New Zealand Maritime Museum

Northern Steam Ship Company


Working for the Northern Steam Ship Company

During the early 1900s all steamships were required to carry the correct number of able seamen, greasers, firemen, trimmers and apprentices or ordinary seamen or boys according to the tonnage of the vessel. For example, NGAPUHI, a vessel over 200 tons net register and under 400 tons net register and between 750 and 1250 indicated horsepower was required to carry 5 able seamen and 1 boy, 3 firemen, 2 trimmers and 3 greasers. However this scale did not apply to vessels exclusively employed in river trades.

To be employed on a steamship in 1908, crew had to pass certain qualifications. To become an able seaman on a steamer in the coastal trade, a seaman had to serve at least two years as an ordinary seaman on a steamship, square-rigged sailing vessel, fishing vessel or decked cutter, or complete a two year apprenticeship on a square-rigged sailing vessel.

Cleeaning the decks - RARAWA 1915.  Photograph: Markwick Album
Cleaning the decks - RARAWA 1915
Photograph: Markwick Album

Ships' captains often commanded a number of vessels before they retired, but often they became associated with a particular ship because of their long service with it. For instance, Captain Edward Keatley commanded 28 Northern Steam Ship Company vessels and during his career had been master of both the smallest (WAIUKU) and largest vessel (MATANGI) in the fleet. In 1885, Keatley had begun his career like many, starting out as a ship's boy and working his way up the ranks. When Captain Keatley was commanding the largest of the Northern Company vessels he would have had two or three bridge officers as well as a personal steward to look after him. However, on HAUTURU, his last command in 1937, he only had one mate to assist him because he was in charge of a relatively small vessel.

The crews on the steamers in the early 1900s were housed in the forecastle, which was fitted out with bunks. Beneath the bunks there would be a few small lockers/drawers for belongings to be stowed. Meals were eaten at a small table and the seats were a couple of wooden benches. The officers cabins were located in the midships section, near the boiler and engines. This meant the cabins would have been hot and noisy. The master, mate, chief engineer and the cook had separate berths. The cabins were very small; the typical size was 2 x 1.5 metres, just long enough for a bunk and either a desk or set of drawers.

Generally, it would have been hard work on the steamers. However, the officers and crew had a fairly relaxed time on excursion days. There would have been some preparations carried out before the excursion and carrying out of tasks such as wiping coal smuts off the deck seats. Then the crew would have been busy embarking passengers and loading excursion gear. Once at the destination and while the passengers were taking part in activities on shore, the crew relaxed by fishing and chatting. The hardest task of the day would have been counting the passengers back on board to ensure the numbers had not been exceeded and everyone was accounted for. After the excursionists had disembarked at the end of the day, the crew went back to the normal routine of loading cargo into the ship for the next voyage.