Thursday, May 26, 2011

A clock from the past

I attended the AGM of the Birkenhead Historical Society last Saturday, and listened to the stories of Keith Peachey who had, during his career, served in the engine rooms of one of Auckland's last vehicular ferries, the Alex Alison.

During the course of his talk, he carefully took out of a bag the clock you see above these words, and gave it to the historical society for their museum. He said he had taken it off the ferry as it was being prepared for being towed to Tasmania. It hadn't come with a clock when it had initially come from Australia -- this one was, he said, bought in Auckland when the crew realised they needed to know the time.

David Balderston's book The Harbour Ferries of Auckland is part of my reference library. His chapter on the vehicular ferry era of 57 years on Auckland's Waitemata Harbour is entitled "The Floating Bridge", which sums that time up nicely. There were vehicular ferries just before there were vehicles in the modern sense of motorised transport, an answer to the problem of how to covey live animals such as horses across the waters. After the opening of the harbour bridge, ferries with magical names to the memory like  The Goshawk, The Sparrowhawk, The Mollyhawk and The Eaglehawk ended up, after their decades of service, broken up and then towed, as hulks, to "a quiet corner of the upper harbour", and burnt.

The Alex Alison was to have a different fate.

She was originally the diesel-powered Frances Peat serving  from Kangaroo Point on the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales from 1931. This is her, armoured during World War II as an American vessel AB 422, serving during that conflict in the Pacific Islands. After the war, along with her similarly-armoured sister the George Peat, the Frances Peat was purchased by the Devonport Steam Ferry Company, and made it across the Tasman under their own power, arriving in May 1946. Once here and refitted as vehicular ferries, the George Peat was renamed the Ewen W Alison, while the Frances Peat received the name Alex Alison.

Come the harbour bridge, there was no longer a need for the redundant and at times troublesome vehiculars. The Ewen W Alison and the Alex Alison were sold to the Tasmania Government in 1960 for £12,000, who budgeted £60,000 for reconditioning them for a career as vehicular ferries between Hobart and Bruny Island. The 1524-mile tow was expected to take eight to nine days, back across the Tasman .

The Alex Alison never made it. On the fifth day out on the high seas, she took on water. The next day, the Kaitoa towing her had to cast off the tow line, the situation became that perilous, and then monitored the last hours until at 1.15 pm on 30 April 1960, the Alex Alison sank.

The Ewen W Alison was more fortunate, making it across later that year. She served as the renamed Mangana until the 1980s, then as a reserve until 1991.

So Mr Peachey's clock, generously given to Birkenhead Historical Society, is likely one of our last links to the lost vehicular ferries period of our city's maritime past. 

I've held it (carefully) in my hands. It's quite a weight. Oh, and the bit of wrapped up paper sellotaped to the face? That's the key.

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