Saturday, May 9, 2009

“Blown to Atoms” – the end of the “Cloud”, 10 November 1909

Image: A hulk in Toulon, 19th century. From Wiki.

To those of us here in the television age, the story leading up to the end of the Auckland Harbour Board’s powder hulk Cloud in November 1909 could read almost like a “Seconds from Disaster” script. Or perhaps an old-style “Boy’s Own” adventure.

Hulks, ships demasted and converted to become floating warehouses and prisons, had been in use for centuries. In New Zealand, one of the earliest examples was the Marion, a former barque used as a powder magazine early in the 1860s. In 1862, due to a risk of her sinking with a load of gunpowder on board (a considerable amount was indeed ruined by the water - Southern Cross, 28 February 1862) the Marion later served as a holding place for Maori prisoners during the Waikato War. In November 1864 the hulk was sold by the Crown via J. S. Macfarlane, along with a quantity of coal, to Henderson & Macfarlane, and served as a coal hulk. In early April 1866, the hulk sank during a gale off the Auckland Harbour breakwater with 500 tons of coal on board. Now, the Marion impeded shipping, so efforts to raise her were made in August, but without success. The Public Works Department made a successful attempt to clear the sunken wreck with gunpowder from 23-25 January 1867. In a way, she returned in 1907, when pieces of timber dredged up by the Auckland Harbour Board 300 feet from the Railway Wharf were thought at the time to be from the Marion’s remains. (Taranaki Herald, 5 September 1907)

Back to the 1870s. The departure of the 18th regiment in 1870, leaving behind a considerable quantity of explosives, caused the Southern Cross to ponder whether it was time for the authorities to consider purchasing a powder hulk. (SC, 8 April 1870) As it turned out, a powder magazine was set up at Mt Eden gaol, but by 1876, the Harbour Board itself considered whether it was worth while buying a hulk to use for the storage of explosives, to encourage importers to stop using storage areas at Queen Street wharf. (SC, 12 July 1876)

It took a while – quite a long while – but, the Observer reported in July 1899 that a hulk had been purchased by the Chairman of the Harbour Board, William J. Napier. This despite the preference for a dry land magazine store by Auckland merchants. (Observer, 8 July 1899) This purchase appears to have been that of the 350 ton former barque Cloud, originally built in Spain, according to later post-explosion reports from the Herald and Star. The first reference I was able to find for the Cloud via Papers Past was when she had had a mishap in late April 1898: her main top gallant-mast had been carried away while en route from Lady Elliot Island to Dunedin, forcing her to put into Sydney for repairs. (Grey River Argus 2 May 1898) Duly repaired, the Cloud continued trans-Tasman trading, purchased by a Mr. Carlan from Auckland (or, this could have been Carlaw, as the later papers reported the owners as the Carlaw Brothers), and on 28th February 1899 she left Newcastle, loaded with coal and bound for Wellington. Arriving at Wellington, the coal discharged, the Cloud then sailed for Port Albert to reload for a return voyage across the Tasman to Sydney (Evening Post, 30 March 1899).

Then, a year after the mast mishap off the New South Wales coast, the Cloud ran aground after leaving the wharf at Port Albert. She had just been loaded with timber – now, in early May 1899, she was badly damaged, taking on water. Her deck cargo was removed to try to refloat her, but eventually the insurance company declared her unsalvageable, and agreed to have her towed to Auckland for repairs “as a raft” to be sold. (Evening Post, 11 May 1899) The end of her career was to be as the Auckland Harbour Board’s powder magazine hulk – dismantled and converted by W. H. Brown for the Board.

For the next ten years, the Observer tut-tutted about the Cloud and the Auckland Harbour Board’s decision to buy same, and how it really didn’t appear to be used for the purpose.
“The Harbour Board appears to have pursued a very blundersome policy in the matter of powder storage. After spending pretty nearly £1500 on a hulk, and paying a man something like £2 a week to look after her, month after month has gone by and not en ounce of powder has been stored in her yet. And, by all accounts, there is no likelihood that any will be stored there. These extravagant blunders are too frequent.”
(Observer, 27 January 1900)

“The powder hulk has proved its title to be included amongst the list of the Harbour Board's white elephants. During the year, it has involved a loss of just about £80 on working expenses, to say nothing whatever of interest, depreciation, insurance, and other charges. The cost of the hulk was£ls6o, so that at 5 per cent, this represents £78 for interest, and, at 10 per cent.,--£156 for depreciation. Seeing that the gross earnings of the hulk are £12 17s 4d per month, it is difficult to see how it is going to pay expenses, apart altogether from the other charges.”
(Observer, 14 December 1901)

Eventually, it seems, the agents for explosives importers and manufacturers did begin to use the hulk as intended. Originally the Cloud was anchored off Bean Rock but, when it was felt that this location was a hazard to shipping, the hulk was moved to a spot near the mouth of the Tamaki River and St Heliers. On 10 November 1909, there were 22 tons of explosives on board, mainly blasting powder in loose and pellet form, with the remainder of the weight being gelignite. It was by no means fully loaded – but there was enough for the bang.

Earlier that month, Mr. Finch had been appointed as the custodian of the hulk. He and his wife lived on board the powder magazine for ten days, with all their furniture, clothing, and savings. At six o’clock in the morning on the 10th of November, Finch woke up and started to wash down the decks as he did every morning. His wife cooked breakfast for them both in the galley, located in the vessel’s after-end. He smelled burning as he worked, went to check to see if Mrs. Finch was burning wood in her stove, but she wasn’t. Mystified, Finch returned to work – then saw smoke coming up from the hatch.

Going down below, he was confronted by a dense cloud of smoke in the hold, but he couldn’t make out where it was coming from. Heading back up, he told a reporter from the Herald, he noticed a red glare through an aperture in the scroll. At this point, he took up an axe to cut through the decking – only to find that, by then, “the whole of the interior was one great, glowing mass”.

The couple then proceeded desperately to put out the fire, Mr. Finch bringing up buckets of sea water, while Mrs. Finch brought buckets of water from the deck’s tanks. Eventually, the tanks ran out, and Mrs. Finch collapsed from exhaustion. Finch then placed her in the available small boat, and cut it adrift. Then, he went back to trying to douse the flames.

Eventually, he decided to try to scuttle the vessel, but there was a delay in finding a tool to smash through the hull (he found a blunt axe – it isn’t reported what he’d done with the one with which he’d earlier chopped through the decking) and when he got down in the forward hold, it was too smoky to breathe. After two attempts, he collapsed unconscious on the deck, only to regain consciousness and find that the fire had now reached the decking. At that point, finally, he realised there was no hope of saving the hulk from the fire. He leapt overboard and swam for the small boat. He just barely managed to reach it before his strength gave out – his wife hauled him up out of the water. Together, they rowed for a reef off the Tamaki coast, and were picked up there by the scow Ida, which took them to North Head. All the while, what remained of the Cloud burned – until at 20 minutes past 1 in the afternoon, it blew up.

George Taylor, signalman at Mt. Victoria station at Devonport, had seen the vessel clearly that morning as it had started to burn. He heard the explosion, saw the tall pillar of smoke, and immediately telephoned the Harbour Board office. When the smoke cleared, there was not a trace left of the hulk. As the Herald had headlined the story, it was as if the Cloud had blown completely to atoms.

The shock of the explosion, actually two separate blasts in succession, was felt and heard over the entire isthmus, along the North Shore, and as far away as Henderson and the Coromandel Peninsula. At the time, it was regarded as the biggest explosion Auckland had ever experienced, and likened by many to that of an earthquake shock, or something like the eruption at Tarawera from 1886. Everyone feared for the Finches’ safety – but Mr. Finch, completing his unexpected day of derring-do, reported as soon as he could later that afternoon to the Harbour Board office. (I can only imagine what was said: “I wish to report, with regret, sir, that your powder hulk has blown up. Sorry about that ...”)

The Herald’s account of the story is a descriptive gem – so much so that the Observer, with a very evident sigh, remarked:
“The sensation of the week has been the blowing up of the powder hulk — or, rather, not so much the blowing up as the "Herald's" account of it. The "Star " lamentably failed to rise to the occasion, and Grandma evidently registered a solemn vow to get ahead of her reptile contemporary, or bust. She got ahead per medium of three and a-half columns of penny dreadful reading, surmounted by thrilling and awe-inspiring double-column headlines. Undoubtedly, the most wonderful part of the affair was the narrative of Finch, the caretaker of the hulk. Anybody who will deliberately remain for hours in a burning powder hulk is either a hero or something else. However, 'tis a certainty that nobody can contradict Finch's yarn, even if he desired to do so.

"Grandma's thrilling yarn was rich in unconscious humour, and the further it went the richer it became, leading people to the supposition that the frenzied scribe who wrote it drew his information from peculiar sources. The gem of the whole collection is undoubtedly this thriller: "A workman engaged on the erection of a house at St. Helier's Bay had his hat blown off, and another had to make a second attempt to light his pipe."

"This, when you come to think of it, is simply sublime. Evidently, in Grandma's opinion, it is quite an uncommon occurrence for a man, even when working on a roof on a windy day, to have his hat blown off, or to make two attempts to light his pipe. It's lucky we don't have a powder hulk explosion every day. If we did, the venerable female would go mad — or madder than she is already. “
(Observer, 20 November 1909)

That said, though, the Observer still published a long and flowery poem in Finch’s honour. Finch, it is said, was cleared of culpability, although it was suggested that sparks from the galley may have found their way into the hold, starting the fire off.

The whole affair came to a close in June the following year with the Auckland Harbour Board successfully sued by the explosives owners for £1069 13s. (Evening Post) According to Paul Titchener in his local history articles later that century, the Harbour Board then decided it was wisest to set up a powder magazine on land instead. I’d say such a store would definitely have been “no cooking allowed”.

1 comment:

  1. Crikey, I'd have been off that burning wreck like a shot!
    The Finches are lucky the radiant heat from the fire didn't send them up, too.