A soldier and photographer

Identifying red herrings and unpicking contradictions can make an Arrangement and Description Librarian feel like a detective.

Envelope for plate negatives. 'Myself' is handwritten on the front in pencil.Negative envelope. Image by Catherine Bisley.

Last year, the Alexander Turnbull Library purchased a collection of 28 original black and white glass negatives which captured the experience of a New Zealand soldier on board a troopship en route to World War I. When they arrived at the Library, they were attributed to one Joe Williams (d 1915).

See the whole set of images (PA-Group-00897)

The negatives were housed in envelopes, some of which had scrawled pencil inscriptions describing their contents: “Sunrise taken from Wireless Room. Taken at 5am”; “Rough weather in bight”; “Mokoia”; “Aft deck”. In my role of Arrangement and Description Librarian, I arranged the negatives, rehousing them in acid-free enclosures, and gave each image an individual reference number. I then set to work trying to find out more about Joe Williams.

Troopship convoy at steam on the open sea, also showing soldiers sitting on deck.Troopship convoy at steam on the open sea, 1917. Ref: 1/4-124551-G.

Private Joe Williams

Colleagues at Archives New Zealand assisted my search by digitising the personnel record of Joe Williams. From this record, I learnt that Williams was born in Hokianga in “about 1884”. The son of Wiremu Rori, Williams had a son himself, and, at the time he enlisted with the Maori Contingent in Avondale, was working as a labourer in Tuparoa, near Gisborne, for one William Ludbrook. Private Joe Williams, the record said, died of dysentery on a hospital ship on the 13 of August 1915. He was buried at sea somewhere between Gallipoli and Alexandria. According to Births, Deaths, and Marriage records he was 30 years old.

Detail of Joe Williams' personnel file, showing his unit, rank, occupation and more information.Detail of Joe Williams (16/112), personnel record detail, Archives New Zealand. Ref: AABK 18805 W5557 Box 84/ 0122850

Photographic negatives on a light table.Working on the negatives. Photo by Catherine Bisley.

I was curious about Joe Williams. Here was a labourer from a rural area who owned a camera, which was not a common possession back then. How was it that his glass negatives made it all the way back to New Zealand after his death? I searched further. Viewing the negatives on a light table, the identifiers “NZ 76” and “NZ 77” were visible on the respective hulls of two of the ships Williams photographed.

As mentioned, the name Mokoia was also on one of the envelopes. In World War I, transport ships were assigned HMNZT (His Majesty’s New Zealand Transport) numbers for each voyage they made. The Mokoia made five voyages transporting troops:

Identifying number Departure date
HMNZT 43 5 February 1916
HMNZT 52 6 May 1916
HMNZT 62 20 August 1916
HMNZT 77 13 February 1917
HMNZT 91 13 August 1917

Two photos of transport ships in port.L-R: Troopship HMNZT 77 (Mokoia) docked, 1917. Ref: 1/4-124545-G; Troopship HMNZT 76 (Aparima) docked, 1917. Ref: 1/4-124539-G.

The other Private Joe Williams

From these HMNZT numbers, I was able to pinpoint that the images had been attributed to the wrong Joe Williams. The Williams I was looking for left New Zealand in February 1917, long after Joe Williams of Hokianga had been buried at sea.

On Cenotaph, I found that 17 Joseph Williams had served in World War I. Of these, Joseph Henry Williams was the only one who left with the February 1917 fleet. He was Pakeha, a bootmaker working as a baker. He embarked from Wellington on board HMNZT 79 (the Aparima). We had found our photographer soldier.

Photo of Joseph Williams on board a transport ship, in uniform, and his personnel record.L-R: Soldier Joseph Henry Williams on board HMNZT 76, 1917. Ref: 1/4-124543-G; Joseph Henry Williams (38470), personnel record detail, Archives New Zealand. Ref: AABK 18805 W5557 Box 84/ 0122850

Framing up shipboard life

Williams’s photographs provide a rich record of the voyage of a military transportation convoy. They show other ships in the fleet steaming in formation and docked at wharves. There are atmospheric shots of sunrises and ocean conditions as well as various views of Cape Town, South Africa, seen from the water. The view from Table Bay with Table Mountain rising above the city and its port, as well as views looking towards the west side of the mountain, are particularly dramatic.

Table Mountain, Lion's Head and the area around Bantry Bay, Clifton, and Camps Bay, taken from out at sea.Table Mountain, Lion's Head and Cape Town suburbs, 1917. Ref: 1/4-124549-G.

Two photos of officers on board a transport ship, in uniform.Two unidentified naval officers in uniform on board the Aparima, 1917. L-R: Ref: 1/4-124562-G; Ref: 1/4-124561-G.

Troops on board a transport ship, practicing signalling with their arms.Troops on deck practicing signalling, 1917. Ref: 1/4-124537-G.

The photographs tell a personal story, and evoke the setting and mood of the voyage. I found it satisfying to learn who Williams was; his identity frames the images and the circumstances of their creation. These men underwent long voyages in crammed and what must have been trying conditions. Through Williams’s frame, researchers will be able to experience and interpret the photographs almost 100 years on.

Joseph Henry Williams survived the war and went on to work at Champion Bakery in Helensville South. He lived until 1970. His photographs also conjure up the experience of the many other New Zealanders who made these long sea voyages to the other side of the world. Joe Williams of Hokianga was one of many who did not return.

Troopship on rough water. Shows wet gangway of ship and wild seas beyond.Rough seas seen from on board ship with wet gangway, 1917. Ref: 1/4-124564-G.

By Catherine Bisley

Catherine works part-time as an Arrangement and Description Librarian at the Turnbull. When she’s not at the Library she writes and directs films.

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Peter Ireland February 19th at 11:39AM

Congratulations Catherine. Such an interesting collection and story, which you have documented superbly. What fine images!

Ariana February 19th at 1:48PM

Excellent blog Catherine! Great detective work...

Keith Thorsen February 19th at 3:08PM

Excellent blog Catherine. And a very nice bit of detective work. I particularaly like the gangway shots.

Sue Chartres February 19th at 5:10PM

What a treasure you have. I would love to see more photos like this.

Jacqui Bisley February 20th at 3:38PM

Well done Catherine. What a great piece of research. Poor Jo Williams from the Hokianga.

Stuart Park December 30th at 2:56PM

My great uncle John Bannerman Stuart also sailed on the Aparima in February 1917. How wonderful to have such rich documentation of the voyage.