The Ships Bell


The Background to the Engine Room Bell from the ship PORT CHALMERS.

Compiled by Garry Bain 30/7/2018.

Shortly after WWII Port Chalmers School, like many other schools in New Zealand and other Commonwealth countries, joined the patriotic British Ship Adoption Scheme whereby schools and ships “adopted” each other and established mutually beneficial relationships.

Port Chalmers School was very fortunate in adopting one of the most highly decorated merchant ships to have survived the Second World War.

Built in 1933 by Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson Limited at Newcastle-On-Tyne for the Commonwealth & Dominion Line, the 8535gt PORT CHALMERS was the fourth vessel of the name to serve companies associated with what later became known as the Port Line. When completed she was considered to be the most modern of designs for refrigerated cargo vessels and was in fact the first vessel especially equipped for the carriage of chilled beef on a commercial scale.

She served with distinction during WWII when she became known as a “lucky” ship. In December 1939 she was fortunate to escape when the nearby DORIC STAR was sunk by the German pocket battleship ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE in the South Atlantic. PORT CHALMERS relayed the distress messages while making her escape, and this brave action helped the Admiralty plot where the ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE would head, leading to the famous action off South America and the eventual scuttling of the German Warship in the River Plate.

In July of 1941 PORT CHALMERS was assigned to her first“Malta” convoy. This small island nation in the middle of the Mediterranean was of immense strategic importance, and it was vital that the allies retained control. The six merchant ships in the convoy managed to survive but several of the naval escort vessels were sunk & one of the other merchant vessels was torpedoed.

In August 1942 PORT CHALMERS was involved in her second Malta Convoy. This became the most “famous” of the Malta Convoys. Of the fourteen merchant vessels involved, only five survived, while many of the 37 warships providing cover were sunk or damaged.  PORT CHALMERS was the only vessel to reach Malta undamaged. She did have a fright though when a torpedo was found hooked up in her paravane wire. The wire was cut and the torpedo exploded when it hit the bottom, giving the ship a mighty shake up. She continued to serve throughout the rest of the war with distinction, and was a regular visitor to New Zealand ports over the post-war years.

Whenever the ship visited Port Chalmers the officers would visit the school, and in about 1950 the ship’s officers and crew presented the Port Chalmers School with two trophies for the school’s champion athletes. These trophies (known as the Ships Cups) have been contested every year since, and are still competed for to this day.

In the 1950s and early 1960s it was traditional for the senior class (in those days “Standard Six” and later “Form II”) to be hosted aboard the ship once a year in the passenger saloon. Each of these occasions took the form of a formal dinner, with the school prefects expected to make speeches and propose the toasts to the officers and crew. It was with much trepidation that Mr Bain in 1952 made his first public “speech” at one of these events.

In 1964 it was announced that PORT CHALMERS was to be withdrawn from service and sold for scrap. Mr Garry Bain, a youngish teacher at the school, was appointed the school’s liaison person (probably because of his maritime interests). The ship’s last visit to Port Chalmers became a special occasion. The whole school (at that time about 300 pupils) was invited aboard and every child was given a piece of the grand farewell cake baked by the chefs, as well as soft drink and sandwiches. The ship’s officers and crew competed with the school staff and senior pupils in an “informal” soccer match at the school, and were guests at a special school assembly.

The skipper at the time was Captain Eric Chapman who discussed with Mr Bain the possibility of a special memento for the school. The owners eventually agreed to present the engine room bell, as the “main” bell, the bridge bell, was to be retained by the owners. However, the presentation was delayed, as the owners decided the ship should make another “last” voyage. This time however it was decided it would not be appropriate for the ship to return to Port Chalmers. Mr Bain was one of a group of local friends invited to attend the marriage of the Fourth Officer when the PORT CHALMERS was in Timaru. But even after that the presentation was again delayed. Another final voyage was planned. By this time the skipper was Captain Andy McLounan, and the closest to her home port PORT CHALMERS visited was Lyttelton. She finally went for scrap in Taiwan in November 1965.

The bell was eventually presented to the school in 1966 and took pride of place in the school entrance foyer together with the large picture of the ship originally presented to the school when the ship was adopted.

In the mid-1990s the Radio Officer who served aboard PORT CHALMERS for part of the war years left his Service Medals to the school. These together with the bell, the ship’s picture, and other school memorabilia were set up as a display in the school foyer when Mr Bain was Acting Principal.

In 2006 the school undertook a major renovation of the administration block. This included the replacement of the smaller boat shed behind the foyer with a much larger unit closer to the shoreline. As the items previously displayed had to be put in storage, Mr Bain ensured the bell was on display in the new boatshed, where it had been until this year when the School Board Of Trustees and Staff decided it was appropriate for the bell to be held in the Museum. The original picture and the medals had already been presented to the museum.

These items of nautical interest and historic importance are now in the most appropriate place to be viewed by the public in general and by Port Chalmers pupils & staff, past and present, in particular.

Another PORT CHALMERS was built in 1968 for Port Line. This ship was also associated with the school, but less formally as the British Ship Adoption Scheme became less meaningful. She made her maiden visit to her home port on 6/6/1968, and made only two other visits. The school pupils were allowed to visit the vessel on her maiden visit, but later more strict safety regulations made such visits more difficult. This vessel was renamed in 1979 and scrapped in China in 1985.

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