1917: Life at Chatham Islands wireless station

Ralph Stanley Wheeler, Timaru Telegraph Office, 1933The subject of this article is Ralph Stanley Wheeler who was born in Wellington on 11 Sept 1887 and died in Timaru on 25 August 1968. He was stationed at Chatham Islands Radio from 1914 to 1916. The photo is from 1933 when he worked at the Timaru telegraph office.

Evening Post, 17 March 1917, p9

A lonely outpost – life at the Chathams
Experiences as a wireless operator

Away to the south-east of Wellington, some five hundred miles distant, lies a tiny group of sunny islands, whose few inhabitants lead a quiet existence. Far outside the usual tracts of commerce, these islands are visited at irregular intervals by one small steamer of 350 tons burden, but were it not for the magic voice of wireless they would never be heard of from one month to the next. Despite these apparent drawbacks, the Chatham Islands (for such is the name of the group) rank high in the list of New Zealand’s island possessions, and the fishing and sheep-farming industries which are extensively carried on there are important.

To the average city dweller the prospect of spending any length of time in the Chathams would not appeal very much, but Mr RS Wheeler, of the Government Wireless Service, who returned to Wellington some time ago after an absence of two years as officer in charge at the Chathams Radio Station, found that life there was far from unendurable. Mr Wheeler is at present attached to the radio station on Tinakori Hills, Wellington, and in the course of a talk with a Post reporter gave an interesting account of his impressions during his absence from New Zealand.

The trip to the islands

“I left Lyttelton,” said Mr Wheeler, “in the Chatham Islands Fishing Company’s steamer Himitangi, and a few hours later I took what was to be my last glimpse of the mainland for over two years. Once clear of the land, the steamer set an eastward course for the run of 530 miles, doing about nine knots. Although the accommodation is rather cramped, the drawback was somewhat compensated for by the genial members of the ship’s company, who, from the skipper downwards, did their best to help pass the time away.

“The run down, or rather across, for the Chathams are practically in the same latitude as Lyttelton, took three days, the first glimpse of our destination being the Horns, two peculiarly-shaped hills, situated at the southernmost point on the main island of the group. The skipper having picked up his landmarks, the course was set in a northerly direction, and before long the rugged coastline, in places merging into steep cliffs from 100 to 200 feet in height, came into view, the reddish nature of the rock formation making rather a pleasing contrast with the green, bushy background of the island.

“We subsequently dropped anchor in Waitangi Bay, near which is situated the settlement of that name. As the Himitangi had been absent for nearly two months her arrival was eagerly awaited, and numerous islanders, mounted on shaggy ponies, and accompanied by numbers of dogs and an occasional sledge drawn by a team of draught horses, were seen making their way to the Waitangi Jetty, where the waiting inhabitants, Maori and pakeha, surveyed the ship and its passengers with curious eyes, as coming from the great Outside World, of which they had heard so much, and which many of them, had never seen. The ship’s surf boat was soon launched, and loaded with the passengers and mails. Then to the throb, throb of the oil engine we pushed off for the shore.

The chief settlement

“Waitangi is, although the administrative centre of the group, only a very small place; in fact, the total population of the whole group is only 400 — two-thirds Maori and one-third whites. The main architecture of the settlement consists of two publichouses, which provide practically the sole source of diversion to the islanders. On the foreshore is the recently-erected Post Office and Courthouse, forming a contrast to the old building which served the postal and other wants of the islanders for the past forty years.

The combined courthouse and post office built in 1916 at Waitangi, Chatham Islands

The combined courthouse and post office built in 1916 at Waitangi, Chatham Islands. Photo: Christchurch City Libraries

“The Chatham Islands consist of two main islands — Chatham and Pitt Islands — and several islets. They were discovered in 1791 by Lieut. Broughton, of HM brig Chatham, from which the group takes its name. The Maori people called the main island ‘Wharekauri.’ Its area is about 222,550 acres, of which about one-third is covered by a shallow, brackish, lake, named Te Whanga Lagoon, which has an estimated area of 46,000 acres. There are several fresh water lakes, ranging from 100 to 500 acres in extent, some of them being very beautiful. As for the mountains, they cannot be called high. Waihere, in Pitt Island, is the highest peak, rising to nearly 1000 ft, whilst Mount Pipitarawai, on the main island, is 930 ft in height, and is the highest point of the range of that name.

The radio station

“The wireless station, linking up the Chathams with the outer world,” continued Mr Wheeler, “is about a mile front Waitangi, but is connected with various parts of the island by means of a rural telephone service. Since the first message was sent out, in 1913, the monotony of life on the island has been considerably lessened, and the inhabitants do not hesitate to take full advantage of the facilities afforded them for communicating not only with the mainland, but also, if necessary, with any part of the world. In the pre-wireless days the islanders had to depend on a prearranged time for the arrival of the Himitangi, which may have been several days, or even weeks, out of her running. Now all this is changed. When the steamer leaves Wellington or Lyttelton, the exact time of her departure, the number of passengers, and the amount of her cargo, are known within a few hours.

“The station comprises the usual standard one and a-half kilowatt set, the prime mover being a 15hp oil engine direct coupled to a nine kilowatt direct current generator, which charges an accumulator battery of sixty cells. These latter are used for sending purposes when the engine is not running, and also for lighting the station quarters. The aerial is suspended between two tubular steel masts 150 feet high and 300 feet apart. The station quarters and masts form a conspicuous landmark, being situated at the top of cliffs about 150 feet high and facing the sea coast.

“At the rear of the station is a small bay, called Radio Bay, and good use of it in the way of surf-bathing is made during the warm summer months by those of the staff who happen to be off duty. Although somewhat monotonous during the winter months, life at the station during summer is very enjoyable. The quarters are most comfortably furnished by the Government. Owing to the isolated position, the operators are compelled to ‘batch.’ They are quite experts in the arts of bread and butter-making. The wireless station covers 15 acres, and the radio staff run a small farm, consisting of two horses, three cows, and a number of fowls.

Work at the station

“The erection of the Chatham Island station,” said Mr Wheeler, “has proved beyond all doubt the reliability of wireless and every night since the station was opened communication has been maintained with the mainland. There are no newspapers published on the island, but once a week a press message giving a brief summary of the doings in the outside world is received by wireless. In addition, a message of about fifty words of war news is received daily. The radio staff issue weekly, by means of a duplicator, a single typewritten sheet, comprising all the above-mentioned matter, which is distributed all over the island. Daily leaflets of the war news are distributed to the principal settlements.

Difficulties of transport

“There are no arterial roads in the Chathams — the roads, so-called, are merely tracks — and transport is only possible in the summer months by means of sledges and horse teams. A ride round the island is an undertaking of considerable magnitude, for the tracks are across swamps, peat bogs, over deep creeks, and, at intervals, along the sea beach. In places a journey of 14 miles is considered quite sufficient for a hack in one day.

The fishing industry

“In recent years considerable progress has been made in the fishing industry. After many disheartening losses, due to the peculiar conditions obtaining in the Chathams, the industry may now be said to be flourishing. The principal fish caught, is the blue cod, groper, and moki. All fishing is by hook and line from launches. The principal fishing centre is Owenga, where the Chatham Islands Fishery Company has erected an extensive plant for cleaning, freezing, and packing the fish. There are about a dozen big launches, each of which carries from three to four fishermen. The fishing grounds at Owenga have long been thinned out, and it is necessary for the launches to proceed further afield to other grounds, principally in the vicinity of the Forty-Fours, the Sisters, and Starkey Islands. Catches up to a ton in weight by one launch are frequent during a good season. Other fishing stations are at Kaingaroa, on the southern coast of the main island, and Whangaroa, about twelve miles across the bay from Waitangi.

“The Himitangi collects the fish at regular intervals, and conveys it to Lyttelton and Wellington, where it finds a ready market. Valuable sponge beds are known to exist round the coasts, and just prior to the war HMS Pyramus was commissioned to make a complete survey of them. However, the sterner business of war came first, and the project was dropped.

A sportsman’s paradise

“From a sportsman’s point of view,” continued Mr Wheeler, “the Chathams may be considered a veritable paradise. All the lakes abound with black swan, which may be shot all the year round. Ducks are fairly plentiful in season, and wild pigs and cattle can be found in the southernmost fastnesses of the back country. Sea fishing from a boat may also be indulged in, and becomes merely a matter of baiting hooks and hauling the catch to the surface. Each boat that goes out fishing for pleasure usually catches sufficient fish to supply the wants of the crew and the settlers living near the landing stage.

“The climate is exceedingly pleasant in summer, and the temperature rarely falls below 40 degrees in winter. Although there is plenty of rain, the average rainfall is not excessive. With such a salubrious climate, and the amount of land available for settlement, it is a wonder that more people have not gone there in recent years. There are several large ‘absentee’ estates which could be cut up and carry five to seven families each, instead of being managed, as at present on the ‘one man and a dog’ principle.

“The people are exceedingly hospitable, and live very well compared with the average city dweller. Fish, is there for the catching, and mutton and beef of the best quality only costs about 3d per pound.”

A trip to the outlying islands

During his stay, Mr Wheeler paid a visit to the outlying islands. Here seals, penguins, and multitudes of sea-birds flourish in their native state. About September the Maoris go out in launches to the Forty-four Islands (so named because they happen to be on latitude 44) for the purpose of capturing the young albatrosses; which are killed by means of a short stick, and then loaded into launches. The albatross when suitably prepared is a favourite dish with the Natives. Mutton birds are gathered in season from cliffs in the vicinity of the Horns, and also from Mangere Islands. Swans’ eggs also form an article of diet among Maoris and pakehas alike. About October the swans commence to lay, and thousands of eggs may be gathered from the nesting grounds.

“It is a common sight,” said Mr Wheeler, “to see truck loads of eggs being carted from the nesting grounds to the settlements. A swan’s egg is equal to two hen’s eggs, for which they, may be substituted without any detection as far as taste is concerned.”

The graveyard of many ships

“The Chathams group has a bad name in the way of shipwreck, and although it is out of the usual tracks of shipping, no fewer than 43 ships have found a last resting place on or about its inhospitable coast. The first wreck recorded is that of the ship Gloria, commanded by Captain Bickerton, which was wrecked at Pitt Island in 1836, Then at intervals of a year or two right up to the loss at sea of the steamer Duco, in 1909, some vessel or other has come to grief in the Chathama. After the wreck of the Gloria came another of Captain Bickerton’s ships, then the ships Jean ßart, Erie, James, Look-out, Chelgia, Launceston, Ocean, Flora McDonald, Antarctic, Rudolph, Resolution, St Peter, Marmora, Helen, Panama, Adelaide, Packet, Elizabeth, Leveret, Eliza, Timor, Franklin, Sebastopol, Edward, Seabird, Empire, Cecilia, Alabama, Catherine, Sea Serpent, Wild Wave, Lizzie Scott, Empress, Florence, Ocean Mail, Island Lily, Plegaden, Omaha, Jessie Readman, and the tug Duco. In. addition to these, the Himitangi went ashore at Waitangi in February, 1912, and was towed off about a month later by the Gertie.

A man of many parts

“The Postmaster of the Chatham Islands,” said Mr Wheeler in conclusion, “probably holds more offices than any other official in the New Zealand Public Service. Firstly, he is police constable, then postmaster, Registrar of Births, Deaths, and Marriages, Collector of Customs, Inspector of Fisheries, Inspector of Stock, Clerk of the Court, Clerk of the Licensing Committee, Census Enumerator, Public Trustee, agent for the Government Life Insurance, and many other minor positions.” The gentleman in question is Mr George Hamilton Fry.

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