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Lyttelton-Wellington ferries

Page 4 – Politicians and ferries

The Premier ... used some very bad language about the Moura ... He told me that the vessel dragged down in 15 ½ hours and arrived too late for the funeral and that we ought not to inflict such a brute of a vessel upon the suffering public. I may remark that he, himself, detained the vessel a quarter of an hour, ringing up at the last moment as usual requesting us to keep her for a few minutes for him.

Union Steam Ship Company manager, 1901

In the early years of the Lyttelton–Wellington service the Union Steam Ship Company (USSCo), nicknamed the ‘Southern Octopus' because of its market dominance, often came under fire from the Liberal government. The newspaper Truth complained that old tubs like the Penguin or the Moura meant that the company should be renamed the ‘U Shan't Sleep Co' (a play on USSCo).

Three sheets in the wind

In 1904 the Lyttelton Times criticised the practice of collecting tickets at the gangway after a drunken passenger, refusing to pay his fare for the Rotomahana, disrupted boarding and had to be handcuffed and incarcerated by the captain. The Lyttelton branch manager explained that neither wharf staff nor crew detected anything untoward until the man was asked to produce his ticket. ‘A detective advised me that he saw an M.H.R. [Member of Parliament] going on board the worse for liquor. I doubt if it would have been policy to have "weeded" him out. It is not an uncommon thing for men of all classes and conditions to go on board our vessels in a more or less intoxicated state.'

Because politicians used the ferries to travel between their electorates and Wellington, they scrutinised the company's ships. Premier Richard Seddon sometimes threatened to build or buy state-run ferries, so the company's Wellington and Lyttelton branch managers always gave politicians special attention. They would delay the ship to suit the convenience of political heavyweights such as Seddon, Sir Joseph Ward and Sir Robert Stout, give them free or discounted fares and ensure that they had cabins to themselves. Even so, things sometimes went wrong: ‘Last night we left three MPs [Members of Parliament] behind', the company's chairman grumbled in 1901.

The ships' masters were always given the names of VIPs – politicians, business leaders, celebrities and so on. They were expected to fuss over them, offering  dinner with the master, a trip to the bridge or a cabin upgrade.

The politicians became happier once the purpose-built Maori and Wahine entered service. By the inter-war period Parliament provided MPs with annual free passes for the ships. Although air travel became increasingly popular after the Second World War, some older MPs still preferred to take the ferry and the train.

How to cite this page

Politicians and ferries, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated