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The Royal New Zealand Navy


page 547

Appendix IX

(By F. H. McCluskey)

For many years before the passing of the New Zealand Naval Defence Act of 1913, there had been a strong feeling that New Zealand should take a more active part in naval defence than the mere payment of an annual contribution to the cost of the Royal Navy. From time to time it was suggested that New Zealand should acquire a seagoing training ship for boys wishing to enter the Navy or the Mercantile Marine.

A select committee of the House of Representatives set up in 1899 reported that it was ‘undoubtedly desirable to establish a training ship’, but it was not until 1905 that the Prime Minister, Mr R. J. Seddon, was able to announce that negotiations were almost completed between the Admiralty and the Government for a small warship suitable for the purpose. This vessel was HMS Sparrow, an old gunboat which had been laid up at Sydney for some months.

On 28 February 1905 the Sparrow was formally handed over to Captain C. F. Post, acting on behalf of the New Zealand Government. He took command of her for the passage to Wellington, his chief officer being Mr Frank Worsley, of Christchurch, who later was to serve as master of the Endurance in Sir Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated Antarctic expedition of 1914–16. With Shackleton and three others, Worsley made the memorable boat journey of 800 miles from Elephant Island to South Georgia to get assistance for the remainder of the crew of the Endurance, which had been destroyed in the ice. As a lieutenant of the Royal Naval Reserve, Worsley gained the DSO for distinguished service in the First World War.

After her arrival at Wellington, the Sparrow lay at anchor for some months, Worsley being in charge of her for most of that time. Following lengthy negotiations, the Admiralty agreed to sell the vessel for £800 and on 10 July 1906 she became the property of the New Zealand Government.

HMS Sparrow was one of nine gunboats of the Goldfinch class authorised in the Navy Estimates of 1887. She and the Thrush were built at Greenock by Scott's Shipbuilding and Engineering Company, which also supplied the engines and boilers for two others of the class. Founded in 1711, Scotts is now the oldest shipbuilding firm in Britain. It has been building warships for more than 150 years, the first being HMS Prince of Wales, an 18-gun sloop launched in 1803.

The Sparrow was a vessel of 805 tons displacement, mounting six 4-inch guns, two 3-pounders, and three machine guns. She was composite-built of teak planking on steel frames. Sail was dying hard in the Royal Navy at that time and the Sparrow and her sisters were heavily rigged as three-masted barquentines. She was a single-screw vessel fitted with a horizontal triple-expansion engine of 1200 horsepower and two boilers working at 145 lb. to the square inch, giving her a speed of 13 knots. HMS Thrush page 548 will be remembered as having been commanded by HRH Prince George (afterwards King George V) on the North America and West Indies Station in 1891.

Fourth ship of her name in the Royal Navy, HMS Sparrow was launched on 26 September 1889, and commissioned by Lieutenant P. Hoskyns, RN, on 13 May 1890 for service on the Cape of Good Hope Station. On her passage out to Simonstown the vessel was under sail for most of the time.

In those palmy days of the Victorian era, the service of HM ships overseas was confined mainly to showing the flag and maintaining the Pax Britannica. On the African coast ships such as the Sparrow carried out constant patrols in suppression of the slave trade and gun-running and curbing the oppressive practices of native rulers and other wrong-doers. It was all part of the ‘white man's burden’.

In March 1892 HM ships Sparrow, Alecto, and Racer carried out a punitive expedition against a native chief at Tambi, on the Scarcies River, who had been raiding villages under British protection. Five months later, the Sparrow, in company with the cruiser Blanche and the sloop Swallow, took part in a similar operation against the Sultan of Witu which involved a difficult march through tropical forest and some sharp fighting. The Sparrow was recommissioned in Simonstown in October 1893 with a relief crew from England and spent the next three years on the east coast of Africa, mainly in the Mozambique Channel and about the islands off the coast of Zanzibar.

Following the sudden death of the Sultan of Zanzibar in August 1896, an insurgent force led by a pretender seized the palace and made other warlike moves. HM ships Philomel and Thrush landed parties to protect the British Residency and were joined by the Sparrow. Then the Zanzibar warship Glasgow, an old cruiser presented by the British Government to the late Sultan, joined the insurgents. On the following day Rear-Admiral Rawson arrived in HMS St. George, with the Racoon in company. When no reply was made to Admiral Rawson's ultimatum to the pretender, the squadron bombarded the palace. The shore batteries and the Glasgow and other craft returned the fire. The palace was wrecked, the Glasgow sunk, and more than 500 rebels killed. At the height of the bombardment the pretender fled and made his escape into German East Africa. The insurgents surrendered and order was restored.

After four more years' African service, HMS Sparrow returned to England and was paid off on 19 January 1900. Towards the end of that year she was recommissioned for duty on the Australian Station. She made her first visit to New Zealand on 24 May 1901, when she arrived at Auckland. In company with HM ships Royal Arthur, Pylades, Penguin, Archer, and Torch of the Australian Squadron, she took part in Auckland's welcome to the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George V and Queen Mary), then on a world tour. The Royal Yacht Ophir steamed into Waitemata harbour between the two lines of anchored warships which greeted her with the Royal Salute. During that commission, the Sparrow made several cruises to the South Sea Islands and became a familiar visitor to most New Zealand ports. She was finally paid off at Sydney on 31 March 1904 and laid up at Garden Island until she was taken over by the New Zealand Government.

The greater part of her armament was removed at Wellington in the latter part of 1906 and she was given a thorough refit, the necessary alterations and additions being made to convert her into a training ship. A Bill page 549 authorising such an establishment was passed by Parliament, and a Gazette notice of 25 October 1906 announced that she had been renamed Amokura, a Maori name meaning ‘tropic bird’.

Captain G. S. Hooper was appointed in command of the Amokura on 7 January 1907, the vessel was transferred from the Defence Department to the Marine Department in February, and the first entry of boys joined her in March. Boys were accepted between the ages of 13 ½ and 14 ½ years for a period of two years' training. On entry every boy was rated as ‘second-class boy’ and paid one penny a day. Each advance in rating to boy petty officer after fifteen months' service carried an addition of one penny a day and good conduct stripes earned another penny a day. The daily routine and standard of discipline were based on naval procedure. The boys were given a thorough grounding in seamanship and navigation and, by arrangement with the Education Department, a schoolmaster looked after their educational needs in a shore building at Wellington during the winter months and at other times when the Amokura was in harbour.

Seagoing training was carried out during the spring, summer and autumn months. Following a ‘shake-down’ cruise in Cook Strait for new entries, the Amokura usually proceeded to South Island ports and the West Coast Sounds, and thence to the outlying southern islands on which food and clothing depots for shipwrecked mariners were maintained. On her northern cruise the vessel called at way ports, Great Barrier Island, and the Kermadec Islands. In December 1917 the Amokura made a special visit to the latter group to reconstruct and provision the depot despoiled by the German raider, Captain von Luckner, and his men after their escape from Motuihi Island in Hauraki Gulf. In 1908 the Amokura made a cruise to the Chatham Islands in an unsuccessful search for the missing barque Loch Lomond, and in the following year she visited those islands while searching for the lost steamer Duco.

Undoubtedly, the Amokura achieved success as a training ship. From 1907 to 1921, 527 lads passed through her. Some did not stay at sea, but the great majority carried on in the Mercantile Marine, in which many attained command of steamers or filled responsible shore appointments. In 1914 the Union Steam Ship Company agreed to accept a number of the most promising Amokura boys as cadets in its steamer Aparima. Seven of them were among the fifty-four members of that ship's company who lost their lives when that vessel was torpedoed and sunk by a U-boat in the English Channel on 19 November 1917.

Twenty-two boys from the Amokura entered the Royal Navy or the Royal Australian Navy and three joined the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy at its inception in 1921. Others who received their early training in the Amokura served in the Royal Naval Reserve during both World Wars.

When Captain Hooper went to England in 1919 to select a larger vessel to replace the Amokura, he handed over his command to Captain J. W. Burgess. Though several vessels were offered by the Admiralty, none was deemed suitable.

After a survey the Amokura was found unfit for further sea service and from 1919 she remained at anchor in Wellington harbour. The Government then decided that the training of boys for the Mercantile Marine was a matter for the shipping companies. In any case, the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy was being provided with a training ship in HMNZS Philomel. Accordingly, the Amokura was finally paid off in December 1921 and not long afterwards the ship, shore buildings, and stores were sold for page 550 £1435 to Mr E. A. Jory. The ship was then dismantled and disposed of to the Westport Coal Company, which converted her into a coal hulk and in 1940 sold her to the Union Steam Ship Company.

In that humble capacity the old Amokura was a familiar sight on the Wellington waterfront for more than thirty years. Her traditions as a training ship were maintained by many who had served in her and, as members of the Amokura Old Boys' Association, were wont to visit their old ship whenever they foregathered in Wellington.

In March 1953 the hulk was bought by Mr W. J. Orchard and towed to St. Omer, in the Kenepuru arm of Pelorus Sound, where she served as a combined store and jetty. Her end came two years later when she was broken up. It can truly be said that the Amokura, formerly HMS Sparrow, has her place in the maritime traditions of New Zealand.