Nestled at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound in Marlborough, New Zealand, is the pretty little town of Picton. To most visitors it is merely a stopping-off point as they embark or disembark from the ferry that connects the North and South Islands. This is a great shame, as it definitely warrants further investigation and will reward the curious traveller with its range of attractions. Chief amongst these is the ship, the Edwin Fox.
A proud ship
Built in 1853, The Edwin Fox started life as a fully-rigged ship in Bengal Province, India and was named after a financier attached to the East India Company. Unusually she was built of teak, to protect her from woodworm and a covering of copper-sheeting was applied to further strengthen her hull. Her maiden voyage was from Calcutta to London, carrying a cargo of tea.
Soon after her arrival in London she was sold at auction to Duncan Dunbar, for a then record price of £30,000. He immediately leased her to the British Government, as a transport ship for the Crimean War. She carried troops during 1854/5, proving her durability by surviving a storm that wiped out nearly every ship in the convoy. These voyages netted Dunbar a handsome profit of £8,000. In 1858 the ship was called back into service, as a convict ship bound for Fremantle, Western Australia. After this her history is unclear for a few years, due to the loss during World War II of shipping records of the period. What is known, from contemporary accounts, is that she sailed around South Asia for the next nine years.
The undeserved fate
In 1867 the Edwin Fox had her crossjack yard1 removed and became a barque2, instead of a fully rigged vessel. This was done as a matter of economy and as a way of reducing the crew required. Her first major voyage, after this alteration, was as an immigrant ship bound for New Zealand in 1873. It was an ill-starred voyage. The crew got drunk and were unable to navigate safe passage through a storm. The remaining rigging was badly damaged and she was towed to Brest in France where a hefty lawsuit was settled. The entire crew was sentenced to six months hard labour. A second, equally disastrous voyage paid eloquent tribute to the Edwin Fox's strength. After being dashed on the rocks outside Deal in Kent, England, the hull was almost undamaged below the waterline.
After a total of five voyages to New Zealand, the Edwin Fox was showing her age. She was sold and converted into a refrigeration ship, at which point she had the rest of her rigging removed. After this she was towed to various ports, unable to make the voyage under her own steam. Although she was refitted as a steamship with two funnels, the final ignominy for this proud ship was her gradual dilapidation as a coal hulk. It seemed to be the end for the Edwin Fox.
The Edwin Fox Restoration Society
In 1964 Mr Norman Brayshaw masterminded the setting up of the Edwin Fox Restoration Society. The aim of the society was to rescue this ship with an incredible history. In September, 1965 the Edwin Fox was bought from the 'New Zealand Refrigerating Company', for the sum of one shilling. However, after much hard work by volunteers, the Edwin Fox project was stalled by council opposition, leaving the ship homeless until 4 December, 1987.
In preparation for her final voyage to Picton, volunteers removed the accumulation of coal and dirt from the lower decks of the ship. To their astonishment the original teak beams were in perfect condition after over 130 years. In addition, the strength of the hull meant she was able to make her final voyage, with the help of a makeshift mast. Huge crowds came to see the Edwin Fox berth in Picton for the final time. Now the society could finally set up an exhibition to do justice to this marvellous old ship.
The exhibition and the tour of the ship
Visitors to the Edwin Fox Museum will first visit the exhibition of historical artefacts associated with the ship. It is a fascinating insight into the varied career of the Edwin Fox and a tribute to the brave souls who made such hazardous voyages to deliver cargo or start a new life. On its own it would make an interesting hour for someone interested in maritime history. However, the high point of the visit is still to come.
In dry dock stands the Edwin Fox. She is a hugely impressive sight even now. The teak beams are in near-perfect condition and redolent with history. It is an incredible experience to go below decks. You are standing where so many other people ate, slept, died and brought new life into the world. The hairs on the nape of your neck stand up and you realise that you are standing on the dry dock equivalent of the Titanic. Whether you are spiritual or not, you cannot escape the idea that the 'ghosts' of the past are watching you. The hull itself is still covered with the copper sheeting, now green with age. It is nothing less than living history.
If you are visiting Picton, or just passing through, make time to visit this maritime wonder. In doing so you will support a society that is preserving a piece of history. Where else can you see a ship that has the distinction of being the last surviving Crimean War troopship, last surviving Australian convict ship and last surviving wooden New Zealand immigrant ship?