Gold bullion, explosives and secret missions sound like the contents of a James Bond film but they actually star in a local story - that of the sinking of the RMS Niagara.

Lying on the seabed east of Bream Head, Whangarei, lies the wreck of the RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Niagara. Its hulking remains serve as a reminder of how World War II touched New Zealand.

During the 1930s and 40s, much like today, Northland's east coast attracted luxury trans-Tasman liners.

Steam ships such as the SS Nga Puhi and the RMS Niagara would cruise up the coast between Auckland and Whangarei hosting on-board games, parties, fine dining, and offshore sojourns for picnics and sight-seeing before heading into international waters.

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Among dinner menus, cutlery and ornaments from the Niagara in Whangarei Museum's Collections, is a delicate paper gala decoration with the name RMS Niagara printed in glitter, a small but bright spark of evidence of one of the many on board parties.

Among the items in the Whangarei Museum RMS Niagara collection is this silver desert spoon with Royal Mail Line Mark.
Among the items in the Whangarei Museum RMS Niagara collection is this silver desert spoon with Royal Mail Line Mark.

Also on display, kindly loaned by the Reynolds family, are various pieces of special Royal Mail Line silverware, including a silver serving dish cover with a detachable filigree handle, evidence of the quality dining experience of the 1930s first class passengers.

A chamber pot, on loan from Keith Gordon and still encrusted with marine concretions, is another but less glamorous sign of the times.

The RMS Niagara was known as the "Queen of the Pacific" due to her size (13,415 tons) and speed at transporting mail and passengers between New Zealand, Fiji and Canada.

Built in 1912, the Niagara was originally nicknamed "Titanic of the Pacific", a name that was quickly discarded following the Titanic's disastrous sinking. During the second year of World War II, the German trader Orion snuck across the South Pacific to lay 228 mines along New Zealand's east coast towards the Hauraki Gulf.

Six days later, the passengers of the Niagara, fresh from shopping and goodbyes in Auckland, were violently woken at 3.45am on June 19, 1940 by calls to abandon ship via the lifeboats, leaving all belongings and treasures behind.

One of these very lifeboats, named the Iris, now sits on the heritage park grounds at Kiwi North after an eventful life firstly on the Niagara, then with four different owners, including the Ward family who donated her to Whangarei Museum.

The first thought of victim and rescuers alike were to get everybody safe and warm either in Whangarei for the remainder of the morning or a disappointing trip straight back to family or hotels in Auckland. While ships from Auckland, the Achilles, the Kapiti, the Wanganella, and RNZAF Vilderbeest bomber planes, did play an important part in the rescue, it was Whangarei locals who were crucial to the immediate rescue effort.

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Thankfully no lives were lost, despite the ship sinking very quickly, but little did they know that down with it went 590 gold ingots held in the strong room that had been destined to support the British war effort.

While nearly all of the ingots have been recovered and returned to the Bank of England, Whangarei Museum currently has on loan two metal seals that originally encased the gold ingots.

The story of their recovery over the years following the sinking is another epic tale, one that will be shared in next week's Readers Page.

■ Georgia Kerby is exhibitions curator, Whangarei Museum at Kiwi North.