Pitcairn Island via the Panama Canal in the 1920s

It has been a while since I have added anything to this website. The main reason for that is that I have been working on a new book which I am pleased to say is now complete, and available to buy from Amazon – Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Pitcairn Island via the Panama Canal in the 1920s is a 172 page paperback book including over 100 rare black and white illustrations, extensive extracts from passenger Logs, and contemporary newspaper reports.

The book has a Foreword written for me by Garry Law, whose amazing Remuera website may be well known to readers. If you haven’t seen it, you really should take a look: CLICK HERE

The book tells of life on a ship in the 1920s, from the wealthy to the poor, who were travelling to make a new home for themselves in New Zealand, or taking long and expensive touring holidays, as they experienced the steamship Remuera, the highs and lows, from excitement to boredom. From a baby, born to the Twin family, James Arthur Pitcairn Twin, named after both the ship’s Captain and Doctor, and the Island that the ship had recently visited, to the very sad accident which brought a sudden halt to the fun of a fancy dress party on board ship.

With over 100 rare photographs, large extracts from diaries written by holidaying passengers, and contemporary newspaper reports of voyages, it will be possible to imagine yourself on board the ship amongst this diverse collection of people from all walks of life. I have not edited their stories, so you may find that their language or point of view is not acceptable by today’s standards, but history needs to be shown as it was, and not sanitised, so that we can learn from it, and not let ourselves slip back into the old ways when white assumed they were better than black and the rich considered themselves superior to the poor. We still have a long way to go, but I think we are getting there, and the Black Lives Matter movement must surely help.

On each long voyage there were two major points of interest to break up the sometimes tediously long journey – the Panama Canal, and the short stop at Pitcairn Island, home of the descendants of the mutineers from HMAV Bounty. The Remuera had been the first New Zealand Shipping Company vessel to transit the Canal, back in 1916, and this amazing feat of engineering is well described by my two diarists in these pages, together with the many photographs taken by passengers and also the ship’s barber who printed up his images with postcard backs and sold them from his hairdressing saloon on the Remuera’s main deck.

Pitcairn Islanders trading on board the Remuera in 1923

Pitcairn Island has always fascinated me. It is still a very difficult place to visit today, and there are many people in the UK who do not realise where it is, or even that it is a British territory with Islanders who hold British passports. There are not many Pitcairners today, something in the region of 40 to 50 people live on the Island. In the 1920s the population was higher, rising from 163 in 1920 to 190 by 1930. In the 1920s Pitcairn was extremely isolated, and the population relied greatly on the visits of the New Zealand Shipping Company’s vessels to bring much needed supplies and correspondence. Today the Pitcairners have the internet, but there is no air strip, and only two places where small ships can berth. Large cruise ships still have to drop anchor out at sea.

The Pitcairners are presented in this book with widely differing opinions. I have never been to the Island myself, but I know people who have. I’ve met Pitcairners who have visited the UK in recent years and they have invariably been nice, friendly people. I find some of the opinions of them that were printed in 1920s newspapers to be offensive, but again, I have not sanitised the original text in any way. Today, life on Pitcairn is hard. If you were to suffer a serious injury or illness, you would face a difficult evacuation by sea. One Islander died in recent years because he could not reach help in time. There are fairly regular supply ships, but there is only one shop, one small school, one teacher and a doctor or nurse from New Zealand. An Islander has been trained in dentistry, but it is not his full time job. The Islanders still rely on sales of fruit and curios to passengers on visiting cruise ships to supplement their income.

David Ransom

Order your copy now from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Who Do You Think You Are magazine

I’m very pleased to announce that this website has been featured in the July 2020 edition of Who Do You Think You Are family history magazine. I would like to take this opportunity to welcome any new visitors to the site and hope that you find what you are looking for. Please keep checking back because I have more information to add, including some more passenger lists.

Rangitata 1952 memories

I have just added another complete Passenger List to this website thanks to Steve Langford of Auckland, New Zealand, who sent me scans of his own copy. Steve travelled to New Zealand with his parents and grandparents on the Rangitata in 1952. He had first emailed me with the following message:

“I have been researching my family history and came across your website when looking at the Rangitata. I came to New Zealand as a four year old in 1952. I have an original passenger list for the voyage, 13th June 1952, which left London for Wellington NZ via Curaçao and the Panama Canal. You are welcome to a copy if you wish. Great website.”

I emailed Steve, thanking him for getting in touch, and despite the lockdown due to the Coronavirus COVID-19 in New Zealand, and here in the UK, or perhaps helped by the fact that many people (including myself) have a little more time to spare at the moment, he managed to scan his list and send it to me for inclusion here. And, perhaps more surprisingly, I have managed to add it to the website, all within three weeks (a record for me!).

Steve emailed me back, and added some of his memories of the time:

“I have attached the passenger list. The photo (taken onboard) is of my mother, Dora Alice Langford, my father Reginald Henry, the boy on the left is my older brother Roger Henry, and myself Stephen John. My sister Anne aged 10 is not in the photo. My grandparents Thomas Sidney Jenkin and Alice Maud Jenkin both travelled with us.

“I remember very little of my young life in London and the trip to New Zealand. My other grandparents, Charles and Maud Langford, were quite distressed at the time, knowing they would never see us again.

“We travelled first class and had a steward who looked after us, named Rupert, who used to make quite a fuss over cutting the tops off boiled eggs.

“The reason New Zealand was chosen is that my father had purchased tickets to South Africa but in 1952 there was trouble with the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, so my father changed the tickets to New Zealand. A lot of people who returned from the war emigrated to all parts of the world. England, and particularly London, was badly damaged. I still have my ration card and I wasn’t born until 1948, so things must have been difficult.”

Enid Jones, Rangitata Nursing Sister

In December 2017, the magazine, Your Family History, published an article of mine entitled “The end of the line”. Unfortunately the magazine is no longer published, but I am hoping to get permission to reproduce my article on this website at some time in the future.

My article asked what happens to photographs and family memorabilia when a person dies, perhaps from a small family, and there is nobody remaining to pass possessions on to. I purchased a small collection of photographs and records on eBay that once belonged to Enid Jones, a nurse on board the Rangitata. Her personal memorabilia was all disposed of in a house clearance. Enid was the nursing sister on Steve Langford’s 1952 Rangitata voyage, as the passenger list shows, and also Enid’s “Certificate of Discharge” book that I now own (see below). Enid’s final voyage on the Rangitata was in 1957.

Many more photographs of the Rangitata can be viewed on this website: Click here.

Update from Roger Langford

Following the publication of the above piece from Steve Langford, his brother Roger got in touch to add some more information:

“I am the other lad in the family photo (the one on the right) and as a five-and-a-half year old at the time, I remember a bit more of our trip. I have attached a photo of a first class menu dated 10th July, 1952, as well as photo of my introduction to Davey Jones Locker when we crossed the equator.

Certificate from the Rangitata – Davy Jones' Locker

“I have no idea of the date of the ceremony and quite frankly cannot remember much except shaving or real cream being plastered about.

“My recollection of the entire trip is as follows. I do not recall leaving dockside or the trip across the Atlantic, but I do remember passing through the Panama Canal and the large ropes connected to the mechanical “donkeys” pulling the ship through the locks.

“In Curaçao the ship was refuelled from a large barge and I can easily recall hanging over the ship’s rail watching the men at work, and throwing down a couple of Dinky toys to them (why I don’t know, kids I suppose) Steve was with me, I think that we gave our parents hell on that trip, two young boys on an adventure of a lifetime.

“The other recollection I have of that time was that my father must have gone ashore because I do remember him with a couple of other blokes being helped back up the gangway, drunk as skunks, on the local banana rum, I am led to believe. The rest of the trip must have been fairly uneventful as I don’t recall much from then on, I do know I was a bit sick for a few days reaching Panama.

“I have a very vague memory of docking in Wellington at night and next morning leaving the ship, only to return with my father as I had left my Dinky toys under my bunk pillow for safe keeping. Our cabin steward Rupert, that Steve mentioned, took us back to look, but we never found them.”

1937 Coronation

To England for the Coronation in 1937

Having just typed up the Passenger List for the voyage of the Rangitiki, which left Wellington in March 1937 bound for London, I realised that there were a fair number of potentially interesting people on board.

It turned out that many of the passengers were travelling to the UK to represent New Zealand at the Coronation of George VI and Elizabeth, our present Queen’s parents.

The New Zealand website Papers Past is an excellent free resource, and on searching for one of the names in the Passenger List, two newspaper articles appeared in the results.

The Officers, including Major Leckie, Captain Frickleton, Lieutenant D. Swettzer (on the Passenger List as Lieut. D. Sweetzer), Lieutenant R. W. Haddow, Lieutenant A. A. Tennant and Flying-Officer D. E. Grigg, can all be found amongst the First Class passengers in the List. I could not find Captain Garruth, so perhaps he was unable to travel.

The men selected seem to be listed in Tourist “B” class, not mixing with the Officers of course.

In this newspaper story, Lieutenant D. Sweetzer is listed with the same spelling as in the Passenger List, so I assume that this is correct.

Here is a short video from YouTube that was released by British Movietone.

Read about the luxurious Rangitiki here:


1930s Round Voyage Tickets

When adding some more Passenger Lists to this website recently, I noticed an interesting item in one of the 1935 lists, with the following text:

The New Zealand Shipping Company announce that they are now issuing Round Voyage Tickets – out and home in the same ship – which entitle passengers to remain on board the vessel on the New Zealand coast. Round Fares – First class from £140, Cabin class from £112.

As a comparison, according to the Economics Help website*, “terraced houses in the London area could be bought for £395 in the mid-1930s when average earnings were about £165 per year.”

An online inflation calculator** shows that £140 for a First class fare in 1936 would be equivalent to just under £10,000 in 2020, and the Cabin class fare would be just under £8,000!

Housing is a different story. For example, that £395 terraced house in the London area would certainly cost more than £28,000 today (even if it still had the original outside toilet)!

So my initial reaction, which was something like, “wow, I wish I had a time machine to go on that Round Voyage”, is actually very wrong . . . and I certainly prefer my modern bathroom facilities at home.