‘The last of the Moa’: S S Moa explosion

At 9pm on 4 February 1914 a newsman reported that hundreds of people were down at Castlecliff watching the burning steamer, “the flames from which present a grand spectacle, lighting up the shore and sea for miles”.[1] The steamer was the coastal service S S Moa, and nearly 12 hours earlier an explosion had blown off the after-hatch killing able seaman William Kennedy.

Moa steamship from Hocken

The ship had quickly caught fire. The crew tried to launch a lifeboat, but flames forced them to abandon the effort. They had to jump overboard with whatever they had to hand – pieces of timber or lifebuoys. Luckily for the remaining 10 crew, the ship was close to Wanganui and other ships were nearby. The crew of the steamer Arapawa picked them out of the water after about half an hour. Only one was injured – fireman Robert Nelson suffered burns to his arms and hands. Surprisingly, William Higgins, the other fireman, was lying in his bunk and it shattered to pieces under him, but he was unhurt.

Photo credit: Moa Steamship from Hocken Library Collection

Newsmen were waiting at Wanganui wharf when the Arapawa arrived – the captain of the Moa, William Sawyers, and both firemen, including the injured Nelson, were interviewed, as was Charles Mackay, ex-mayor of Wanganui, who was a passenger on the Arapawa.[2] The captain reported that there was no time to bring off the body of William Kennedy, a native of Ireland, aged about 30. (They didn’t wait until relatives had been contacted first in those days!)

It is understandable the fire spread so quickly as the cargo consisted of 1500 cases of motor spirits, 844 of kerosene, 75 of turpentine, 22 of benzine, and 20 tons of wire, staples and nails. Eleven-hundred and-twenty cases of motor spirits were stowed in the after hold, which is where the explosion came from.[3]

It was generally reported that all the men had lost their possessions, including a month’s wages which had just been paid out. The following day, 5 February, the mayor of Wanganui launched a subscription for the benefit of the crew and the King’s Picture Theatre put on a benefit showing of films.[4] “The programme was one of high merit. Every film was good, but special mention must be made of the dramas, ‘Self-convicted’, ‘Diamond Crown’, and ‘Just in time’, which were much appreciated. The comics were of a most laughable nature.”[5]

However, The Times reported that Lavin, the cook, had grabbed his wages and Greenwood, the engineer, managed to put some belongings in a wicker basket, secured the lid with his braces and threw it overboard – it was picked up by the Huia, and returned to him![6]

Also, the following day, a preliminary inquiry was launched by J Walker, the Wanganui Collector of Customs. The captain and four of the crew were examined under oath – fireman Nelson was interviewed in hospital. At the time of the explosion, about 9:30am, the mate (or second in charge), Robert Read, was on watch. Captain Sawyers was asleep and he did not hear the explosion, but was wakened by someone telling him about it. He therefore could not tell the inquiry very much.

Robert Read said that, as they were close to Wanganui, about 9am he “turned the men to prepare the gear for unloading the cargo”. I’m not sure what this entailed, but later the Chief Inspector of Explosives wondered if removing the chocks which held the hatch tarpaulin in place may have allowed gas to escape from the hatch.[7] Robert Read said he cut six lengths of rope to make new slings and laid them by the after hatch – he spliced one himself, then went back to the wheel, sending Kennedy to splice the rest. About five to ten minutes later: “I was at the wheel with my back to the aft, I heard an explosion and turned round and saw everything flying in the air. I immediately gave the alarm to the fore part of the ship and the cabin to prepare the boats.”[8]

Most of the crew said they had not detected any fumes; but both firemen admitted smoking – Higgins about 8:45am smoked his pipe for about 10 minutes. Nelson said “I do not remember whether I was smoking at the time, but probably I was smoking as I went to get some more tobacco… I do not remember striking a light at the time.”[9]

George Allport of the Marine Department reported to the Minister on 10 February 1914 and concluded that “it appears from the evidence that the explosion was caused through the vapour from the benzine, etc going through into the men’s quarters and being ignited by one of the firemen smoking in those quarters… A regulation could be made to prohibit smoking below deck on board ships carrying benzine, petrol, etc, but it would be very difficult to enforce it as it would be almost impossible to stop men smoking when down in their quarters”. A comment in the margin (from the Minister?) says: “This cannot be done”.

The mate, Robert Read was my great-grandfather. He died on 7 March 1930 in Wanganui. His widow was interviewed in 1952 on her 90th birthday:[10]

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 60 at the time, so perhaps it is not surprising that he ‘never really recovered’, although he did live for another 16 years. I also wrote about him in my earlier post on Robert Read and the Moa explosion, but I’ve since done more research and this post has more information.I wrote about his father in my recent post on John Read.

This is a copy of Robert’s certificate as a Mate of a Home Passenger Ship (obtained in 1891 – interestingly, George Allport is one of the signatories.) And a photo of Robert in 1905, taken around the time of his oldest daughter’s wedding.

And the Moa? After another large explosion about 8pm on 4 February it began to sink and was gone by 10pm. It had been built in Lyttelton in 1864 – “by a coincidence the vessel met her end in her jubilee year”.[11] In the 1870s the ship was used in the wool trade from Lyttelton, then for the past 25 years has been ‘running in the Wellington – Wanganui and West Coast service – usually in the coal trade’. Running aground at Foxton seems to have happened at least twice (as reported in 1909 and 1911.)

The Dominion reported that the ship was uninsured. [12] Hundreds of cases of motor spirits were washed ashore on the coast for days afterwards.[13]


[1] The Times, Feb 4 1914; clipping on Marine Department file ‘SS Moa destroyed by fire’, Archives NZ file item: R19983063

[2] ‘On fire at sea…’ Dominion, 4 February 1914, page 8

[3] Report of the Collector of Customs for Wanganui (J. Walker); on Marine Department file, Archives NZ file item: R19983063

[4] ‘The Last of the Moa’, Dominion, 5 February 1914, page 6

[5] ‘King’s Theatre’, Wanganui Chronicle , 6 February 1914, page 8

[6] The Times, Feb 4 1914; clipping on Marine Department file, Archives NZ file item: R19983063

[7] Comment on Marine Department file

8] Deposition of Robert Read, on Marine Department file

[9] Deposition of Robert Nelson, on Marine Department file

[10] From an article published in the Wanganui Chronicle, 12 August 1952

[11] The Times, Feb 4 1914; clipping on Marine Department file

[12] ‘On fire at sea…’ Dominion, 4 February 1914, page 8

[13] ‘The Moa’s Cargo’, Colonist, 10 February 1914, page 6


One thought on “‘The last of the Moa’: S S Moa explosion

  1. Hi Vivienne; our families have some shared history. My grandfather, William Sawyers, was the captain of the Moa at the time of the explosion.


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