22 September 2019

To the glory of God and in memory of Captain Williams

In the heart of the Lambton end of the Wellington central city a small, elegant building perches at a busy intersection a mere two blocks from Parliament. The Missions to Seamen Building was begun in 1903, and its dedication plaque at the corner of Stout and Whitmore Streets has been half-noticed but mostly ignored by Wellington pedestrians for generations. Its text reads:

To the Glory of God
And in memory of


This stone was laid by
The donor of the land & building
16th Dec 1903
James Moore, Missioner

The building is a distinctive feature in Wellington's north end, particularly as it is nestled within the heritage precinct with other architectural gems like the Old Government Building (1876) and the former Supreme Court House (1880). David Kernohan's 1994 book Wellington's Old Buildings describes the Mission building as follows:

The building occupies a conspicuous corner site, and, while small, has a scale and character which still provide a strong presence despite being surrounded by high-rise commercial buildings. It is essentially ecclesiastical in appearance with references to Dutch and English domestic, and Scottish baronial, architecture. At one time on its northern gable there was a model of a steamer which can now be seen in the Maritime Museum [p.60].
The Captain Williams memorialised on the building is William Robert Williams, born in Gravesend on 5 March 1832, who first arrived in New Zealand in the 1850s on barques trading from the Australian colonies. The Dunstan gold rush of 1858 saw him sailing more and more to New Zealand, often bringing coal from the New South Wales port of Newcastle and returning to Australia with timber and kauri gum. His New Zealand port in this trade was Wellington, which was the start of a long association for Williams.

Increasingly successful, Williams acquired a wide range of ships including the Heversham, the Australind, the Cyrus, the Edwin Bassett, and the Carlotta. He may not have been the luckiest proprietor, because his obituary lists all of the above vessels as being lost to shipwreck, although often after Williams had sold them to other owners. Clear signs of Williams' economic prowess came in 1876 when he purchased the steamer Grafton in Sydney and in 1881 when he returned to England for the first time in 27 years to buy the steamer Westport at Glasgow, and sailed on it direct from England to Westport in a speedy passage of 62 days. Later he sold his shipping interests to the Union Steamship Company and instead managed his West Coast coal business. His Evening Post obituary on 17 March 1890 reported:

The deceased was a shrewd man of business, and while he acquired a competence for himself he did much good for Wellington by his enterprise. At one time he was without doubt the largest employer of labour in the city, and he was always noted for fair dealling with those who were in his service. While running his line of steamers he had a shipbuilding yard on the Te Aro foreshore, and amongst the undertakings carried out in connection with the establishment may be noted the lengthening of the Moa, the construction of the Mana (which was his property up to his death) and the Ahuriri, and the fitting up of the Maitai, after her hull, &c, had been completed by Messrs. Luke and Sons.
It was the generous gift of £7000 from Williams' widow, Mrs Mary Anne Williams - totalling around $1.25m in today's money, allowing for inflation - that built the Mission in her husband's memory. The New Zealand Times of 30 July 1903 lavished praise on Mrs Williams for her generosity, in keeping with the popular sentiment of contemporary journalism:

Mrs Williams has set a noble example to people possessed of wealth in thus providing the means for brightening and humanising the lives of the thousands of sea-faring men who visit Wellington every year. Strangers in a strange laud these men—too often waifs and strays of the ocean—see no means of spending their leisure in a rational way, and it is only through some organised body in the community that an effort can be made to bring them into touch with their fellow-men ashore.

On its dedication day in 1904 the Mission was officially declared open by the new Governor, Lord Plunket:

Opening ceremony, 24 August 1904
Source: Terence Hodgson, Colonial Capital: Wellington 1865-1910, 1990, p.134.
Opening ceremony, 24 August 1904, source: Papers Past
The building was narrowly saved from demolition in the 1980s and converted into upscale apartments in 1994. I have heard that one of its prominent occupants was New Zealand's first woman Prime Minister, Rt Hon Jenny Shipley, who would have appreciated its proximity to her day job.

The Mission to Seamen still exists, although the name has changed to Mission to Seafarers. The Anglican mission was founded in England in 1856, and provides drop-in centres in ports around the world for seafarers to rest, with chapel services and cheap accommodation. The Mission now operates in eight New Zealand ports, with Wellington's service operating for around half the year from Shed 52 on Aotea Quay.

See also:
History: Pre-1840 European visitors to Wellington, 21 February 2016
History: Wellington 150, a capital anniversary, 26 July 2015
History: Wellington's first settler ship, 22 January 2014
History: The lifeblood of a young colony, 12 June 2009

10 September 2019

Belitsa Bear Sanctuary

On my recent Intrepid tour through Bulgaria one highlight was several hours spent at the Belitsa Bear Sanctuary on the edge of the Rila National Park, some two-and-a-half hours south of the capital Sofia. The charitable trust that established the sanctuary received support from veteran animal rights campaigner Brigitte Bardot, and has been housing rescued bears from across Eastern Europe as more countries ban the cruel practice of 'dancing' bears. Visitors are left with no illusions of how painful and inhumane the centuries-old training process is, thanks to an introductory video that is particularly hard to watch. But once you venture out onto the well-fenced mountainside bear habitat it's a relief to see these formerly imprisoned animals now have a safe and stimulating natural environment in which to live out their retirement.

The bears are sociable but not all bears get along, so there are several separate large enclosures in which groups can cohabit. There's an hourly tour with well-informed Bulgarian guides but you can also wander the trails yourself, which is what I did for most of the visit. This resulted in several wonderfully peaceful close encounters with the bears as little as five metres away through the thankfully sturdy fences. Irrespective of the heft of the barriers, the bears were not in the least bit interested in me as I took their picture. The video below shows one enclosure pair, with the second bear having been rescued after a fight with an aggressive male that resulted in the medical amputation of her forepaw. Despite this, she is able to get around the mountainside quite well, if not speedily, hunting down the food the keepers secrete around the enclosures to keep the occupants active and engaged.

08 September 2019

27 August 2019

The beneficent miracle of the postal service

Celebrated [19th century] writers gave a considerable amount of space in their letters on the subject of letters themselves - not least the early nineteenth-century debate over whether it was disrespectful to the Church to write on a Sunday (consensus: personal letters acceptable, business ones less so). And they were particularly interested in the vagaries of the postal service, and what likelihood their letters had of reaching their destination. In 1835 Thomas Carlyle sent a transatlantic letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson in which he marvelled at the divine madness of the system. A letter from Emerson had taken two months to reach him, but still Carlyle felt grateful: 'As the Atlantic is so broad and deep, ought we not rather to esteem it a beneficent miracle that messages can arrive at all; that a little slip of paper will skim over all these weltering floods, and other inextricable confusions; and come at last, in the hand of the Twopenny Postman, safe to your lurking-place, like green leaf in the bill of Noah's Dove'.

In another letter to Emerson four months later, Carlyle bemoans the state of England; there is poverty everywhere, there is the threat of cholera, and worst of all, it seems, is all this newfangled technological progress, a comment we may hear echoes of today. 'What with railways, steamships, printing-presses, it has surely become a most monstrous "tissue" this life of ours'. Fortunately for him, it was still possible to defeat the technology of the postal service. Writing to his mother in 1836, he is delighted that the parliamentary summer recess is over, because, now that 'certain "honourable members" having got back to town again', he may once more obtain free postage by abusing their free franking privileges.

- Simon Garfield, To the Letter, Edinburgh, 2013, p222-3. 

See also:
HistoryEarly overland mails between Auckland & Wellington, 23 March 2019
BooksEmily Dickinson's postal book group, 2 September 2014
History: Posting the empire as the royal word, 9 January 2013