The Merrie England – Dec PNG Kundu 2023

The Merrie England – Dec PNG Kundu 2023

The Merrie England

David Jones

Merrie England was a pretty ship with a jolly name. She was well known on the Brisbane River when she came for her annual overhaul or regular visits, lying lightly at anchor in the Gardens Reach. The Brisbane Courier reported ‘her lines are extremely graceful’ with clipper bow, shelving stern and rakish masts and funnel. But more than this, the report continued ‘she is a fine sea boat capable of going to any place in the world’. So, what was the Merrie England?

She was a government vessel, born out of the turbulent journey followed by the eastern Australian colonies to convince the Imperial Government in London to take possession of eastern New Guinea in the face of German expansion. Finally, in 1888, Great Britain took possession of Papua, south-eastern New Guinea, if Queensland and the other Australian colonies financially subsidised its administration. Under the terms of this agreement Great Britain provided a steamer for the New Guinea Administration to exercise its authority throughout the possession.

Merrie England was the vessel chosen. Built in Leith in 1884 as a steam yacht with auxiliary schooner rig for a wealthy Englishman, she was 147 feet long (44.8 m) with a beam of 25 feet (7.62 m) and measured 260 gross tons. A pair of compound steam engines and a single screw gave her a speed of ten knots. Various modifications were made to suit her for her new role in the tropics. Her rig was reduced, hull refurbished, a steam launch and 25-foot whaler were provided as well as awnings and an ice-making machine. A three-barrelled 25 cm Nordenfelt quick-firing gun, rifles, revolvers, cutlasses and plenty of ammunition were supplied for her policing role in a wild and untamed land.

Merrie England arrived in Port Moresby for the first time on 12 May 1889 after a 67-day passage from London. Two days later she left on her first assignment, carrying a court party to administer justice in a settlement 70 miles to the east. At this time New Guinea had been barely touched by civilisation and was virtually unexplored by Europeans. A cycle of conflict, bloodshed and retribution was commonplace among the native tribes. The few European traders, goldminers and missionaries struggled against hostile country, fickle natives, and tropical disease to pursue their difficult ambitions.

The Merrie England would greatly assist the Administrator, Sir William Macgregor, in promoting the rule of law in Papua. He often travelled aboard her himself, seeing and being seen across the length of his frontier domain. Merrie England’s duties were many and varied, including coastal transport, transfer of administration officers, law enforcement and policing, rescue, and relief of sick and destitute settlers, as well as aiding exploration. But it was not all serious business. Four months after her arrival, Merrie England gave 200 children from Port Moresby a three-hour cruise out to sea.

The Quetta Connection

The steamer was regularly seen in Queensland ports, Brisbane, Cooktown and Thursday Island, connecting with shipping from Great Britain and obtaining supplies. Merrie England was in Thursday Island when, at 2 pm on 1 March 1890, news was received that the mail steamer Quetta had struck a rock and foundered in the approaches to Torres Strait. Merrie England was loaded with food and blankets, and within an hour was heading to the scene of the tragedy to rescue survivors and carry them to Thursday Island.

Sir William Macgregor GCMG, CB, AM, PC, FRSGS

Another rescue and her end!

Again in 1909 she spent almost a month searching for the German Government vessel Seestern, which had disappeared after sailing from Brisbane. But no trace of Seestern was ever found.

For 23 years Merrie England made a substantial contribution to the colonial development of Papua, enduring the hazards of uncharted waters, groundings, and cyclones, in a remote area, dependent on her own resources for repairs and replacements. But her time came on the night of 24 October 1912.

While approaching Port Moresby in hazy conditions, a light on a canoe was mistaken for a guiding light into the harbour and Merrie England glided smoothly onto Basilisk Reef.

Saving the Quetta survivors from the wrecked ship

Her engines were put hard astern, but it was to no avail, Merrie England was held fast. Boats ferried all her people ashore and, as the tide receded, she listed heavily on her starboard side. Salvage attempts over several days failed and Merrie England was abandoned as a total loss.

After sterling service over many years establishing British rule in Papua, Merrie England had fixed her name in the colony’s history. Her name was revived in 1917 for a 169-ton wooden motor ship to continue the work of her predecessor. But this vessel’s life was short, being accidentally burnt at her moorings in Port Moresby two years later. 

Republished with permission from QMMA Manifest, Spring 2023 Volume 3: number 3.


Worked for Burns Philp in Popondetta and Port Moresby from 1980 through 1987

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