Improving Whanganui Port is one of the issues under discussion in the current local body elections.

The accumulation of silt with every flood event and the difficulty of crossing the sand-bar at the entrance are recurrent problems.

The sometimes treacherous Whanganui River mouth has claimed around 25 ships since the1840s, among them, the Port Bowen, a steel, twin-screw, 8267 ton steamer.

At five past midnight on July 19, 1939, the ship Port Bowen ran aground on a sandbank, just north of the North Mole.

Advertisement

The refrigerated ship was carrying wool and 31,417 carcasses of mutton and lamb for the English market. All attempts to tow the vessel off the sandbank failed, the load of carcasses and wool was retrieved, the ship was abandoned, handed over to the New Zealand government and the following year a salvage operation began.

READ MORE:
Whanganui Museum: Celebrating native birds
Broad range of subjects in Whanganui Regional Museum lecture series
Whanganui Regional Museum re-opening in March after earthquake strengthening
Museum notebook: Did you know Whanganui Regional Museum held these cameos?

The bell from the SS Port Bowen. Initially salvaged and used as the school bell at St George's, then housed at the Collegiate Museum.
The bell from the SS Port Bowen. Initially salvaged and used as the school bell at St George's, then housed at the Collegiate Museum.

Timber, steel, non-ferrous metals, the refrigeration plant, winches, shipping equipment; everything was of value in a wartime economy where resources of all kinds were in short supply.

The ship's instruments and 22 winches were handed over to the New Zealand Navy. Other machinery, such as generators, went to hospitals, including Whanganui. Timber was taken by the Public Works department. Copper piping and other metals such as the bronze propellers were salvaged for munitions manufacture. Part of the refrigeration plant was reinstalled at the new Waiouru military camp. Some of the steel was reused in the construction of the Tekapo hydro-power station which was under way at the time. Other steel was used to repair damaged ships.

Altogether 3000 tons of steel, iron and machinery worth thousands of pounds was salvaged.

In February, 1941, a young police constable was guarding the wreck during the night and fishing at the same time. At the 2am low tide he went to retrieve a snagged line, got into difficulties and drowned. His body was found at the high water mark in the morning.

By 1943 the ship had been stripped of everything that was regarded as useful and the remainder was left stuck on the beach where it gradually became covered by the sand.

A brass lamp from the SS Port Bowen. Made by Eli Griffiths & Sons in Birmingham, and salvaged from the wreck.
A brass lamp from the SS Port Bowen. Made by Eli Griffiths & Sons in Birmingham, and salvaged from the wreck.

A few of the salvaged items remained in Whanganui. Whanganui Hospital was given one of the generators, which produced enough power for the whole hospital at the time. The ship's bell was initially given to St George's School and used as the school bell until around 1980. When large cracks developed, the bell was transferred into Whanganui Collegiate School Museum.

Advertisement

In June this year, the bell was donated to Whanganui Regional Museum, where it joins a collection of other Port Bowen objects including numerous photographs of the wreck, a brass ship's lamp, a 6 metre mast, a serving tray made by F W Osman from part of the ship's wooden railing, and a piece of ballast.

The serving tray, the ballast stone and the ship's lamp are currently on display in the museum exhibition Crossing the Bar, along with one of the many photographs of the wreck.

• Margie Beautrais is the Educator at Whanganui Regional Museum