Four little bronze plaques at Old St Paul’s Cathedral in Wellington hold intriguing clues to four men who did a job barely anyone remembers.
It reads “Erected by the Wellington Submarine Mining Volunteers.”
What on earth (or sea) is submarine mining?
In 1885, New Zealand was in the grip of the Russian Scare. It had started in 1873 when the news broke that a Russian warship had entered Auckland Harbour undetected. It turned out to be a hoax.
But relationships between Russia and other countries were precarious with Russia seen as the aggressor.
Full-blown alarm began in 1885, growing out of Anglo–Russian rivalry in Afghanistan and led to the building of major fortifications to protect New Zealand’s coastal cities.
Which in turn led to the forming of the submarine mining volunteers who were responsible for coastal fortifications.
These included gun emplacements, pill boxes, observation posts, underground bunkers which sometimes had interconnected tunnels, which held magazines, supply and plotting rooms and protected engine rooms supplying power to turrets and searchlights. There were even kitchens, barracks and quarters. There are still remnants of these to be seen around Wellington’s coast.
The submarine miners were all volunteers under the control of the Permanent Torpedo Corps who were based in Shelly Bay in Wellington. There were 64 in all.
By 1895 the coastal defences extended over the whole of the northern area from Scorching Bay to Shelly Bay.
Their job was to maintain permanent mines that were laid in the harbour, and to see off the Russians, if they arrived, with flag signalling and other tasks.
However not one of the men named on the plaque died as a result of their duties.
Sapper Richard Penfold died in 1903 after accidentally being shot in the back at the former Polhill Gully Rifle Range. He lingered for five months in hospital before succumbing to his wounds. He is buried in the Oamaru Old Cemetery
Even more tragically Percy Noel Wilson (and his younger brother Warwick) and Hugh Bramley were lost at sea. They had been sailing in the yacht Te Aroha around the Marlborough Sounds over the Christmas/New Year of 1903. They were due back in the harbour when the yacht was overwhelmed in heavy seas.
Lance Corporal Ernest Edward Palmes died of illness in 1905, the son of the prominent family in Levin where he is buried in Levin Cemetery.
The brass plaque was meant to hold many many more names of brave men but by 1908 the submarine miners were disbanded.