Saturday, August 27, 2011

End Of An Era: Alice A.Leigh / Rewa

Recently I spotted a stunning photograph by Peter Tasker, of a shipwreck on Moturekareka Island in the Hauraki Gulf.
It was such a huge hulk that it must have had an interesting history: well, that history is directly linked to the end of the days of sail.
The vessel began her life in September 1889 as the Alice A.Leigh, a 3,000 ton four-masted steel barque built by the Whitehaven Shipbuilding Company, Cumbria, UK. She was named after the Mayoress of Stockport, Alice A.Leigh, who performed the christening ceremony.
The barque was well-appointed inside, with a panelled saloon - the master's quarters even had a bathroom fitted with a porcelain bath. At 309ft.long with a main mast of 176ft., Alice was the biggest ship built there, carrying 31 sails on her lofty rig and a crew of 33. But she was reluctant to begin her duties: at her launch, the £26,000 ship grounded and the yard had to pay another £1,400 for tugs to set the vessel afloat. This extra cost, atop other problems, proved the death of Whitehaven's once-thriving shipbuilding industry. The difficulties highlighted the harbour's limitations for large ships. [At this time, workers skilled in shipbuilding were paid about £85-90 a year and general labourers about £60, so that may give you an indication of the ship's huge cost.]
Alice A.Leigh ran the typical trades of the large four-masters, taking bulk cargoes from India and Australia to London, and to the Pacific coast of Nth.America. She visited Australia for the first time in Feb.1895, bringing to Melbourne a large kerosene cargo from New York, and later equipment for Victorian coal mines. She brought a 4,000 ton wheat delivery from California to Sydney in 1903…but quicker steamers were becoming more prominent.
At the helm from 1900-1917 was Captain Allan Davison. He took his wife Hannah with him, and six children were born either at sea or at various ports: two of them died, one was actually buried at sea. Davison seems to have been quite a capable chap. Awakening one night when in harbour to sounds in his cabin, he encountered a thief...who he laid into with a belaying pin until help arrived!
The barque had several adventures - she arrived in British Columbia from Shanghai in 1897 with three people suffering from smallpox: two others had died en route. In 1898 she survived a collision with German ship Rickmers, a minor mutiny in 1904 and, in 1914, made a "very fast passage" of 48 days for the 9,000 mile trip from Mexico to Newcastle. In October 1916, she was nearly sunk by the famous German submarine U-35 in the Mediterranean. Ordered to disembark, crew and passengers were rowing away from the Alice when the French destroyer Gabion sped to the scene…the submarine escaped but the ship was saved.
Alice was sold in 1917 to the New York and Pacific Sailing Ship Co. Her last visit to Australia as Alice A.Leigh was in 1920, then she was sold in 1921 to George H.Scales Pacific Ltd.of Wellington, acting for some NZ businessmen.
Renamed Rewa, she took a load of NSW coal to Wellington, only to be embroiled in a waterfront dispute over the use of new equipment for unloading her cargo.
Then she made her last major voyage to London via the Cape of Good Hope in 103 days, with a load of wool. She returned to Newcastle in ballast in 93 days, and loaded coal and sleepers for Auckland. She arrived in Auckland in August 1922 on her final voyage with cargo – steam vessels proving too great a competition.
Rewa remained laid up off Northcote Point, Auckland for eight years. There was a suggestion she could be used as a training vessel for the NZ Mercantile Marine, but this came to nothing. So in mid-1930 she was towed to the NW side of Moturekareka Island, Hauraki Gulf. Plans for her demise prompted the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin to wax lyrical about "The Passing Of Sail"...
Although the struggle was a long and costly one to the early advocates of steam-driven vessels, it nonetheless could have had but one ending. The steamer rose like a mighty Titan from every workable coal bed on earth, the dense masses of smoke from its squat funnels forming, appropriately enough, the pall for the obsequies of its proud opponent. The sailing ship, vagrant and wayward, with all the whims and caprices of a spoilt Court beauty, was the creation of men's brains and the sport of die winds of heaven.
It was a sad year for sail - in six months Britain's last full-rigged ship Garthpool sank on a Sth.African reef (Nov.1929), then Rewa, the last barque on the British shipping register, met her ignominious end. New owner Charles Hanson (well-known colourful hermit and war veteran) had planned to moor the ship across the entrance to a small bay as a breakwater, but a storm put paid to that endeavour and she ended up scuttled near the shore (June 1930).
In 1936 the Evening Post eulogised Rewa as "an excellent sea boat with a good turn of speed, often logging up to 330 or 340 miles for the day". It described a race with the five-masted barque France (the largest sailing ship at the time) – Rewa caught up five days on her bigger rival!
What's left? Well, some of Rewa's steel was salvaged in 1957. Her figurehead is at the Torpedo Bay Naval Museum, Devonport. Her ship bell was stolen just before the scuttling, and Hanson presented the binnacle and wheel to the Whangarei Cruising Club in 1937.
But what remains today on the island is still recognisable as the hulk of a massive sailing ship, an important piece of world nautical history and a drawcard for curious boaties.
Rewa, soon after scuttling
Robina Trenbath and Rewa, 1957
photo: Peter Tasker


Liz said...

Oh Phil you have written a seriously excellent article! Loved this whole thing way to go!

Anonymous said...

I've seen this wreck - isn't it huge! Thanks for the background.

Tim Latham said...


Good article. You will find many stories of this barque in the San Francisco Call newspaper of the period, searchable at the California Digital Newspaper Archive.

Includes a report of a mutiny and some details of Capt.Davison's family. The typhoon in which she was dismasrted may have been in December 1903, when she was bound from Newcastle NSW to San Francisco and had to put into Honolulu.

Writer Of The Purple Sage... said...

Thanx for that link, Tim - I'll have a good hunt there!

chuck said...

i live in whitehaven where the ship was built cool story

Writer Of The Purple Sage... said...

Thanks, Chuck,
Your area has heaps of interesting shipping history! :-)

Writer Of The Purple Sage... said...

Hi, Tim,
I've sniffed around, for info on the dismasting in a typhoon. Try as I might, the only thing I found was the POSSIBILITY of this happening, because she was overdue in the same area where another vessel had been dismasted by a typhoon (19 Dec.1903). It was reported that Honolulu was awaiting her arrival to find out how she had fared...
...the next story mentioning her (22 Dec.1903) said she'd arrived in Honolulu from Australia - but no mention of dismasting. I suspect she weathered the typhoon well and did not lose her mast at all!
So I'll omit that detail until I can confirm it...
Thanks for the archive site though: I'll be in there again... :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi! I'm from northern Ireland and I think it was my grandfathers dad or grandfather that captained the Alice a leigh! Please if u have any info on this or the family forward to my email address at

Many thanks,
Allan davison

Writer Of The Purple Sage... said...

Hi, Allan:
I hope this post is of use in your family research!
I didn't add all the captains' names here as the post was more about the life of the ship itself, but I'll ferret thru my sources, and send something to you privately.
Best wishes!

Vanessa said...

Hi Phil, My grandfather who lived in Newcastle NSW was on the Rewa on that last major voyage to London in 1921. I have a framed photo of the Rewa which has a handwritten label that stztes "Four Masted Barque Rewa Captain R Kennedy Leaving Lyttleton NZ for London 11am 12 Sept 1921 taken about 1pm when we dropped the tug lines" I wonder if you have any further information on this time as my mother has always been extremely interested in the time her father was at sea. Vanessa

Writer Of The Purple Sage... said...

Hi, Vanessa:
Lovely to hear how your family is linked to this ship.
I don't have any more about it, but a search in PAPERS PAST (a digitalised NZ newspaper source) told me the trip you mentioned was from 12 Sept-23 Dec., and the Rewa was commanded by Captain Kennedy, referred to as "probably the most successful sailing master in Australasia". High praise! It turned into quite a race between three big ships!
I'd recommend you search these digitalised sites (the Australian one is called TROVE, as they're full of incidental references that would otherwise be lost in history.
Good luck: do let me know how you get on!

Anonymous said...

I have a hand written book my Great-Grandfather wrote about sailing the Alice A. Leigh from May 3rd to Sept 27, 1901 from Tacoma, Washington to Hamburg, Germany. Captain Davison's daughter Alice A. Leigh Davison was born shortly before they sailed. My email is Thanks for your article,


Writer Of The Purple Sage said...

I just received this email from a lady called Robina, who's happy for me to share it with you.
You've just brought back a wave of memories.
1. My 'Uncle' Ivor & 'Aunty' Leigh Laing-Smith owned Moturekareka around mid-1950s.
Their children: Garth (dec.) Max (still lives on Waiheke Island with his wife Frances) and Zandra Jarvis (Te Atutu).
King tides were great: we could dive from the french doors of the house straight into the ocean. Uncle Ivor used to fling back the carpets and show a a huge brown stain where he said: "Charlie Hanson was murdered! His ghost still prowls the Island!" Of course, being a theatre projectionist (at the Majestic in Queen Street) he'd send us, at night, up into the orchard to watch from the landing...sure enough we'd catch a glimpse of Charlie's spectre! Years later Zandra told me he had it all rigged to scare the wits out of us.
Most of the time we ran naked, buried ourselves in pine-needle 'graves' and collected sea-egg (kina) shells to dry into brilliant shades of aqua with white dots. We thought nothing of rowing over to collect the mail from Kawau (raiding craypots on the way).
Uncle Ivor got so annoyed with yachties trashing the island, that he used to take pot-shots at them with a gun (somewhere I have the newspaper report on his charge for the offence).
2. The 'Rewa' was our playground: we'd spend hours playing chase, clambering over her skeletal remains without a regard for safety (what was that?). Dangling lines to catch fish which Garth smoked, was a real treat.

Lots of memories. No other childhood like it.
Robina McKenzie (nee Trenbath).

Many thanx, Robina!
As a point of interest, a youthful Robina also knew a hermit on the island, "Snow" Harris, who lived there after Charlie Hanson. She's kindly shared some details which I'll be publishing in due course!

Liz Clark said...

Great Pic Phil thanks for the heads up on it.!

sally greer said...

Hi Phil, not one for internet but every so often I type in Alice A Leigh to see if I can find any more info about her, you see I know for a fact that my husbands Gt Grandad was Capt Allan Davison, married to Hannah and was the capt for the period 1900-1917, I have done years of research and have the logs in his handwriting (well copies as the originals are in the PRO Kew Gdns) so can tell you all about the demasting in the typhoon, and the entry relating to the french ship Gabion, have lots of photos of her (Alice/Rewa), Hannah used to keep all the newspaper cuttings related to the ship and they are in a family scrapbook, but I learnt some new things, would love to get in touch

Anonymous said...

Have just heard about the Alice A Leigh from a cousin, Alice Leigh was my Great Grandmother. She married Sir Joseph Leigh and they had about 10 children. Most of the cousins still keep in touch. My Mother was Veronica Leigh. Interesting! Felicity Bromby

Anonymous said...

wow!!!! My aunty and Uncle have just take me there it is a truly impressive place. If you look online at some under water photos of the Rewa, you will see I think 4 sticky-outy things. I think that they are where the masts were secured but I don't know. if they are what is their proper name?? Thanks!!!

Ben Tombs said...

Hi, Great to read a little about the Rewa.
I anchored there in March curious to visit, as I'd been told a tale by a good friend of mine who's current vessel was once owned by the island's owner at the time of the scuttling.
He tells that the Rewa was sunk to provide him with the shelter for his 28ft mullet boat Cora.
As I have a shoal-draught sailing skipjack, I was sorely tempted to slip in behind the remains, but came to the anchorage to late in the day to do so without reconnoitering, so we anchored off and instead the next day kayaked around her. Was a sad ending to a fine ship.

Writer Of The Purple Sage said...

Hi, Ben,
Thanks for your message. I'm envious that you had the opportunity to visit the wreck. The pictures I've seen look most impressive even now. :-)

Faith said...

I am interested in the Rewa, ex Alice A Leigh, as my grandfather was an AB on her round the world voyage in 1921 - 1922. I have a photo of her but I don't know where she is berthed. Would it be possible to ask if anyone knows where the photo is taken?

Faith said...

I am interested in the Rewa, ex Alice A Leigh, as my grandfather was an AB on her round the world voyage in 1921 - 1922. I have a photo of her but I don't know where she is berthed. Would it be possible to ask if anyone knows where the photo is taken?

IanJ said...

I have several pictures i have been told are of this ship.
unknown but i am told i have a descendant Captain Bon Bolton also captained this ship at some time. All unsubstantiated though.
can i send the photos to you if you are interested

Unknown said...

Captain allan Davidson was my great great granddad, his son allan was my great granda my grannys dad , we called him granda dozey, we are from ballycarry in northern ireland