2 August 1918 – This isn’t an average Friday afternoon. Workers down their tools and diners abandon their lunch to rush to the waterfront and see what all the fuss is about. Motorists and cyclists stop along the Hutt Road. There is a commotion in the harbour – and it isn’t a visiting whale. A steamship is on fire and its cargo is a ticking time bomb. Wellington is bracing for an explosion.
This photograph was a chance find. I didn’t immediately recognise the incident but fortunately a scrawled note tells us the name of the ship – the Defender. This is her story.
The Defender was built in 1901 at Kincumber, New South Wales, and worked in Australian waters until she was purchased by the Westland Shipping Company in 1904 and made her way to New Zealand. She was a regular visitor to the West Coast, Golden Bay, Wellington and Lyttelton. Coastal steamers servicing the domestic trade had to be versatile enough to transport all sorts of different cargo. Sometimes that cargo would be hazardous and that would prove to be the downfall of the Defender.
Benzine is a term that isn’t used much today, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a brand of cough syrup but in the early twentieth century benzine was a commonly used name for motor spirits. This was the age of the motorcar and the benzine business was booming. Benzine was shipped to New Zealand in tins and cases – many of which were adopted for all sorts of ingenious uses once emptied of their contents. They were transformed into buckets, beehives, furniture, and even used as construction materials for dwellings. During the war years they also proved useful for organisations sending care packages to soldiers serving overseas. Benzine boxes were a common sight during the first decades of the automobile but now both the cases and the term have faded from public memory.
The demand for motor spirits presented a real danger for those in the maritime business. Steamships were powered by coal furnaces, crew often relied on lamps instead of electric lighting and tobacco pipes were an unofficial accessory for anyone who had anything to do with ships. Slight exaggeration maybe, but keeping naked flames away from such highly flammable cargo was a serious challenge. New Zealand was right at the end of the benzine supply chain – every mile driven in a motorcar was only possible thanks to the efforts of mariners. Also a war was on – which made the oceans even more dangerous than usual. There were enemy raiders on the prowl and minefields to dodge.
On 2 August 1918 at Wellington’s King’s Wharf, a new shipment of benzine is in the process of being unloaded from the British Imperial Oil Company’s oil ship Havre into the Defender. The Havre has been engineered specifically to minimize the risks of transporting such a hazardous cargo. The smaller Defender…not so much. The officers and crew of the Havre – many of whom are Chinese – have considerable experience handling benzine. The Defender… well you can probably guess how this is going to work out.
Waterside workers help the crew to carefully lower the cases of benzine from the Havre into the hold of the Defender. Many of them have been soaked with leakage from broken cases. This isn’t unusual – it is to be expected that some cases would break and leak during the long trip. Able Seaman Hamilton Whiteside has been tasked with identifying any leaking cases as they are lowered into the hold. He has already sent sixteen back up in the sling – but they continued to leak into the hold as they waited – the flammable contents running into the bilges. He has already spotted another two leaking cases and they are waiting to be lifted back out. So far 1132 cases of benzine have been loaded onboard.
Watersider Ernest Croft is also in the hold. While unloading cargo the previous day he had spotted some rivet holes in the bulkhead that separates the stokehold and the hold. He knew that this was a safety risk – if fumes from the benzine made contact with a spark from the stokehold then it would be game over for the Defender and anyone unlucky enough to be on her. He has already alerted the mate to this risk. Some of the holes have since been filled – but some have been missed.
On the other side of the bulkhead, Thomas Dossett, fireman on the Defender, is working in the stokehold. It is dark – so much so that it is impossible to work without a light – so he has brought with him a small “slush” lamp – a tin of oil with a rough wick and no glass shade. No one has told him that naked flames are too dangerous to use so close to this cargo. The bulkhead is all that separates his lamp from over a thousand cases of benzine.
At about 11 a.m. the men working in the hold catch a glimpse of the light through one of the rivet holes. Almost immediately a wall of fire envelops them, scorching the side of Ernest Croft’s face and singeing hair and clothing. Henry Hart, mate on the Defender, is looking through the hatch when the explosion occurs. He watches it start at the bottom of the bulkhead and rapidly spread across the hold “puff, puff, puff” in a succession of flashes. The leakage from the broken cases fuels the flames and the crew scramble to escape from the inferno.
The fire brigade is alerted by phone and by the Harbour Board fire alarm. Smoke and fumes are bellowing from the fore-hold as firemen come onboard to fight the flames. Three leads of hose concentrate on the fire in the hold with steady streams but they make little difference. The hold is now a furnace and the fire is spreading through the ship. Onlookers from the oil ship Havre are horrified. They scurry to close their airtight hatches. If the Havre catches fire then the resulting explosion would likely cause appalling damage to the wharf, warehouses and nearby shipping. The blaze on the Defender is close to sparking a major catastrophe.
The tugs Karaka and Admiral are summoned to pull the Defender away before the fire can spread. At around noon the crew, firemen and police abandon ship as the Defender is slowly towed away from the wharf – much to the relief of everyone – especially those on the Havre. Until now the flames have been contained to the inside of the hold, but suddenly they burst from the fore-hatch and the black bellowing smoke grows in size as the Defender is towed into the harbour. The Union Company’s tug Terawhiti and the Harbour Board’s pilot boat Uta are also on hand if help is needed.
Spectators gather all around the waterside to see what all the commotion is about. They speculate on if the vessel can be saved, until word spreads that her cargo is benzine and then they speculate on when the vessel might explode. It is sometime around now that the photograph in my collection is taken – capturing the dramatic scene.
The decision is made to tow the Defender to an isolated spot near Somes Island at the northern end of the harbour. It takes around an hour to tow the burning vessel there but the fiery funeral procession is successful. She is beached there at around 1 p.m., by which point the flames have engulfed the entire vessel. Around half an hour later there is an explosion – debris goes flying, the ships rockets and distress flares ignite, and spectators watch as a great cloud of steam shoots up – seconds later they hear the blast as the report echoes around the harbour. Smaller explosions continue for the rest of the afternoon as the vessel burns to the waterline – the benzine carrying the fire across the water in patches. The ocean of fire looks particularly apocalyptic when darkness sets in. One hour later and the flames are finally exhausted. The crew of the Defender have learned a costly lesson, the harbour is filled with half-burned benzine cases and the Wellington waterfront may have just avoided a major catastrophe.
“Mr. J. G. Bruce, secretary of the Waterside Worker’s Union, states that his Union had previously warned the Harbor Board and the Marine Department against the danger of berthing oil-carrying steamers at the city wharves, and had suggested the utilisation of the Clyde Quay Wharf for this purpose until a special isolated wharf could be provided. Had the larger vessel caught fire there would have been a tremendous explosion and appalling damage with probably the loss of life. “Every year.” he added, “more benzine is being imported into the country, and it is a common thing to see small boats loading case-oil all round the wharves. This ought to be stopped.”
NZ Truth, Issue 686, 10 August 1918
Thankfully, no lives were lost in the incident. The official inquiry found that the fire was caused by the naked light in the stokehold and was largely due to neglect by Fireman Dossett, but that the master and chief officer of the Defender were also to blame for not taking appropriate measures to prevent it. They also found that the steamer’s hold was not suitable for such dangerous cargo.
The dramatic demise of the Defender was far from the only maritime mishap involving benzine in this part of the world. The steamer Moa went up in a spectacular blaze off the coast of Wanganui in 1914, there were fires at depots, notably the 1928 Winstone oil fire in Auckland, and in 1921 the Canastota and her 49 crew tragically went missing in the Tasman Sea en route to Wellington – a disappearance that has never been solved but there is a reasonable chance that her cargo of 50 000 cases of benzine and other spirits may have had something to do with it – a suspicion that was seemingly confirmed when charred flotsam washed up on Lord Howe Island.
Overseas there were even more horrific events – just eight months before the Defender’s mishap a collision between two ships in Halifax resulted in a benzol spill on a cargo ship that was carrying munitions. It triggered a terrific explosion that claimed the lives of an estimated two thousand people.
The benzine age came to an end when case oil was superseded by bulk petrol. In the twenty-first century we now get our fuel from pumps instead of cases, we grumble at the signs on the forecourts telling us not to use our mobile phones and giggle at warnings about naked lights. The petroleum transportation industry is a well-oiled machine and the days of the coastal steamers are well and truly numbered. The folly of the fireman in the stokehold is long forgotten but the story of the Defender isn’t completely finished yet – divers can still visit her remains on the seabed off the northwest end of Matiu/Somes Island. A recent archaeological report describes her as “probably the best preserved wooden wreck in the Wellington region.” Not too bad for a ship that caused such a kerfuffle a century ago.
To read more about the benzine era in New Zealand waters check out ‘The Benzine Era: Spectacular Days in New Zealand History 1900-1926’ by N.H. Brewer, yes there is a whole book on the subject! For more about the Defender and other shipwrecks in the Wellington region check out ‘Shipwrecks of New Zealand’ by Lynton Diggle and Charles W. N. Ingram and the Greater Regional Wellington Council report ‘Coastal & Underwater Archaeological Sites of the Wellington Region’, by Andy Dodd. All of the above were referred to while researching this post – as were multiple newspaper accounts, including reports on the testimony given at the nautical court, courtesy of the team at Papers Past.
© Lemuel Lyes