The Edwin Fox Ship and Visitor Centre (Picton, NZ)

I think we can all agree that 2020-2021 have not been great years for museum-going motivation. Even here in the relatively normal New Zealand, I haven’t got much energy for museums or blogging. I do have a few to catch up with though, so I’m going to power through it. But one place you should not just power through is Picton, NZ, however strong the temptation might be to view it as big ol’ ferry lobby.

Picton is the South Island end of the Wellington-Picton ferry services across the Cook Straight, but you’d be missing something neat if you don’t build in a couple hours to visit the Edwin Fox before boarding your own hopefully far more seaworthy vessel.

Scale model. Do not attempt to board.

The Edwin Fox ship and Visitor Centre is the site of the remains of the Edwin Fox, built in 1853. According to the Centre’s website, the ship is the last surviving (it meets perhaps the most generous definition of “surviving” but as 168 years is a long time to hold anything together, I will grant it) wooden Crimean War troop transport and the last surviving Australian convict ship. It’s also the oldest merchant vessel and the oldest wooden NZ immigrant ship.

Let’s start with a look at ship life for the convicts being sent from Britain to Australia on the 1858 prison trip, starting with this sampling of offenders. Marvel at the consistency of sentencing in the 1850s. Ten years for stealing pants? Presumably they were awesome pants. Six years for stealing an ox? Damn those pants must have been frickin’ amazing.

I’m sure there’s a logical reason for a 17 year old to be sentenced to 14 years for sacrilege.

Prisoners spent most of their voyage below decks, which I’m sure was singularly unpleasant. The holding space could only be accessed through one very tiny door.

Duck

And in the great tradition of unsettling museum mannequins, here’s this guy’s tear- and/or sweat-streaked face.

Yikes

But the Edwin Fox had quite the life outside that one time it was a prison bus. In addition to the merchant activities, it was also the immigration bus:

It ended its functionality as a refrigeration and storage ship, having been stripped of the parts unnecessary for a floating cooler, until it was finally abandoned to the elements in 1950. Fifteen years later there was interest in preserving what was left of the Edwin Fox and it wound up in permanent dry dock in Picton. Artifacts found with the ship are on display in the visitor centre:

After strolling through the visitor centre, visitors then move to the outside-but-covered area that houses the ship itself. It’s kind of spooky!

I like to think of the beams as flying buttresses
Inside the hull

The fun parts of the ship itself are the set ups that show what life was like on board. If you could avoid travelling steerage, I would recommend dodging it.

Mealtime spaces seem fine until you think about how many people were using them:

Like a perpetually damp picnic

But it’s still preferable to the steerage “cabins,” which housed the whole family (up to six: two parents and four kids). The straw mattresses would be frequently dripped on from the deck above. It stunk, literally. The whole trip would take 12 to 14 weeks. And instead of running full tilt down the gangway and on to dry land to put the memory of your journey forever behind you, you actually dismantled the bunks and used the wood in your house.

Up to six people. Six. SIX.

Of course, the prisoner cells were just a bit worse.

Not shown: the actual barred doors.

Not all of the ship accommodation was so tight and gross. I can’t remember exactly but this might be the replica for the captain’s bunk (or maybe first class?):

Look at you with your fancy drawers, lah-dee-dah.

Finally, there’s a nice replica wheel and compass on deck, which look a little jarring next to the haunted, not-wholly-there deck itself.

Watch your step

Definitely check out the Edwin Fox and its visitor centre; it’s open every day but Christmas from 9 am. People 15 and up are $15 (the young are free). There’s a nice little swag shop, and they give little kids a free activity booklet.

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