Revised index of NZ ships

(16 September 2006)



“Watt’s Index” – formally the Index to the New Zealand Section of the Register of All British Ships 1840 to 1950 (inclusive), Compiled by M. N. Watt, M. B., Ch.B., NZ Ship and Marine Society, Wellington, 1962 – provides a very comprehensive record of every merchant vessel registered in New Zealand up to 1950 ( refer Watt’s Index).


Many additions and corrections to the original are known, however, and there is no equivalent comprehensive listing of New Zealand ships after 1950.


I am working on a project to compile a record of all NZ-registered ships to date that would incorporate the most critical information about each ship in Watt and to which modules of the other information in Watt and ship information from other sources can be progressively added. This is at inevitable risk of becoming known as “The Watt Update” as that will be the simplest way to communicate its substance to many people who know of the original but that isn’t my intention. Something very different is envisaged in any case for a number of practical reasons.


I do not intend that my updated index should become known as “Lowe’s Index” and it won’t be with any encouragement from me. It’s premature to be getting serious about names but my thinking is along the lines of retaining the “Register of All British Ships” allusion (provides the British Registrar has no objection) as I am deliberately working on NZ ships within the framework of Australasian and British Empire indexes to which that term would be appropriate quite possibly with a simple distinctive, easily pronounced and remembered Māori name to which the full description would form a subtitle. (There is a little-known Australian counterpart that also contains the “Register of All British Ships” allusion in the title compiled by Andrew Eliasson which is available on microfilm – not microfiche – at the Australian National Maritime Museum and state offices of Archives Australia, though not in other libraries or generally so you will not find it in any library catalogue anywhere.)


The strategy is to compile an index of basic information – much more limited to begin with than the amount in Watt (somewhere between the amount of information in the names’ index of the Miramar ship index and the individual ship records in Miramar) – that could be made quickly and cheaply available in computer-readable format and for which various additional modules of information would be progressively added and released in a similar manner. Several reasons are behind this approach. It will make critical information available much sooner, its early release will promote the project and serve to identify additional contributions and contributors, it will be very affordable to all concerned and a clutter of expensive superseded paper versions will be avoided. People who cannot use computers will be provided for by depositing it with libraries that can provide access.


The strategy and publication form proposed is obviously very different from “Watt’s Index” but necessary in order to take full advantage of the technology that has become available in the meantime. Obviously, appropriate acknowledgment will be made to M. N. Watt’s pioneering work and its publication by the NZ Ship and Marine Society will be appropriately acknowledged.


I already have a preliminary working version of my first stage covering more than 6,000 vessels but it would be counterproductive, indeed irresponsible, to release it until a further stage of verification and checking has been carried out. This necessarily involves independent data entry of the original Watt content for computerised checking against my own transcriptions and material I have received from others. Very little computer knowledge is required or much individual effort if spread across a number of people. Please contact me at if you are able to assist. (Note the _ between the j and lowe.)


If you can write a letter on a computer, save it, retrieve it and edit it in any Windows-based software you have as much computer understanding as required to handle data entry in spreadsheets even if you have never used them before. (If you are more familiar with Access or some similar database product and would prefer to work in that instead, that would be fine and easily accommodated.)



First stage


The planned first stage is to provide critical information for each ship; essentially, all names, official number, type, rig, original tonnages, when and where built, builder, and fate together with all already known corrections to the original index. Original dimensions will probably also be included as will whatever information on hull material is available.


Numerical database reference numbers (generally based on the official number) will be provided as a prime component designed to facilitate the efficient and accurate amalgamation of information from other sources with that in mine and for mine to be computer-linked to other ship information databases. The inexpensive universally available technology that provides for this enables research and information opportunities that maritime researchers and readers alike could only dream of a short term ago. My approach is designed to exploit these opportunities to the maximum within the scope of software and hardware that is readily available to anyone who can use computers at all and at the cheapest possible cost to ensure maximum utilisation.


People who have no computer or computing knowledge will be catered for by ensuring that my index and its revisions are widely available in libraries where the staff can assist with access. Publication in paper format is unlikely to be either practical or desirable even if successive expanded versions were not envisaged from the outset. Any paper publication would be bulky, expensive and about as attractive as the telephone directory. It can never be a “coffee table”, presentation or gift publication.


Some information relating to known additional information sources relating to the ship will also be included in the first release; certainly the identity and location of other databases known to contain information about the ships. I may also include in Version 1 reference to the location of those plans, models, photographs etc known to me, partly in order to make a useful (albeit incomplete) addition available but more particularly to use it as a working demonstration model of the approach and the potential and value of the technology and strategy.



Further stages


I am committed to subprojects that would involve computerising and progressively revising the remaining content of the original Watt’s Index. My New Zealand research is only part of my research programme. Obviously, I have to prioritise, even within the NZ-related research. There is plenty of scope to advance the work by setting up related interconnected sub-projects drawing upon the particular interests and skills of others.


I am giving priority to adding the additional physical ship information (changes in dimensions and tonnage for the sake of completeness and because it is a messy subproject unlikely to appeal to anybody else) and to the port registration details which are invaluable for quickly identifying those ships ever registered in a particular port such as Wellington and for linking up with Australian ship publications, in particular the invaluable series compiled by Ronald Parsons.


The ship casualty, masters and ownership information is beyond my ability to tackle single-handed given other equally important projects but could be tackled very well as a small team project or projects using my core ship data to minimise avoidable double-entry of data and providing the means to print out ownership lists in a much more readable format than the methods and publication constraints permitted in the original.



Add-ons beyond the scope of the original


Watt’s Index is limited to NZ-registered merchant vessels – essentially everything allocated an official number under Empire-wide (and latterly local) registration legislation and those earlier vessels which would have been, had that legislation been in effect in 1840. It does not cover naval vessels, many fishing vessels, many small craft of considerable significance collectively and locally, or ships of importance to NZ that were never registered here (notably immigrant ships and shipwrecks).


My strategy and approach easily provides for the incorporation of these categories as “add-ons” provided a few common protocols are followed that would be easy and painless if followed from the outset (and logical in any case). I am already working in parallel on indexing 19th century immigrant ships, shipwrecks and Australian connections. There are doubtless genealogical projects that could benefit from collaboration.


The “river steamers” are an interesting class of several hundred small vessels whose critical role as feeder services to the coastal steamers that is well recorded in Cliff Furniss’ “Servants of the North. Adventures on the coastal trade with the Northern Steam Ship Company”, A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1977. Basic information about them is published in the annual reports of the Marine Department in the readily available Appendices to the Journal of the House of Representatives from the 1860’s through to about 1930. The information in this source does not include the critical when and where built and where they operated but this information and more is recorded in a set of hand-written registers in Archives New Zealand, Wellington, and could be combined with the published material to provide an interesting little record of an almost unmentioned but historically important category of local shipping. There is a nice little subproject here for anyone interested in collaborating. Residence in Wellington is essential only for one part of the work.


I would certainly like to see a module of NZ naval vessels added but have almost zero knowledge of naval vessels beyond the early 19th century. I would be pleased to advise how an index of naval vessels could be designed to interconnect with my index.


Fishing vessels are another numerous category (largely outside the original Watt) which should receive serious attention. There is a complication in that fishing licenses relate to the individual rather than the vessel so that one license may apply to more than one vessel, one vessel may be covered by a succession of licenses and recent licenses are affected by privacy legislation to a much greater degree than general registrations. I would be pleased to hear from anyone with particular knowledge and interest in sorting them out.


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