McLean, 'Shipbuilding - The iron and steel era', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

Story by Gavin McLean, published 12 Jun 2006, updated 1 Jul 2015