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Hospital ships

Page 2 – Background

Floating hospitals

Hospital ships had accompanied naval forces since ancient times. Britain had used them most recently during the Crimean and South African wars. The Hague Convention of 1907 laid down the rules. It required hospital ships to:

  • be clearly marked with white hulls, green stripes and red crosses
  • help the injured and sick regardless of nationality
  • not be used for any military purpose
  • not interfere with or hamper combatants
  • be available for inspection and verification

New Zealand took those rules very seriously during the First World War. Its ships carried no weapons at all and even side arms brought aboard by wounded officers were put ashore at the first port of call.

There were three types of vessels. Hospital ships were full conversions. Hospital carriers were quick, limited conversions, although they, too, had to stick to the rules. Ambulance transports (nicknamed ‘black ships’) could carry troops and cargo but were not distinctively marked and were therefore fair game.  New Zealand’s two ships, Maheno and Marama, were full hospital ships.

Civilian days

The ships were owned by the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand Ltd, the country’s biggest private business.  Run from Dunedin since 1875, it was also the southern hemisphere’s largest shipping line, able to draw on a mixture of New Zealand, Australian and British capital.

The Union Company had a history of innovation. In the early 1900s, its founder, James Mills, took a shine to the new-fangled marine steam turbine, a fuel- and labour-saving engine that also made life easier for passengers by running more smoothly and quietly than reciprocating engines. In 1904 Union commissioned the Bass Strait ferry Loongana, the world’s first seagoing turbine merchant ship.

Even before that ship proved its worth, Mills ordered his next trans-Tasman liner as a turbine. He gave the job to Scottish shipbuilder William Denny & Bros, a founding shareholder that had built every new Union Company ship since 1875. This became the Maheno of 1905. It was no North Atlantic liner, even smaller than a modern Cook Strait ferry, but the company’s first (and only) two-funnel Tasman liner shaved a full day off the usual five-day crossing.

The stylish Maheno captured public attention, but was not perfect. The ship chewed through coal, had clumsily designed furnace doors and ‘rolled on wet grass’ as seafarers used to say. Canny firemen and trimmers took jobs on other ships if they could get them. In 1914 the company spent a fortune on completely re-engining the ship at Port Chalmers.

The Maheno’s shortcomings were the last straw for the company, which had complained about several recent Denny ships. In 1906 it gave the contract for its next passenger liner to another Scottish builder, Caird & Co of Greenock.

The Marama of 1907 reverted to conventional reciprocating steam engines and a single funnel.

Technical details:   TSS Maheno
Builder: Wm Denny & Bros, Dumbarton, Scotland
Tonnage: 5323 gross
Dimensions: 121.9 m long, 15.2 m wide, 6.95 m draft
Top speed: 17 knots
Passengers: 231 first class, 120 second class and 67 third class
Crew: 113

Technical details:    SS Marama
Builder: Caird & Co, Greenock, Scotland
Tonnage: 6437 gross
Dimensions: 128 m long, 16.1 m beam and 6.9 m draft
Top speed: 16 knots
Passengers: 270 first class, 120 saloon and 100 (200 max) fore-cabin passengers
Crew: 140

How to cite this page

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