Topic: Ada Hannam by Adrienne M. Frater

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A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

Archived version here.

Portrait of Ada Hannam

At ten o’clock on a sunny day on 9th February 1909 the Hannam family board the Union Steam Ship Company’s ship, the Penguin. The four children run around in circles, squealing with excitement and joy. They have not been on a ship before. Their belongings are in the hold. Their father Joe has been ill and they are on their way to make a new life in Rotorua.

As the ship steams up the coast, the Nelson lighthouse grows smaller and smaller. Ronald and George play hide and seek on the deck and soon make friends with the other children. Margaret and Ruby are too shy to leave their mother’s skirts.

“I hope we see Pelorus Jack,” says George as the Penguin approaches French Pass. As the ship bucks in the turbulent currents, Ronald and George cling to the railings and the next minute their wish comes true.

The famous dolphin leaps from the water. He flips and leaps and dives. Then Pelorus Jack leads the Penguin through the narrow pass. The children laugh and cheer. Mrs Ada Hannam is the only one looking grim. She touches her husband’s arm.

“I don’t like it,” she says. “This dolphin has not been near the Penguin since a passenger shot at it two years ago. Seeing it today is an omen. I have a bad feeling that the Penguin might sink.”

Ada says the same thing to her mother and sister when the ship stops at Picton and they have a cup of tea together at the tea rooms. Mrs Hannam’s sister says not to worry.

“The Penguin is a fine ship. The sea is calm and the sky is blue. You’ll come to no harm.”

Mr and Mrs Hannam wave to their family as the ship pulls away from the Picton wharf. Mrs Hannam, who is pregnant, is too worried to enjoy the fine scenery.

Ada’s sister is right. It is calm and sunny all the way to Tory Channel. But once the Penguin hits Cook Strait massive black clouds descend. Monster waves hit the ship and the rain is so thick the captain has trouble getting sightings.

The Hannam family go below to their cabin. Despite the storm and Mr Hannam’s fear of seasickness, they fall asleep.

Ada wakes to a loud noise. The ship judders. She hears a tearing sound like the ripping of cloth. Next the stewardess comes in and says they are to put their lifebelts on and go up on deck. Although they are steerage passengers the stewardess takes time to help the four children into the bulky lifebelts.

The younger children cry. The older boys are brave. The children hold their parents’ hands as waves slosh over the deck.

“Wait,” calls Ada.

She disappears below and returns with her handbag. When Ada refuses to get into a lifeboat without her husband, he tells her she must. She tries to push her premonition to the back of her mind and boards with her four children. But when Lifeboat No. 4 is being lowered, a rope comes loose and everyone falls out.

It is dark and the waves are enormous. Soon the three older Hannam children are lost from sight. Even so Ada, who has already saved Ruby, drags several women back into the lifeboat. She is a strong young woman, but this needs all her strength.

Although Ada Hannam has lost three children, she keeps talking to the women who seem to have given up. When the oar slips from one of the men’s hands, she even offers to row. They are clear of the Penguin now and when she looks back Ada can see that the lights are lower on the water. She prays that Joe is on one of the remaining life-boats.

Every now and again they watch the captain fire a distress rocket into the sky. But no-one comes to their rescue. The Penguin is sinking fast.

When the monster wave hits, Lifeboat No. 4 capsizes. The crew and the other women are thrown out, but Ada, Ruby and fourteen-year-old Mathew Ellis are trapped inside the upturned boat. At first Ada thinks she will drown, but something makes her kick upwards. She feels her hair tug and thinks it must be caught on something. But it is Ellis holding onto her long hair. She kicks harder.

Up she pops into a pocket of air trapped in the keel of the boat. She draws a deep breath then helps pull Ellis up. He is nearly out of breath by the time he surfaces in the pocket of air.

 Ada saves the boy’s life and she does this with a two-year-old child in her arms. Soon the three of them are breathing the air that is trapped under the boat. Every so often a wave lifts the lifeboat and lets in a little more air. It is pitch black and Ellis keeps asking will they be saved. His voice gets higher and higher.

“I’ll let you into a secret,” says Ada. “Something tells me I will survive so stick close to me and you’ll be fine.”

Through these long, dark hours Ada Hannam tells Ellis again and again they will be rescued and not to give up.  With her handbag hooked securely over her arm, she ties Ruby to the seat of the boat. She uses the lifebelt as a pillow. Even when Ruby dies, Mrs Hannam goes on telling the boy not to lose hope. She pushes away any thought of her drowned children and concentrates on helping this older child survive.

At dawn they feel a change in the motion and when the lifeboat is lifted by a wave they see a strip of light. When Ada touches some seaweed she knows they’re near land. She begins rubbing her legs as they have lost all their feeling. She wants to be strong enough to walk away from the boat and get help. Every so often she lowers herself into the water and at last her feet touch the bottom.

The next wave tosses the upside-down lifeboat onto the beach.

She yells – but no-one hears. Not only has Ada Hannam survived a terrible ordeal, she has helped others and in particular rescued a boy. But for Ada, this is not enough. Though they are so near to being saved, she still has work to do.

Ada hitches up her long skirts and scratches away at the sand under the side of the boat. Every time she makes progress, the sea washes the sand back. But she keeps on scratching like a dog digging for a bone. The words she says when she has to give up are not the words a lady uses. Then, even though she has almost collapsed with exhaustion, she begins yelling again and wiggles a piece of wood from the mast stump back and forth under a small gap.

“Yell louder,” she tells Ellis. But Ellis can’t. He sinks onto the wet sand and closes his eyes.

“Help!” screams Ada.

Luckily she has a particularly loud voice and finally somebody hears her. Ada feels the lifeboat move. She hears voices from above. When lifeboat number four flips over, she knows that the second half of her premonition is true. She is safe and so is Ellis and hopefully her unborn child.

Some shepherds from a nearby station help Ada to her feet.

“The boy,” she says. “First help the boy.”

Ada watches the shepherds carry Ellis up the steep path to a nearby farmhouse. Her legs wobble. She has goose bumps. The light hurts her eyes. At last she hands over her dead child.



No known Copyright. Please acknowledge ' Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19080716-15-1 ' when re-using this image. 

The sights Ada Hannam sees are tragic. The other survivors are bare-footed. Their clothing is ripped. They have cuts and scratches. But they are alive. Ada clutches her handbag and looks out to sea. There is no sign of the Penguin. She stays on the beach a while longer and when one of the shepherd’s says she needs to come up to the homestead for a hot drink she says, “First I must look for my husband.”

Ada refuses to be helped to the farmhouse until she has looked for Joe.

When she doesn’t find him Ada won’t let anyone take her arm and walks to the farmhouse herself. They wrap her in blankets. She drinks five cups of tea. It is only when she overhears someone talking that she realises she is the only woman to have survived.

She doesn’t yet know that seventy-two lives have been lost. She certainly doesn’t realise she is a heroine. But she is an impoverished heroine. She has lost her children, her husband and her belongings, but not her unborn child.

When Ada opens her wet handbag she finds some seaweed, a black glove and a ten pound note. At last this brave woman lies down and sleeps.

Months later, Ada gives birth to a healthy son who eventually goes to sea himself. Ada has much to grieve for, but such is her strength of character she goes into business opening a small boarding house, first in Wanganui and later in Onehunga. This brave woman, the heroine of the wreck of the Penguin, is my great-aunt.





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Ada Hannam by Adrienne M. Frater

Note:About the author: After living all over, Adrienne Frater now calls Nelson her home. She writes for children and adults and particularly enjoys writing for radio. Much of her work has been either broadcast or published, and most of her children’s writing is for use in the classroom. Adrienne has recently embarked on writing historical fiction and this led her to researching and writing about her great-aunt. She says, “Writing energises me and is what I like to do best.”