Watt’s Index of NZ-registered ships

(revised and updated 16 September 2006)



“Watt’s Index” of New Zealand registered ships is a comprehensive record of merchant ships registered in New Zealand up to 1950 and their fates for up to a decade or so after that. Any country might well envy such a comprehensive and useful resource.


“Watt’s Index” is not actually the proper name but a short informal title by which it widely, almost invariably known. However, you won’t find it in library catalogues under that title. The full formal title is 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 c.1962. Three lists of revisions and corrections have been circulated and are bound into some sets of volumes. It is still possible to obtain copies in microfiche format (details at end of item).


The Index deserves to be better known internationally as it is of wider than New Zealand significance. It contains a lot of information about many ships built and also registered in other countries that could otherwise take a lot tracking down and of NZ-built ships outside NZ. More than 700 ships in it (a quarter of the total) were also owned in Australia so it is also a major resource for Australian maritime research. Similarly, many of the larger and metal-hulled vessels were built in the United Kingdom. A significant number of North American ships also come within its scope as do all sorts of waifs and strays, the origins of some of which are unknown locally and may possibly provide the answer to some overseas research puzzle over the fate of some vessel. Some of the ships were owned in New Zealand for as little as a year so the Index contains much information about their careers elsewhere.


The word “Index” in the title is a classic understatement. It is much more than a simple one-line-per-ship checklist. It is an “index” only in the sense that it a summary of key information from the sets of records once held on each ship by the former Marine Department. The information provided about some ships is pretty basic because that is all that is available but it may well provide 20 or 30 pieces of information about a ship covering up to half an A4 page right down to listing every time it went aground or collided with something and who was in command at the time.


Primary sources have been lost since “Watts’ Index” was compiled so it may well include material no longer available elsewhere. In any case, much of the information would now be extremely time-consuming and expensive to compile. Much of the content needs updating and cross-checking against other sources but there is no comparable starting point.


Content includes name, official number, rig, tonnage, dimensions, year and place built, name of builder, port registration details (including ports outside New Zealand), casualties, owners, captains and fate. Changes in name, tonnage, dimensions and means of propulsion are indicated. Some details of engines are included. However, metal-hulled ships are not distinguished from wooden ones; a major omission, but one which is remediable from other sources.



2,882 ships are documented in the Index.


Of these:*


65% were built as sailing vessels and 35% were built as steam or motor vessels


65% were built in New Zealand


20% were built in the United Kingdom


262 (9%) were built in Australia of which:


138 were built in New South Wales

  73 were built in Tasmania

  38 were built in Victoria

    6 were built in South Australia

    6 were built in Queensland

    1 was built in Australia (unspecified)


166 (6%) were built in the USA and Canada.  For details refer to Vessels built in North America


709 (24.6%) were registered in Australia at some time as well as in NZ, of which:


259 were built in Australia (as far as Watt’s sources indicate, three vessels were built in Australia and first registered in NZ)

204 were built in the United Kingdom

125 were built in New Zealand

  93 were built in North America

  28 were built elsewhere


26% of the total have Māori names


40% of those built in the UK have Māori names, reflecting the naming policies of major shipping companies


One quarter of the powered vessels were owned by the Union Steam Ship Company


More than 400 of the 2,882 were still registered at the end of the 1960’s. Of these, 139 exceeded 100 tons gross, of which no more than 24 were still registered in NZ in 1991.


The aggregate net tonnage of the 2,882 ships is 582,000 tons – roughly equivalent to the whole United States merchant marine about 1792. The super-tanker Jahre Viking built in1979 is 260,851 gross tons.


One third of the 2,882 had carrying capacities equivalent to no more than two standard modern shipping containers


15% had carrying capacities equivalent to no more than one standard modern shipping container taken as 12.8 tons (1 ton = 100 cubic feet = 2.83 cubic metres)


* preliminary figures subject to revision.


The earliest ship in the Index is the brig Lord Hobart built in Devon in 1805, registered in Australia from 1838 and in Auckland from 1846 to 1847.


The earliest steam ship in the Index is the Aphrasia ON(Brit): 31610, a paddle steamer of 94 tons built in New South Wales in 1841 and registered in Invercargill in 1864.


The earliest steam ship built in New Zealand in the Index is the Governor Wynyard ON(Brit): 32202 of 18 tons, built in Auckland in 1851 (Watt lists her as a schooner, later registered as a paddle steamer in Melbourne in 1853 but other sources indicate that her boilers were constructed in Auckland and that she sailed under steam on Auckland harbour on 19 January 1852.)


The earliest ships listed in the Index as oil engine vessels are the Thistle II ON(Brit): 157770 of 8 tons and the Tot ON(Brit): 136880 of 6 tons, both built in 1895 but neither was registered until much later which leaves a question mark over whether these were their original engines. The next was the Tawera ON(Brit): 102290 of 44 tons, built in 1896 and registered in 1897.


The earliest ship listed in the Index as a motor vessel is the Kaipara Kate of 1894 but it is unlikely that this was her original engine. Several launches built in the 1902-1906 period are more reliable candidates but they are not explicitly indicated as motor or steam powered. Two ships built in 1906, the Robey ON(Brit): 153969 of 6 tons and the Alexa II ON(Brit): 127893 of 3 tons are specifically identified as motor powered but neither was registered in that year so the listing is not conclusive proof that these were the original engines.


The earliest ship listed in the Index as a sailing ship with an auxiliary engine is the Medway ON(Brit): 40232. The Medway was built in Tasmania in 1849 and was destroyed before 1867 but Australian references and the Mercantile Navy List of 1862 do not mention an auxiliary engine. The next listed sailing vessel to be registered in NZ with an auxiliary engine was the Moana ON(Brit): 102278 of 111 tons built in Whangaroa in 1895 which had an auxiliary engine installed in 1898.


The largest ship in the Index is the Awatea ON(Brit): 157650, 13,482 tons gross, built in the United Kingdom in 1936.


The largest sailing ship in the index is the Rewa ex Alice. A. Leigh ON(Brit) 96349, 2,999 tons gross, built in the United Kingdom in 1889. The better known and slightly larger Pamir was seized as a war prize early in WWII and sailed under the NZ flag until 1948 on behalf of the NZ Government but was never actually registered as a British merchant ship and therefore does not appear in Watt.



Revision and Update


I am working on a New Zealand ship index project that is broader in its objectives and strategies than simply updating “Watt’s Index” but which would achieve that effect in stages.


For details click here Revised Index of NZ Ships.




Addenda and Corrigenda


Three sets of Addenda and Corrigenda were issued, the first of eight pages by Watt soon after publication, the second of four pages by Watt in 1965, and a third compiled by R. J. McDougall in 1984. The second was based on access to Sydney registers and should be made better known as it includes at least one revision that is not contained in a recently published Australian reference to the ship in question. McDougall’s additions and corrections relate mostly to ownerships but also record some errors in the registers themselves identified from builders’ certificates.


Other corrections and additions have been identified subsequently, not least because additional information sources have become available that were not available to Watt. For example, I have been able to identify the official numbers of several ships for which he knew only the port registration.



Accessing Watt’s Index


Cyclostyled copies of the Index, bound in varying numbers of volumes, are to be found in major public and maritime libraries. Typically, the 770 or so pages detailing the ships in alphabetical order are bound into two or three volumes and the remaining material into a third or fourth but not all libraries have the remaining material in this format (the Wellington Public Library for one). Part 2 (the supplementary material) documents ownerships, a separate list of Māori ownerships, Builders, Masters and the Addenda and Corrigenda. Copies have been seen including the first set of Addenda and Corrigenda but not the others (the Wellington Public Library set contains none of them).


You should have no difficulty in accessing a copy in any major public or genealogical libraries or at the major maritime museums.


You are most unlikely to be able to buy a copy of the printed version as none has been sighted on the second hand market in years of looking. However, it is still available in microfiche format and widely known and used by genealogists in that form.


The complete version (including the three sets of Addenda and Corrigenda) was microfilmed in 1989. The microfiche version is also widely available in libraries and often more convenient than the original. Microfiche are widely regarded as obsolete technology but fiche readers and replacement parts are still readily available and widely used within genealogical circles.



Purchase on microfiche


“Watt’s Index” is available for purchase on very reasonable terms as a set of seven microfiche including the three lists of Addenda and Corrigenda. As far as I know the price is still NZ$28.00 which includes GST and postage within NZ and airmail postage overseas. Converted into US dollars or pounds sterling that is an incredible bargain. Payment is required with the order. The vendor is not able to accept credit card payments.





6 Kathryn Avenue, Mt Roskill, Auckland 1004, New Zealand.

Phone +64 9 625 9778

Fax     +64 9 625 9379


Gould Books of Adelaide handle BAB Microfilming products and are able to accept credit card payments so may suit Australian and other overseas purchasers better. Refer www.gould.com.au 


Most of BAB Microfilming’s other products are of interest to genealogists rather than maritime historians. However, they also sell microfiche of White Wings by Henry Brett ISBN 0-908989-38-5 for NZ$22.00 on the same terms, including indexes to persons and ships named, arranged alphabetically by volume. Details are:


Volume1. Fifty Years of Sail in the New Zealand Trade, pub 1914. Contains information about the voyages of many ships that brought immigrants to NZ, 1850-1900.


Volume 2. Founding of the Provinces and Old Time Shipping, pub. 1928. Describes European settlement and has further information on ships.


Other microfiche publications of interest to national and international maritime historians are sold through the NZ Society of Genealogists. Look under Sales at www.genealogy.org.nz (select Microfiche, then Shipping).




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