Topic: A Journey of Discovery by Peter Pratt
Peter Pratt's entry in the Topic: 2012 Memoir and Local History Competitionis inspired by his search for the Empire Jane’s whereabouts.
The aroma of tobacco and Lifebuoy soap brought back boyhood memories, as my eldest sister Irene, and I went through our late father’s suitcase that had lain in her attic for thirty years. There were pencils, a fountain pen and an oil smeared notebook, his Merchant Navy lapel badge and many other personal items.
I thumbed through the pages of his passport dated 1948 to see the man I hardly knew, as he always seemed to be away at sea. His grey eyes stared at me from below his thinning, tousled grey hair. My sister handed me an envelope containing several references from various shipping companies. That from Townsend Brothers Ferries stated my father had served as Second Engineer on the SS Empire Jane, from June 1945 to February 1946.
Several years later, after I had retired, I decided I wanted to know more of my father’s maritime career.
I found out that he first went to sea as a fifteen year-old in 1906, and that he fought through two world wars as a marine engineer before retiring aged 68.
In 2005 I was looking through Sea Breezes, a shipping magazine. There was a request from a Mr Webb asking for information on the whereabouts of World War II ships, tugboats and salvage vessels. It was then that the Empire Jane came to mind, along with others my father had sailed in. My research showed the Empire Jane, was a seagoing tug built in Aberdeen in 1944.
I thought my father had sailed aboard huge cargo vessels, not little tugboats. My curiosity got the better of me. Further research showed that after the Empire Jane came into service, the British Ministry of War and Transport acquired it for search and recovery operations in the Atlantic, North Sea and English Channel. In the following August father sailed the tug to Singapore via Gibraltar, Suez, Aden, Bombay (Mumbai) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
On 28th December1945, the Empire Jane docked at Sembawang, to continue working in the British Navy Dockyard in Singapore. Father left the Empire Jane on 19 February 1946. But what happened to the Empire Jane after Singapore? I wanted to know more.
I included it in list of my late father’s vessels I sent to Sea Breezes magazine, asking if anyone had sailed with my father or knew of their whereabouts. I had numerous replies from ex-seamen in the UK and Canada, but it was a letter and photographs from New Zealand that held my interest...
Mr Hudson wrote. “I can help you with at least one vessel, the Empire Jane. It was one of two seagoing tugs purchased by Union Steamship Company of New Zealand and arrived from Singapore in 1947 for service in Wellington Harbour.”
Since renamed Taioma; his photographs showed it stood on blocks in a museum, I knew then this was no ordinary vessel!
Now, knowing its new name and its location, history tells us that In April 1968, during a violent storm, the Taioma was involved in the attempted rescue of the inter-island ferry Wahine. The ferry had grounded in Wellington Harbour and capsized near Steeple Rock. Out of 633 passengers and crew - 53 people lost their lives. The Taioma was taken out of service and in 1978, was exhibited in the Tauranga Maritime Museum and Heritage Village on 17th Avenue.
The vessel became a popular feature for many years, as a tribute to seamen that had lost their lives in World War II, as my brother Kenneth had in 1941 as a 16-year-old cabin boy. On 19th March 2000 the Taioma (formerly the Empire Jane) was scuttled by the Tauranga Reef Society off Motiti Island to become an artificial reef for the pleasures of divers.
Sea Breezes magazine printed my article on the Empire Jane’s whereabouts in the following month’s edition, with two other photographs I purchased from New Zealand photographer Mr VH Young in Wellington.
My answer to Mr Webb’s question ‘Where are they now?’ was done. I wrote to Mr Hudson and Mr Young of New Zealand, thanking them, and put their letters and the photographs with others I had collected on my father’s sea career.
It was ironical that almost three years later, our daughter and her family emigrated to New Zealand from the UK. In 2008 my wife and I visited our daughter in Tauranga and climbed Mauao the day before we returned to England.
I got talking to a gentleman who stood, like us enjoying the magnificent view.
“What part of England are you from?” he asked.
“Middlesbrough, on the England’s North East coast,” I said after regaining my breath.
“I came from England - Brighton – been here forty years.” He chuckle. “I feared to go back in case I missed something here!”
He pointed out the islands in the Bay of Plenty for me: Motiti, Mayor and Whale. I told him that I had fished around Motiti the day before, and what a great experience it had been.
“There’s a famous World War II tugboat down there, you know. They scuttled it some years ago, so divers can have fun swimming down its funnel and through portholes.”
“Yes, I know.”
After our return to England, I opened my photo album to add more photographs of our daughter’s new home and the photos taken while on Mauao. Tidying the family album I came across Mr Hudson’s letter and photos of the Taioma, three years had lapsed since then.
A strange feeling came over me as and read the letter again, my thoughts went back to the gentleman we met while on Mauao a month earlier. Could that World War II tug he told me about be the Empire Jane? All kind of thoughts were going through my head. Had I been so forgetful as to realise I had been so near to that old tug, in the same town - or could it be just a coincidence?
Subsequently, I rang my daughter in Tauranga and told her what the chap on Mauao had told me about the World War II tug. I e-mailed her the vessels details that Mr Hudson had sent me three years earlier. Somehow she made contact with Weidmann, the man who scuttled the Taioma, and asked if I could contact him. She explained the family connection with the Empire Jane and he was extremely interested, especially after she told him her grandfather had been Second Engineer on the Taioma when it was the ‘Empire Jane’ during the Second World War and sailed on it to Singapore.
Steve Weidmann sent me an email asking to contact him on my next visit to Tauranga to see his scrapbook and artefacts saved from the Taioma. A year later at around the same time my wife applied for immigration, my daughter and I were invited to Steve Weidmann’s house. To be surrounded by artefacts from the Taioma was a wonderful and fruitful experience, as he told us how he and his friends had spent two years cleaning the vessel before it was allowed to become a natural reef and habitat for marine life. I could sense the pride in his voice.
As my daughter said, “Isn’t it strange, Dad, of all the places in the world we have chosen to settle where one of my granddad’s old ships had its final journey?”
About the author
Peter Pratt has written many travel articles and is now working on his own memoirs. He is a member of Tauranga Writers. (www.taurangawriters.org.nz.)
This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/D2NE-CSD6