Picton’s 168-year-old Edwin Fox is an extraordinary maritime time capsule that spans the Crimean War, Australian convicts, New Zealand’s early settlers and our economic evolution. The ship’s salvation – thanks largely to one dogged gentleman – is a remarkable tale of resilience. Lawrence Schaffler meets the Fox and its saviour.

For my money the Edwin Fox Museum is one of Picton’s best attractions – but I have a nagging suspicion most people driving off the Cook Strait ferry are blissfully unaware of it. Which is a great pity – considering that in her 34 circumnavigations the 836-ton, 48m vessel has amassed a treasure-trove of history – all splendidly presented in her graving dock only a few hundred metres from the ferry terminal.

She embodies an integral part of New Zealand’s DNA – helping its fledging economy to expand trading and engage with the rest of the world at the dawn of the 20th century. She is, in fact, the world’s oldest surviving merchant ship – older than Britain’s fabled Cutty Sark. So, before you dismiss her as another old wreck of interest only to fusty, cob-webbed historians, read on.
For a vessel with so diverse a career, she had an indifferent start. She was built in 1853 near the Indian city of Kolkata (previously Calcutta) by Britain’s William Henry Foster – designed as a workhorse to ply the East Indies-UK trade route. Predating the age of the streamlined clippers, she wasn’t exactly a sleek beauty – her teak hull was often described as ‘stubby’ or ‘tubby’ – and she was noted for her stolid, ponderous pace.
But her merchant career was derailed even before it began. She was sold soon after arriving in London in 1854 and commandeered to carry troops/cargo to and from the Anglo-Russian Crimean War. There are suggestions that the skirmish’s legendary ‘Lady of the Lamp’ – the nurse Florence Nightingale – sailed on board the Edwin Fox, though this has never been corroborated.

In 1856 – following her war duties – she was re-fitted to carry general cargo and passengers and switched to a much more sombre role. She was chartered to transport some of Britain’s ‘ne’er-do-wells’ to a new life in Australia.
Among the convicts were William Tester and James Burgess, two of the four men convicted of the Great Gold Train Robbery in 1855. They’d helped themselves to £12,000 sterling in gold (nearly $2 million in today’s money). Author Michael Crichton wrote a novel about it – The Great Train Robbery. It was later adapted into a movie starring Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland.
The British penal system of the time was brutal – consider the lot of 14-year-old William Messenger. He was sentenced to serve 14 years after being caught peeing on a gravestone. Busting to go, he was busted.
Mercifully, voyages with happier passengers soon beckoned for the Edwin Fox.

From the early 1870s she began a series of annual voyages to New Zealand (mainly to South Island ports), ferrying British immigrants keen to shake off the shackles of the home country’s rigid class system and start a new life. They received assisted migration through the Vogel scheme – geared to adventurous and pioneering settlers able to farm the land. Tens of thousands took up the offer.

These ‘slow-bucket’ voyages typically took three months in what were often trying conditions. A one-way fare was £16 (about $2,700). Passenger diaries from the voyages make for fascinating reading. The cabins were tiny (especially in steerage) and, while most trips recorded a few fatalities, there were also, remarkably, quite a few births.
One passenger – William Manning – described his experience as “one-hundred and twenty-two days of misery, anxiety, discomfort and semi-starvation”. He hoped he would “never again fall to the lot of an unfortunate emigrant in a slow but sure emigrant ship.” Today, scores of New Zealand families can trace their ancestry to the pioneers on the Edwin Fox.

Cramped conditions for steerage passengers.

Inevitably, steam engines marked the end of her sailing career – her last voyage was in June 1885. But like many redoubtable ladies, she was made of stern stuff and was easily able to reinvent herself.

Freezing works
Wool was one of New Zealand’s prime exports in the late 1800s – but in 1882 the successful delivery of a cargo of frozen meat to Britain on the Dunedin dramatically changed the landscape. The meat export industry was born, adding another string to the country’s economic bow. Edwin Fox was quickly repurposed.
In the late 80s, with her rigging removed, she was retrofitted with boilers and refrigerating equipment and towed to ports all around the country, serving as a mobile freezing hulk. Some 12 years later she was towed to Picton where once again her life took off on a different arc.

Her refrigeration equipment was moved ashore to power a new, bigger land-based freezing works. She first became a bunkhouse for the freezing work crews, and thereafter a grimy coal hulk, storing the fuel for the boilers ashore, a role she filled until 1953.
Eventually, at more than 100 years old, she was towed to the nearby Shakespeare Bay and lay beached for the next 20 years, her valuable teak plundered by souvenir hunters. It seemed – finally – that this was the end of the line for the old ship.

Fortunately, wise heads prevailed. Appreciative of her cultural and historical significance a group of individuals established the Edwin Fox Restoration Society to save her. In 1965 it bought the hulk from the owner – NZ Refrigerating Company – for one shilling. But the road ahead would be difficult.
After much procrastination by the city fathers she was refloated in 1986 and towed to a new berth near the current ferry terminal. And 13 years later – in 1999 – the Edwin Fox moved to her final resting place, the graving dock where she lies today.
Fittingly, the former Historic Places Trust awarded the ship a Category I status in 2000.
Next time you’re in Picton, I urge you to catch the Fox.

Saving the Fox

A pivotal player in Edwin Fox’s salvation, Chris Brown knows the ship’s history intimately. He also knows how close we came to losing her completely. Today he is still involved with the ship’s preservation and the museum.
“The real degradation began in the late 1960s when she was abandoned in Shakespeare Bay – beached in the mud and vandalised for her teak. She’d been in Picton for decades and no one knew what to do with her. Many thought she was just an eyesore – something to be removed and cut up.
“The Navy came up with the bright idea of refloating her and towing her out to sea for use as target practice. Fortunately, the divers who inspected the hull decided this wasn’t feasible because her back was broken. They were wrong – it was twisted, but not broken.
“Over the years there were discussions with all sorts of people – one group planned to tow her to Auckland for a full restoration. That fell over. Then the British began negotiations – they wanted the hulk returned home, as part of their maritime heritage. Luckily, that also fell over.

Chris Brown.

“I’ve always believed the ship was worth saving – she was significant for New Zealand. So I decided to see if she could be saved. I was a commercial paua diver and after inspecting her hull I reckoned she could be refloated. But we had to find the political will – and the money – to do it. I didn’t want to go to the trouble of refloating her without a permanent plan in place.”
Predictably, local opinion was divided. Many people wanted to save her – but others thought she was just an embarrassing derelict. There were endless discussions at the local council – most doubted she could be refloated – but even if she could, what were they to do with her? Doggedly, Chris prevailed through it all.

Refloated and being towed.

Sealing the hull for refloating took four months and many, many hours of diving. Volunteers helped to remove plenty of rubbish to lighten the hull – including coal and 400 tonnes of sand. “We refloated her on a king tide,” says Chris, “aided by a big diesel generator and pumps to keep the water at bay. It was a marathon – I went 60 hours non-stop without sleep.”
But having refloated her, the dithering continued. The authorities couldn’t agree about what to do with her, or where to berth her. “I kept her afloat for another 14 years, patching the leaks. Eventually, I pointed out that if we didn’t come up with a plan to build a dock, she would sink.”
Thankfully, the dock was built in 2000 – and it now has a roof to keep the rain at bay. Today the museum attracts around 10,000 visitors a year.