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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 4, 1990

Courageous Coastal Captain

page 27

Courageous Coastal Captain

Coastal and riverboat officers and crews, the lifeblood of New Zealand in pioneer days, were a hardy lot. Charlie Bonner was typical of the colourful breed. A friend of the family, he was a favourite visitor to my mother, as he made such a fuss of "Annie's little girl".

Phoebe, my mother, told how she would hear him singing, long before he opened the gate. The rolling walk up the path, accentuated by a beautiful ballast of booze, was followed by a hug, a kiss, and some present for the little one. One day it was a sulphur-crested white cockatoo, making one think of "Treasure Island", and Long John Silver. I still have a photo of this bird, taken by Chas Chinn, Grove Road, Blenheim.

Little Phoebe's stepfather, Blenheim saddler Frank Nosworthy, could not bide the bird. This was understandable, as it had happily pecked out patches in the new lino and it squawked at him whenever he appeared. Phoebe took her pet over to make friends, placing him on Frank's hand, which no douht shook. Polly lost his balance and grabbed Frank's nose with his beak. Frank pulled his hand down, leaving the bird swinging. Mother declared that Polly did not bite, but one beak successfully skinned one nasal organ, as it slid down, leaving one cursed cocky, a flapping phoebe, and a sad saddler.

As a lad, Charles Bonner spent a lime on the goldfields, but the majority of his life was spent at sea.

Polly, the sulphur-crested cockatoo, james Chinn. Frank Andrews.

Polly, the sulphur-crested cockatoo, james Chinn. Frank Andrews.

page 28

In the year 1866, the West Coast town of about 4000 inhabitants called the Pakihis, was cut off by bad weather and the people were starving. Captain Charles Bonner, then about 27 years of age, became aware of their plight. Against all advice, he loaded his small ship, Constant, with food and, with a volunteer crew, braved the storms and managed a miracle in entering the small harbour, now known as Constant Bay. There the starving people, many also with diarrhoea, met the gallant ship with cheers and tears.

To prevent people gorging and killing themselves, Captain Bonner had to post guards and ration the supplies out. The Coasters' big disappointment was that he had only packed in food, and there was not one bottle of grog.

The grateful population not only later gave Charlie a presentation, but changed the name of their town to Charleston, which it remains to this day, though it's only a ghost of the bustling mining town of Charlie's time.

When next passing through Charleston, take time to look at the rugged, rocky coast. Imagine the great rollers crashing ashore, and remember that the Constant did not have a motor, but relied entirely on sails for propulsion and steerage.

For some time Captain Bonner was captain of ships in which Brownlees, the well known Marlborough sawmillers, had an interest or owned. One of these was the ketch Clematis, which in 1878 won a race in Wellington Harbour. Another was the 90 ton, three masted scow Eunice, carrying timber from Havelock to Lyttelton. Prior to that, we read of Captain Charles Bonner trading out of Manukau.

On leaving the sea, he was appointed manager of the Wellington "Sailors Rest", a position he held until it closed.

Captain Charles Bonner, at the age of 72, died two days after being admitted to Wellington Hospital on 3 August 1913.

Captain D Bonner, master of the steamer Awaroa, until she was put out of commission, was his son. His grand daughter, Isabel Lee-Guard of Nelson, recorded part of this story in the Nelson Evening Mail of 10 September 1966.

Besides the photo of the cockatoo, I also have a photo of the Captain's daughter, Gertie. This was by Wrigglesworth & Binns, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.