News from 1908: Fire on Ionic

Mark Baber

Jul 4, 2000
The Evening Post, Wellington, 20 May 1908
Retrieved from the National Library of New Zealand web site,


The Shaw, Savill, and Albion Company's fine steamer Ionic, which was due to
depart for London to-morrow, lies alongside the Glasgow Wharf with an
outbreak of fire in No. 1 hold. The fire was discovered about 11.30 a.m.,
while the finishing touches were being put on the work of stowing away the
remaining cargo. "It is the Turakina case over again," said a well-known
officer to a Post reporter, '"with this difference: that we have caught it
in time and our chances of getting the upper hand before any very serious
damage is done are still hopeful."

What a prosaic thing a ship on fire appears to be - just a lazy puffing of
smoke from out the portholes, a squeezing of sickly fumes through the
ventilators and the edges of the hatches. No sign of flames, no excitement,
just the slow but sure destruction of valuable cargo.


As soon as the fire was reported the hatches were promptly battened down,
and Captain Carter gave orders to have steam directed into the hold. The
Wellington Harbour Board's staff arrived with its appliances almost
immediately, and soon two chemical services were directed into the hold
known to be filled chiefly with flax. The chemical gases used to extinguish
the fire were generated by the mixture of sulphuric acid and carbonate of
soda. While these remedies were being actually employed, the fire
brigadesmen (under Acting-Superintendent O'Brien), and the fire police also
arrived with their gear and continued to render valuable assistance. Water
was continually poured on the for'ard deck of the vessel, and every
precaution taken to keep down the temperature as far as possible.

The thermometer was frequently used to test the temperature in the lower
holds, and after a number of tests the captain was satisfied that the fire
was in the upper deck only. The cargo in No. 1 lower hold consists almost
entirely of tallow, and at the time of writing (2 p.m.) is quite safe; wool
is stowed in the 'tween decks, and the cargo in the upper deck where the
fire has broken out consists mostly of flax, with a small quantity of
general cargo.

It is impossible at the moment to ascertain the precise quantities of cargo
in the hold, or the names of the shippers but it is safe to assume that,
even taking the most optimistic view of things and allowing for the early
suppression of the fire (which seems highly probable) the damage will still
be very considerable. It is believed that the greater quantity of the flax
in the hold has been shipped from the Manawatu and Foxton mills.


Both Captain Carter and Captain Bendall (Lloyd's Surveyor) entertained
confident hopes at 2 p.m. that the fire would be suppressed before any very
serious damage had been done. When our representative left the vessel there
was a noticeable absence of smoke from the portholes, and the atmosphere in
the 'tween-decks was not quite so stifling as it had been earlier in the
progress of the fire. It was clear, however, to even the layman that all
danger was not at an end, and the exercise of considerable caution will be
required before any investigation as to the actual extent of the damage done
can be made.

It was reported in one quarter that a quantity of mail matter and postal
packages for London, shipped yesterday, was included in the cargo in No. 1
hold. This story is quite erroneous. The part of the hold on fire contains
nothing but flax and a small quantity of general cargo.

Asked at 2 p.m. what he thought of the position Captain Carter said he was
convinced the real danger of the fire spreading was at an end. He thought
they would succeed in entirely extinguishing it in a comparatively short

Captain Bendall expressed a similar opinion. He declared that the
precautions taken to cope with the fire had produced excellent results, and
he had no fear that the fire would extend to other parts of the hold.

Granted that the fire will be got under before this evening the vessel's
departure for London has been postponed till noon on Friday. The cargo in
No. 1 hold will have to be discharged and any damage done to the ship


Shortly before 3 o'clock the Terawhiti drew alongside the big steamer, and
preparations were made to connect up, but it was not anticipated then that
either the marine or land extinguisher would be required. Captain Bendall
and other experts were then confident that the fire's career was nearing its
end. An officer, who had been below for some time, reported that things were
cooling down inside. "We started on it," he said, "before it had a chance to
get going."


Mark Baber

Jul 4, 2000
MAB note: The following are two separate articles, the first of which
appeared on the main news page, and the second on a page of "late-breaking"
news items.

The Evening Post, Wellington, 21 May 1908
Retrieved from the National Library of New Zealand web site,


After toiling unceasingly all night with chemical appliances and
entertaining hopes of success the fire fighters on Board [sic] the Ionic had
to admit defeat. When The Post went to press yesterday the prospects of
extinguishing the fire before any very serious damage was done were hopeful.
The Harbour Staff, under Mr. Munro, continued to inject carbonic acid gas
into the hold all night, and the ship's own appliances were also kept going
right through the night. At 8 o'clock this morning success seemed to have
been attained, and it was considered safe to open the upper hatch and let
the fumes and steam clear away.

For a time all went well. The steam, freed from captivity, curled upwards in
great white clouds. Everybody looked hopeful and some were jubilant. But
doubts soon fled across the faces of the watchers as smoke with a distinct
odour commenced to mingle with the steam. Hardly an hour had passed when a
labourer, standing near the hatchway, declared that he had seen flames, but
the dense fumes prohibited any possibility of verifying his statement.


There was no doubt, however, that the fire was not extinguished - it was
clear that it was making rapid headway. The captain of the Ionic, who knew
that the seat of the fire was on the starboard side of the 'tween decks of
No. 1 hold, climbed over the side of his vessel, let himself down by means
of a rope ladder, and felt the plates of the big steamer. Those who watched
Captain Carter did not require to ask if the plates were heated. The manner
in which he lifted his hand was sufficient answer. Meantime the hatches had
been closed up again, firmly battened down, covered with canvas, and
generally rendered as near air proof as possible. But the temporary
uncovering let volumes of oxygen into the hold and the decks round the hatch
began to show signs of the intense heat below.


The putting of chemical appliances into action was again contemplated, but
after a consultation between Captain Evans, Captain Carter, Captain Bendall
(Lloyd's Surveyor), and Acting-Superintendent O'Brien (of the city fire
brigade), it was decided to flood the hold.

Everything was in readiness. The Union's powerful little tug Terawhiti had
been lying alongside the Ionic since yesterday afternoon, and the fire
brigade's steam-engine was situated at an easy distance from the vessel.
"Off with the hatches!" came the order. Men knocked away the pegs and tore
off a plank or two-just sufficient to admit the water. A man called from the
deck of the Ionic to the engineers on the Terawhiti to ''let her go," and in
a couple of seconds two huge pumps and three leads of hose were forcing
water into the hold of the burning steamer at the rate of 12,000 tons per
hour. The fire brigade also let their engine "go" to the tune of 1000
gallons per minute, projected through three separate leads of hose, and six
leads were being fed off the city supply. Altogether over 15,000 tons of
water were being poured into the hold every hour.


Previously the fire had been fought scientifically - it was a case of
chemicals v. flames, and the flames won. Now nothing could be heard but the
roar and swish of rushing water, the snorting of the fire-engine, and the
steady throbbing of the Terawhiti.

While all this work was being carried out it was strange to watch the
labourers at the next hatchway calmly stowing away cheese. This apparent
inconsistency is explained by the fact that the Ionic is provided with
water-tight bulk heads.


The cargo in. No. 1 hold consists, roughly speaking, of about 1800 bales of
flax, 350 casks of tallow, 320 bales of wool, some pelts, and a small
quantity of general cargo. The whole will be damaged by water, and a
considerable quantity must necessarily have been destroyed by the fire. When
the flooding process is completed, and the water pumped out again, the cargo
will have to be discharged. Perhaps a portion of the flax and the wool can
be dried out and saved, but the loss, in any case, must be considerable.

Frozen meat is stowed in the hold adjoining No. 1, and although it is stated
that the temperature has not risen, it is difficult to see how such delicate
cargo can escape without some injury. At present it is understood that when
the damaged cargo is discharged the Ionic will proceed on her voyage to


The Marine Department has ordered an enquiry into the cause of the fire. Dr.
M'Arthur, S.M., will preside, and Mr. W. G. Foster and Captain Blackburne
will be associated with him. It will be remembered that these three
gentlemen comprised the Wool Fires Commission. They were the most interested
of the privileged spectators who were allowed to view the fire from the
decks of the steamer this morning. Many hundreds of people have made their
way to the Glasgow Wharf to get a view of the steamer, but they have to view
the picture from a respectable distance. The immediate space round the
steamer is barricaded.


What is the origin of the fire? The enquiry is on every lip. The answer -
well, "Nobody knows." It is a mystery. A Post reporter happened across one
of the labourers who was working amongst the flax yesterday morning. He
explained that the outbreak did not occur in the flax, which was being
actually handled, but amongst some shipped at the Queen's Wharf about three
or four weeks ago. "We had no warning," he said. "The smoke burst upwards
like that," and he threw up his hands to put the finishing touches to his
explanation. "There was no odour of burning material, and when the fire did
come along we had to get out mighty smart."

"Do you think the 'match theory' holds good in this case?" he was asked.

"I have been working here for six years, and I have never seen a man smoke
in the hold of a steamer yet."

"But could he not have a smoke on the quiet?"

"He could," the labourer answered, "but he does not do it. The regulations
are too strict. You can't even take your coat down."

"'But they do take their coats down, nevertheless," interjected another
labourer of a rather shrewd typo, who declared he had worked on ships here
for ten years. Here again you have a conflict of opinion.

The Evening Post, Wellington, 21 May 1908
Retrieved from the National Library of New Zealand web site,


In two and a half hours the hold in the Ionic was flooded this afternoon.
Planks and little pieces of tow drifted about on the surface of the water,
while the vessel lay with her forefoot on the bottom of the harbour. A hole
was made in the side of the vessel by cutting away a "sealed" port-hole, and
through this the water gushed with great energy. When the surface of the
water has reached the level of the port-hole the Terawhiti will be
commissioned to pump out what remains. It is anticipated that the work of
discharging the cargo will be commenced to-night.


Mark Baber

Jul 4, 2000
The Evening Post, Wellington, 22 May 1908
Retrieved from the National Library of New Zealand web site,


All possible despatch is being used in the discharge of the damaged cargo
from No. 1 hold of the Ionic. A couple of cranes are being kept busy in
hauling up bales of sodden flax. The damage by fire is not quite so
extensive as at first anticipated. The flames, apparently, did not get
beyond the 'tween decks.

At present it is impossible to say when the actual work of discharging the
cargo will be completed, but at the time of writing the vessel's departure
for London has been provisionally set down for Sunday. In all probability,
however, her sailing date will have to be still further extended. Meantime
the saloon passengers are being accommodated on board the vessel, and the
Shaw, Savill, and Albion Company has made arrangements to compensate the
steerage passengers for hotel expenses during the detention of the vessel in

After the water was pumped out of No. 1 hold, it was ascertained that about
3 feet had percolated into the adjoining hold, which contains a cargo of
frozen meat. This will have to be discharged so that the damaged portion may
be sent to the boiling-down works. The balance will be re-shipped. So far no
reliable estimate of the total damage occasioned by the fire can be

The magisterial enquiry into the outbreak will be opened in the Magistrate's
Courthouse at 10 a.m. to-morrow.

Mr. Myers will appear for the Marine Department. A shorthand note of the
evidence will be taken by Mr. Russell, of the Hansard staff.


Mark Baber

Jul 4, 2000
The Evening Post, Wellington, 23 May 1908
Retrieved from the National Library of New Zealand web site,


Dr. M'Arthur held an enquiry into the recent fire on the White Star steamer
Ionic at the S.M. Court to-day. There were with him as assessors Captain
Blackburne, and Mr. W. G. Foster. Mr. M. Myers appeared for the Marine
Department and Mr. A. Gray for the owners.

Captain J. O. Carter, master of the Ionic, was the first witness called, and
after answering formal questions, said he did not know if the hull of the
ship was insured. He received a report that the ship was on fire at 11.30
a.m. on Wednesday. He was ashore at the time. When he returned to the ship
he found that the fire had broken out in No. 1 hold. The second officer was
in charge of the ship, and had battened down the hatches. Chemical engines
and steam were used to prevent the fire from spreading. It was decided to
keep these engines going until next morning, and if conditions were
favourable then to lift the hatches and ascertain how the fire was. On
Thursday morning it became necessary to flood the hold. When the fire was
extinguished the water was pumped out of the hold. The ship was not
materially damaged - not such as to affect her seagoing qualities. She had,
however, unquestionably been damaged. A couple of deck plates buckled, and a
beam slightly buckled. The wooden decks overlaying those of steel were
charred undearneath [sic]. The fire broke out on the starboard aide of the
No. 1 'tween decks. The fire originated in some way among the flax. This was
quite clear, and the flax that was burned was put into the hold on 29th
April. This part of the ship was not always used for cargo, but sometimes
for, passenger accommodation.


Mr. Myers then elicited the statement that there were electric wires
connected with the ship's lighting installation in the part of the hold
where the fire broke out.

Mr. Myers: Have you formed any opinion as to the orogin [sic] of the fire?

Captain Carter: Well, eliminating the theory of spontaneous combustion, I
can only suggest that as there were two or three bales of flax with steel
bands round them, some of these bands might have burst and thrown a spark
upon some particularly favourable portion of the flax. I have seen that
happen with cotton in the North Atlantic trade. The bands have burst and
have thrown a spark, but I have not seen cotton ignited by these sparks.


Witness said it was quite possible that wax matches were introduced into
ships' holds. The men who worked in the holds were not searched, but
smoking did not go on in the holds, he was quite satisfied as to that;
smoking neither by the stevedors' [sic] men nor members of the ship's company.

Replying to Capt. Blackburne, witness said the ventilators were about 25
feet from the seat of the fire. The electric current was cut off from the
hold where the fire broke out. The switches were out, as a matter of fact.

Capt. Blackburne observed that he saw men smoking on the deck of the Ionic,
near the hold; when they saw him they moved away.

Capt. Carter did not deny this; but the hold was full of water at the time
and the men were "shore men" probably. As for searching men before they were
allowed to enter the holds, that was a matter for Capt. Evans, the shore
superintendent, but so far as witness understood there was no power to
search men.

James Murray, electrician on the Ionic, described the "wiring" of the
portion of the ship where the fire broke out. The circuit was only used when
passengers were carried in this part of the ship. There was no current on
when the fire broke out. It had been long cut off, the fuse being out. No
current could possibly have got into the hold. The current had been cut off
seven months before.

To Mr. Foster, witness said he was positive that the fuses in this portion
of the ship were out.


John Arnold Holland, 2nd officer of the Ionic, estimated that there were
sixty bales of flax loaded on the starboard side No. 1 'tween decks, and
they were loaded on 28th April. The flax was consigned from Foxton, but
could not say who were the consignors, nor what the brands. The flax was
stacked in two tiers. There were eight bales of wool in this part of the
hold; but the wool did not catch fire. Witness added that he was having a
last look at the hold, just before ordering the hatches to be put on, when
he noticed smoke curling over from behind the bales of flax stowed on the
starboard side of the 'tween decks, well towards the forward end of the
vessel. Referring to the bands on the flax, witness said he noticed that two
of the wire bands around bales were broken. It would not have been possible
for anyone to have got between the bales or between them and the skin of the
ship. There was not one bale that was entirely burned. The Ionic had had no
bad weather after leaving Wellington on 29th April. As for the men working
in the hold, they were supposed to hand over their matches to the foreman
before going down into the hold, and this was done. He had never seen
matches in the hold.


To Mr. Gray witness said it had been a White Star regulation, ever since he
had been in the company, at any rate, that no matches were to be taken into
the hold, and notices were posted up to that effect. Witness had never known
of smoking in the holds. No smoking was permitted about the holds when the
hatches were off.

Replying to Mr. Foster, witness said he could not say that any one could not
have thrown his coat down and so have distributed matches that might have
been in the pockets. As a rule, the men worked in their coats. There was a
penalty for not handing matches over to the foreman.

Mr. Foster: Can you enforce a penalty?

Witness: Oh, yes.

Dr. M'Arthur: You might cause a strike.

Witness said he was confident that the electrification of the ship had
nothing to do with the cause of fire.


Witness, in answer to Dr. M'Arthur, said when the men were going down into
the hold, they were asked to give up their matches; "but," he added, "in no
case have I known men give up matches." The men were down in the hold about
an hour.

Dr. M'Arthur: Were you down the hold all the time the men were there?

Witness: Not all the time.

Was anyone responsible down there? -Yes; Mr. Archer.

Was there any sign of fire when those men went on deck? There was not.

Mr. Myers at this stage said the rest of the evidence would be short, and he
suggested that the enquiry should be adjourned to Friday next at 10 a.m.
This was agreed to.


Mark Baber

Jul 4, 2000
The Evening Post, Wellington, 25 May 1908
Retrieved from the National Library of New Zealand web site,


The Ionic, whose departure had been delayed on account of the fire which
broke out in No. 1 hold, got away to London shortly after noon to-day. The
work of discharging the frozen meat cargo from No. 2 hold of the steamer was
carried on right through Sunday, otherwise the departure of the vessel would
have been delayed until to-morrow. An arrangement has been made whereby
Messrs. W. Ross and Co., of Foxton, will deal with the flax discharged from
the steamer, and Mr. M. F. Bourke, of Wellington, will recondition the wool
at her [sic] Napier works.


Mark Baber

Jul 4, 2000
The Evening Post, Wellington, 2 June 1908
Retrieved from the National Library of New Zealand web site,


The enquiry into the fire which recently occurred on the White Star liner
Ionic was resumed to-day before Dr. M'Arthur, S.M., and Captain Blackburne
and Mr. W. G. Foster, sitting as assessors. Mr. M. Myers appeared for the
Marine Department, and Mr. A. Gray for the owners of the vessel.


Captain A. Monro, assistant secretary and wharfinger to the Harbour Board,
who was on board the Ionic during the fire and when the burnt flax was
discharged, said he had had much experience of fires at sea, and was years
engaged in the jute carrying trade between Calcutta and New York. He had had
experience of one fire which was undoubtedly attributable to spontaneous
combustion, but the features of the Ionic fire were different from that
case. The features of the Turakina and Ionic fires were identical, but he
would not say that they were attributable to spontaneous combustion.

Mr. Myers: Have you formed any opinion as to the origin of the fire?

Witness: I think it was caused by a bale of flax coming in contact with
fire; but how I do not know.

Witness said the greatest difficulty was experienced in keeping the public
who were smoking away from tow or flax which was being loaded. As a matter
of fact, on the Sunday morning after the fire he saw a man leaning over a
bale of flax and smoking a cigarette at the same time. He had never seen
matches in a ship's hold. It was possible, of course, that they might get
there; but he would not allege that there was any smoking in the hold; but
the dropping of a live match into the hold might cause such a fire as took
place on the Ionic. The Harbour Board had power to prevent the stowage of
damp flax.

To Mr. Gray, witness said that he had been told of a box of matches having
been found actually inside a bale of flax, but this flax was not on board
ship. If flax got wet through rain on the wharf, it would not be shipped,
but returned to the shed, and if wet enough, would be opened up.

Are you prepared to say that every bale of flax that has been on the
wharf and has been wetted by a shower of rain has been taken back and opened
up? - No, I am not prepared to say that.

If you suggest that the bales on the Ionic came into contact with flame, how
do you account for the fire? - I wish to say that I do not think the fire
was caused by spontaneous combustion.

You have no fact to support that view? - No. All I had to go upon was that
the bales were charred on the outside.

Yet you know that some of that flax had been on the ship for three weeks? -
Some of it.

Mr. Foster: In mentioning the fact that it was difficult to keep the public
who were smoking away from the flax on the wharf, do yon wish to connect
that with the fire on the Ionic?

Witness: I do not say that.

Where did the fire originate? - It was under the fo'c'sle.


Alfred Seifert, president of the Flaxmillers' Association, said it was not
possible for matches to find their way into the centre of a bale of flax, as
matches would be taken out by the scutchers, but it was possible for matches
to find their way into the outside of bales when being sent away. No matches
were allowed to be taken into the mills.

To Mr. Gray, witness said it was a rule in all mills that no matches were
allowed to be taken into the sheds, and he had known of cases of men being
dismissed for having matches on them in the sheds. Coats and waistcoats were
usually taken off in the scutching shed, but it was doubtful if matches
would thus be scattered about the shed.


Henry Archer, foreman stevedore for the Shaw, Savill Co., produced a notice
which was posted on the hatch ever since the Gothic fire, prohibiting
smoking and taking matches below. The men were also personally warned.

Mr. Myers: Have you ever seen matches given up by men going below?

Witness: Yes; often.

You have no effective means of obtaining matches unless the men chose to
give them up?- That is so. We have no authority to search the men.

Mr. Gray: Have you ever known a man refuse to give up matches?

Witness: No.

Have you ever seen men smoking in the holds ?- Never.

You do all you can to discourage smoking in the holds and the introduction
of matches?- Certainly.


Captain Jas. Evans, Marine Superintendent for the Shaw, Savill Company, put
in a statement showing that since 1901 no fires had occurred on ships
carrying wool from Australia, but that fires had occurred on ships from New
Zealand which carried both wool and flax. It was clear from his deductions
that the fire was due to flax alone, the wool having been kept separate. The
Ionic was the only case in which it had been certainly demonstrated that the
fire originated among the flax. Witness would be in favour of making it a
criminal offence for men to take matches into the hold. Searching men would
take up a considerable time, for it would have to be done several times a
day. There was no space suitable on board ship for men to leave their
clothes in. A place on the wharf where men could leave their coats and
waistcoats when working on the ship should be provided. Witness rejected the
match theory as the cause of the fore, but attributed the fire to
spontaneous combustion.

Captain G. T. T. Hull said a fire on the steamer Moana, just before the
arrival at San Francisco, was found at the enquiry to be due to the
spontaneous combustion of some bales of kapok.

Michael Bourke, flaxmiller, gave expert evidence as to the condition of flax
in the bale.

Captain Bendall, Lloyd's surveyor, said whatever else might have been the
cause of the fire, it was not spontaneous combustion. Under certain
conditions, however, flax might be fired by spontaneous combustion when in a
ship's hold. The seat of the fire was underneath the boys' room, and the
fire started over the top of the bales.

This closed the evidence, and the court adjourned until 2.15 p.m. on Friday


Mark Baber

Jul 4, 2000
MAB note: This concludes the reporting of the Ionic fire.

The Evening Post, Wellington, 5 June 1908
Retrieved from the National Library of New Zealand web site,


The court enquiring into the fire which recently occurred on the Shaw,
Savill steamer Ionic, gave its finding this afternoon. The court was
presided over by Dr. M'Arthur, S.M., who had with him Captain Blackburn and
Mr. W. G. Foster.

The finding was to the effect that the origin of the fire was caused by
something inflammable and extraneous coming into contact with the top bales
of flax in the upper 'tween decks. There was no evidence, the court held, of
the fire being due to spontaneous combustion, and that theory is abandoned;
but there was, on the other hand, ample evidence against this theory. The
court, although admitting that there was no evidence of smoking in the hold,
recommended that the utmost rigour should be exercised in preventing matches
or other inflammables being taken into the ship's holds.

Captain Blackburn did not feel justified in stating that the fire was due to
some extraneous fire. There was more in the spontaneous combustion theory
than was generally believed.

Mr. M. Myers appeared for the Marine Department, and Mr. A. Gray for the


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