Robert Read and the ‘Moa’ explosion

In some earlier posts I have written about the Read family; this time I thought I’d say more about Robert Read, one of my great-grandfathers. I never knew him as he died many years before I was born. There are a couple of photos of him in my post on the Read and Sheckell families in England.

He made model ships, one of which was in our house when I grew up and is now behind me as I type this (not easy to photograph in its glass case). Most of the ships in bottles that he also made were loaned to someone by my great-grandmother and never returned, according to my father.


An aunt thought the model was of the ship he came to New Zealand on and that this might have been the ‘Lady Jocelyn’. The ‘Lady Jocelyn’ came to NZ several times in the 1870s and 1880s but I haven’t yet managed to find out which ship he came on or when. His (future) wife came on the ‘Ruapehu’, which was a steamship – so the model is not of that one.

Lady Jocelyn ship

This is the ‘Lady Jocelyn’ from the Cossar website. Those who know more about ships than me (and I know very little) might be able to tell if the model is of this ship.

The earliest date I have for Robert being in New Zealand is his wedding date in Wanganui on 21 July 1884. His wife, Ruth Sheckell, arrived in New Zealand only a week earlier, so it seems a likely assumption that they knew each other in England or at least had corresponded. Ruth came with her sister as assisted immigrants – on the records they were listed as being from Somerset. Emma, 23 was described as a matron in house, and Ruth, 21 as a general servant. They arrived in Wellington on 14 July 1884.

Robert was a sailor as at least one of his uncles was (as mentioned in my earlier post). On 11 September 1890 he gained a “Certificate of Competency as Master of a River Steamer”. River steamers plied the Whanganui River, so I’m assuming this is what he did. But a year later (4 December 1891) he received a “Certificate of Competency as Mate of a Home Trade Passenger Ship”. New Zealand relied heavily on coastal shipping for its transport links, well into the 20th century. On 9 May 1892 he got a “Certificate of Competency as Engineer of a River Steamer” and on 14 January 1904 a “Certificate of Competency as a Second-Class Engineer” of a ship propelled by means other than steam. From this, I presume he sailed on both river steamers and coastal ships. He died on 7 March 1930 in Wanganui.

The one memorable event of his sailing career that has come down to me is recorded in the following reminiscences of his widow on her 90th birthday (from an article published  in the Wanganui Chronicle, 12 August 1952):

Mrs Read has lived in Wanganui since her arrival in New Zealand, except for a period of two years (1895-97) when she revisited England with her three daughters… “I have seen many changes in Wanganui since I first arrived here…”. Although her eyesight is fading and her hearing is impaired, Mrs Read is still in the best of spirits, and has no difficulty remembering the important events in her life. She said of the ‘Moa’ explosion, her husband had supported one of the survivors (who could not swim) in the water for some time until the lifeboats from the Arapawa arrived. She also said he ‘never really recovered from that experience’.

Robert was mate on the coastal steamer Moa when it caught fire and sank after an explosion on 3 February 1914. He was 60 at the time, so perhaps it is not surprising that he ‘never really recovered’, although he did live for another 16 years. Now that so many of our newspapers are digitised, I know more about this event:

S.S. MOA BURNING OFF WANGANUI HEADS. Colonist, 18 February 1914, Page 1

moa 4  Moa 5 Moa 6

Wanganui Chronicle,  4 February 1914, Page 5

Moa 2

THE CARGO. Wanganui Chronicle , 4 February 1914, Page 5Moa 7

THE MOA’S CARGO. Colonist, 10 February 1914, Page 6Moa 1

The night after the disaster a fund-raising benefit for the crew was put on at the “King’s” in Wanganui…

Moa 3

What kind of ‘benefit’ was it? …

KING’S THEATRE. Wanganui Chronicle , 6 February 1914, Page 8Moa 8

I have written more about the explosion in a later post: ‘The Last of the Moa: the S S Moa explosion’.

In World War Two one of New Zealand’s few warships, also called ‘Moa’ was destroyed in the Solomon Islands by Japanese bomber planes on 7 April 1943.


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