Norwich City Survivors' Shelter

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“Before leaving camp all provisions etc., were placed in the shelter, but I sincerely hope that no-one will ever be so unfortunate as to need them.”

Captain Daniel Hamer, Master of SS Norwich City


Norwich City ran aground on Gardner Island’s fringing reef (now Nikumaroro) late Friday night, November 29, 1929, thrown off course by a severe storm out of the west. Heavy rains and lightning made radio signals unreliable. Contact with Apia Radio was finally established after three hours--just as a fire in the ship’s engine room and stokehold forced the crew to abandon ship. Both of her lifeboats--about twenty-six feet in length and weighing 1800 pounds each—carried provisions and equipment stowed on board. But the port boat (on the weather side) was hit by a giant wave, torn from its davits and knocked into the sea, along with Daniel Hamer, the ship’s Master. The remaining crew of 34 men took to the starboard lifeboat. After it was lowered and released from the davit falls, the retreating surf swept the lifeboat under the quarter and capsized it. Eleven of the 34 men were lost. Captain Hamer and the other 23 surviving crew members eventually made their way through the surf and across the reef, reaching shore just before dawn. After both boats washed ashore, the crew mustered the provisions and equipment above the high water line. Subsequently a shelter was established and they were ultimately rescued.

To know if Norwich City's survivors’ shelter played a role in the saga of the Nikumaroro castaways, answers to these questions would be helpful:

  • Where was the survivors’ shelter located?
  • What equipment and provisions were available to Norwich City's surviving crew members?
  • What was the “lee” of the island as referred to by Norwich City's crew?
  • What was meant by “across the lagoon”?
  • What was meant by the “southeast corner” of the island as referred to by the rescuers?
  • Were there other areas where provisions may have been left or where the survivors spent the night?
  • Who may have had access to the provisions and equipment at the survivor’s shelter?

Where was the survivors’ shelter located?

Norwich City survivors' camp photographed by the New Zealand Pacific Aviation Survey Expedition in 1938 still showing identifiable equipment. (Courtesy, Wigram Air Force Base Archives, RNZAF
New Zealand Pacific Aviation Survey contour map of Gardner Island with a wind diagram of Dec 1938-Jan 1939 data. Winds depicted are 1-16 mph and 17-32 mph. Calm:Nil Rain: Nil The map has been rotated so that North is at the top.(Courtesy , Wigram Air Force Base Archives, RNZAF)

Captain Hamer wrote in his statement for the Board of Trade inquiry, “Both lifeboats and most of the equipment were washed ashore so all who were able gathered these together and placed them well clear of the tide. This done we all sought the shelter of the trees and laid down to rest.” Captain Hamer’s statement continued to describe the events later in the day: “The beach was very exposed so a camp site was selected some 100 yards into the woods, all hands assisting in carrying provisions etc.”. [1] Captain Hamer’s testimony described this first camp 100 yards into the woods: “The boats’ sails were used to make a tent to keep out the rain but when they became saturated rain began to come through making life fairly miserable.” [2]Inclement weather continued Saturday as Second Officer Lott noted in his testimony, “It rained hard right through the…day”. [3]

The weather improved the next morning (Sunday) and the camp was reorganized. Captain Hamer’s testimony stated “…dawn came with the promise of fine weather and shortly afterwards each man was given a dipper of water, and the camp was reorganized. A more suitable site was selected and parties told off for various jobs. One party under the Second Officer was told off to obtain water, another for cocoanuts and the remainder to build a shelter. The lifeboat axes came in very useful for this. Small trees were cut down, trimmed and lashed between four large trees in the form of a square. A trellis of smaller trees and branches was formed on top and over this the two sails were spread. Around three sides a barricade was made to keep out the crabs, leaving the lee side open for the fire, which was soon got under way. The ground was cleared of twigs etc., and then covered with leaves over which was placed a couple of blankets and old canvas which had been washed ashore. Altogether it looked and was fairly comfortable.” [4]

Nutiran, then, was the site where the survivors rested “in the shelter of the trees” following their reaching the shore, and that night their first campsite was “100 yards into the woods”, with rain leaking through the canvas sails, and third, the final shelter on Nutiran was built on Sunday,“a nicer day”, with all the provisions and equipment moved to this location. This last shelter was used until rescuers arrived Tuesday morning.

Both Norwich City lifeboats washed ashore on Gardner. They were likely 26' in length and weighed 1800 pounds fully equipped. The bottom was cut out of one to free crewmen trapped under the capsized boat. This boat near the survivors’ camp was photographed in 1938 by the New Zealand Pacific Aviation Survey Expedition. (Courtesy , Wigram Air Force Base Archives, RNZAF)

It is likely that the location of this final “reorganized” shelter was near the previous shelter. Wind and surf conditions that carried the survivors and equipment across the reef to the beach would have put them somewhat south of the ship, as the winds and seas were out of the west northwest, perhaps even northwest (the port side of the ship was described as the “weather side”). This would be consistent with the data used for the wind diagram on the New Zealand Pacific Aviation Survey Contour Map. [5] Following the descriptions in the testimony, it is estimated the position of the survivors’ shelter may have been within a 150 yard radius some 200 yards south of Norwich City and 100 yards inland from the beach.

What equipment and provisions were available to the Norwich City surviving crew members?

Following the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, an international convention called “Safety of Life at Sea" (SOLAS) was convened to develop uniform standards for ship construction and safety equipment used on ships carrying 12 or more passengers. SOLAS was implemented through the Board of Trade in the U.K., and though it originally did not apply to freighters, it influenced their safety equipment and lifeboat requirements. Norwich City carried two lifeboats and two ship’s boats (ship’s boats were used for utility and harbor work). The lifeboats were on either side, aft of the funnel; the ship’s boats were forward on either side of the bridge.

Article XL of SOLAS 1914, [6] in effect at the time of the Norwich City grounding, mandated certain lifeboat equipment for passenger vessels and served as a model for other classes of vessels. SOLAS 1914 designated equipment included:

  • Compliment of oars (two spare), crutches, boathook
  • Two plugs for each plug hole, bailer, galvanized iron bucket
  • Tiller or yoke and yoke lines
  • Two hatchets
  • Lamp filled with oil and trimmed
  • Mast with one good sail and gear
  • Suitable compass
  • Lifeline becketed around the outside
  • Sea anchor
  • Painter
  • Vessel containing 5 liters of vegetable or animal oil (calming oil) attachable to sea anchor
  • Watertight vessel containing two pounds of provisions per person
  • Watertight vessel containing one liter of water per person
  • Number of self igniting red lights and a waterproof box of matches

Captains could also provision lifeboats with additional rations including fresh water, food and milk.

Lifeboats were constructed with buoyancy tanks whose volume was based on a formula for the size of the boat. Buoyancy tanks were shaped to fit along the inside of the hull on each side of the lifeboat, under the thwarts, and at both ends of the boat. Originally fabricated from copper or zinc, they were later made from yellow metals (bronze or brass). When Norwich City survivors cut the bottom out of the overturned lifeboat to free four trapped men, it allowed the tanks to easily be removed and used for water or provision storage.[1]

Tuesday morning Trongate and Lincoln Ellsworth arrived and stood off the island near the stranded vessel. Tongate’s surfboat, manned by native islanders, came ashore bringing additional provisions. Second Officer Lott testified: “We took the stores and water from the surf boat and went to the camp.” [7] Food stores included in provisions at the shelter are described by Captain Hamer’s testimony of a meal: “we decided to have lunch. Biscuits, one in number covered with meat, and half a tin of milk. We used twelve tins of water to two of milk; for dessert we had cocoanut.” [8]

Dangerous surf precluded Trongate’s surf boat from taking survivors off the island near the shelter location. A more suitable site needed to be found. Captain Hamer’s testimony describes their actions: “Before leaving camp all provisions etc., were placed in the shelter, but I sincerely hope that no-one will ever be so unfortunate as to need them.” [9] A few of the provisions including meat and probably water were taken along by the survivors when they left to find a better rescue location.

Lifeboat equipment similar to that identified in the shelter photo.

What was the “lee” of the island as referred to by the Norwich City crew?

Second Officer Lott’s statement: “They told us that it was impossible to go through that surf again so we went to the lee side.” [10] The prevailing wind on Gardner Island was from the northeast with the southwest side of the island generally referred to as the “lee” side. But during the storm, conditions for Norwich City survivors were reversed. With the wind blowing from the west or northwest, the lee side became the east or southeast of the island . “Lee side”, in nautical parlance means the side sheltered from the wind, or “down wind”. Therefore a location on the island’s south or southeast side would provide better shelter from the wind and seas, and a better chance of improved surf conditions.

What was meant by “across the lagoon”?

Captain Swindell stated, “When we rounded the south East corner of the Island, I observed the native crew taking the survivors across the lagoon towards the South East.” [11] Captain Swindell’s statement makes it clear that crossing the lagoon did not mean going across to Aukairame (north), but traversing its length, possibly portaging through Bauareke passage to reach the reef.

What was meant by the” southeast corner” of the island as referred to by the rescuers?

From Captain Hamer’s testimony: “The two vessels now cruised along the reef in search of a suitable place, the surf near the wreck being far too dangerous. A place was found about 1½ miles south of the wreck, the breakers being not quite so bad.” [12] Captain Swindell, Master of the Trongate gave similar testimony: “It was a physical impossibility to get the whale boat back to the TRONGATE at that spot, so I steamed along the reef to try to find a better landing. The Motor Ship LINCOLN ELLSWORTH which had arrived to render assistance followed the TRONGATE. When we rounded the south East corner of the Island, I observed the native crew taking the survivors across the lagoon towards the South East.” [13] When Trongate stopped about 1½ miles south of the wreck, she actually was near the southwest corner of the island, not the southeast; however, they cruised to the southeast to reach this corner, so it may be a matter of semantics. Nevertheless it was the “lee” of the island at the time.

Were there other areas where provisions may have been left or where the survivors spent the night?

After the Nutiran shelter containing the cached provisions was abandoned to find a more suitable location for rescue, one more night was spent on the island by remaining survivors. During the day Tuesday, as Captain Hamer testified, many attempts were made to cross the reef at the new rescue site 1½ miles south of the wreck. As crossing attempts continued, rescue locations were adjusted further and further to the southeast. Captain Hamer testified, “After several more unsuccessful attempts, it was suggested that they should go out alone, row along the edge of the surf to the southward, where possibly there would be a more suitable place, to which they agreed. [14] At the last minute, they attempted to take three survivors across, and this was successful. A note was sent with them from Captain Hamer which read:

"To the Master S.S.Trongate - the positions as to getting over that surf appears to be hopeless. The only thing I can see for it is a cruiser with a seaplane to alight in the lagoon inside, if possible. Send us as much water as you can as we have none. We have meat but a case of milk would come in useful also matches, chlorodyne as some of us are getting diarrhoea and any old boots (on pair size tens) and any old hats and tobacco. These (native) men from your ship say there is too much risk from sharks should the boat capsize when crossing the reef. Sorry to put you to all this bother and we all thank you for your assistance. Sincerely Yours, D Hamer, Master” [15]

However, the boat returned to shore unable to bring the provisions requested by Captain Hamer. Now somewhat farther south than the original 1½ miles from the wreck, the native crew stayed ashore that night. Captain Hamer’s statement described the evening spent at this rescue site: “The natives, however, were just beginning to get warmed up; they came back with what they considered a sumptuous meal, a few crabs as big as a plate and a sea bird or two, well pleased with themselves – in fact they were enjoying the outing. “A little matter of no matches, flint or steel didn’t worry them in the least. In less than half an hour we had a roaring fire, the natives making it by rubbing two pieces of dry stick together and setting fire to some fibre and dead cocoanut leaves. We made beds of leaves and settled down for the night.” [16] This may have been where Henry E. “Harry” Maude and Cadet Officer Eric Bevington saw remnants of a bivouac mentioned in his journal entry of October 13, 1937, “We found many interesting things including signs of previous habitation.” [17]

The following morning three more survivors were taken across, the native crew returning with the requested provisions, but at a different location still, as described by Captain Swindell’s statement: “We packed up all the stores and provisions asked for by the Master of the NORWICH CITY, and they were successfully taken ashore by the native boatmen: on this trip ashore they found a better landing.” [18] Second Officer Lott’s statement read “Shortly afterwards the boat returned but in a difference place, with water and provisions..” [19] At this last location, further south still, the provisions requested by Captain Hamer were placed on the beach, and the remaining survivors were able to be taken off the island. Captain Hamer’s statement indicated some of the provisions brought ashore were taken back to the ship. “Finally there remained but three, the Second Officer, Senior Apprentice and myself and we decided to rest awhile, then if possible to take what we could of the stores etc., off with us. The natives gave us a hand to get them to the boat.” Captain Swindell described the final, trip across the surf: “Three more survivors over reef. From now on rescue completed. Boat taking water kegs and barrel each time and various requirements. The last survivors arrived on board "Trongate" 2.15 p.m.” [20] It is unknown what provisions may have been left on the beach, if any; however the water barrels and kegs were returned to the ship. This location on the beach, if provisions were left, would have been the final repository of remaining provisions requested by Captain Hamer.

Who may have had access to the provisions and equipment at the survivor’s shelter?

It was extraordinarily difficult to cross the surf and reef to get ashore on Gardner Island (Nikumaroro), but unknown parties may have done so and had access to Norwich City provisions left on the island. There were, however, several posited and documented accounts of visitors who may have had access to the cached provisions between the 1929 grounding of Norwich City, and the photographing of the Norwich City shelter by the New Zealand Pacific Aviation Survey team in 1938.

  • February 15, 1937, HMS Leith visited to erect a flagpole and placard proclaiming the island property of His Majesty the King.
  • July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan may have landed on the reef (posited).
  • October 13, 1937, Maude, Bevington and 19 Gilbertese “delegates” explored the island.
  • November 30, 1938, New Zealand Pacific Aviation Survey Expedition team of 15 men arrived.
  • December 21, 1938, Maude and Gallagher dropped off a work party of 10 Gilbertese settlers.


  1. Stilgoe, John R. Lifeboat. University of Virginia Press: 2003


SS Norwich City