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Lyttelton-Wellington ferries

Page 3 – The early years

Although many ships sailed between Lyttelton and Wellington during the course of their longer voyages, a regular passenger service between those ports took time to develop. In the meantime, people simply took the next ship passing through port. By the 1890s, though, Wellington was growing rapidly as the colony's political and economic centre. It was time for a dedicated service.

The Union Steam Ship Company began cautiously. In April 1895 it advertised that its 31-year-old steamer Penguin would run once a week between the ports. Demand grew quickly, and sailings increased to two and then to three a week. Other Union Steam Ship Company ships redeployed to the service included the former trans-Tasman liners Rotomahana and Mararoa, which were running mates by the time nightly sailings were inaugurated in 1905. 

In 1906 the company ordered its first purpose-built Lyttelton ferry, the Maori, from its favourite builder, Wm Denny Bros of Dumbarton, Scotland. Just before he died, Premier Richard Seddon had been pressuring the company about offering cheap fares for his pride and joy, the planned Christchurch international exhibition, so the Maori was meant to impress. According to the shipping reporter who greeted the ship at the end of her delivery voyage, 'To sleep the sleep of the just or unjust upon the Maori is to experience all the opulent delights of purple and fine linen.'

The Maori was big – 3399 tons gross and 107 metres long – but its engines made the difference. Instead of the traditional triple or quadruple expansion steam plant, the Maori sported new-style steam turbines. These were expensive to build and operate, but they were quiet running, an important consideration for an overnight ferry where the quality of sleep was all-important. (All subsequent Lyttelton ferries were turbine vessels.) The ship also featured bow rudders to make it easier to berth stern first, an unusual feature in the days before stern doors and roll-on roll-off ships. In November 1907 the Maori established a new record of 8 hours 46 minutes from Wellington Heads to Lyttelton Heads.

Although original plans to decorate the ship’s accommodation spaces with Maori motifs fell through, the 423 saloon and 130 second-class passengers still experienced a visual feast.

The spacious music-room is a veritable symphony in old gold and blue. Softly-yielding lounges invite contemplative inactivity, while the grand piano foreshadows unending possibilities. The dining room, reached by a noble staircase of handsome woods, is of special magnificence, upholstered in crimson and decorated in subdued artistic tints of green and white and gold. A lordly dome pierced and garnished with stained glass rises through the upper promenade deck, and may be lifted to augment the ventilation at will. The parquetted floor is clothed with rich crimson carpets.

The Wahine, built by Dennys in 1913, was slightly bigger (4436 tons gross) and a knot faster, but it generally followed the Maori's design. At peak times an extra 82 first-class and 178 second-class passengers were crammed in to make a total of 486 saloon and 366 second-class passengers. In the wake of the Titanic sinking, the company played up the fact that the Wahine had ‘lifeboats for all' and more besides.

How to cite this page

The early years, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated