A soldier and photographerFebruary 19th, 2015
Identifying red herrings and unpicking contradictions can make an Arrangement and Description Librarian feel like a detective.
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).
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, 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 (16/112), personnel record detail, Archives New Zealand. Ref: AABK 18805 W5557 Box 84/ 0122850
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|
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.
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 Cape Town suburbs, 1917. Ref: 1/4-124549-G.
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.
Rough seas seen from on board ship with wet gangway, 1917. Ref: 1/4-124564-G.