Gathering Data


I keep thinking I’m just about ready to publish the next piece about Captain Fraser, that I’ve found just about all the information I’m going to find and that I just need to go with it, and then suddenly a whole new trove of data — important data — opens up for me.  Yes, yes, we now have the basic facts of his life, birth, marriage, divorce, marriage, emigration, divorce, marriage, etc.  We know where he worked and basically what he did.  But records thought lost and unreconstructable are now proving to be available in archives, or sections within those archives, formerly unknown to me.  New avenues of research are appearing before me that are not just filled with trivia, but with the details that add life to his story, color to his sketch, and that will perhaps transport us back a little ways in time to put us briefly into his shoes.  I can almost smell the cordite and fear after the torpedo hit.  I can just about feel the cold of the Russian Arctic Convoys.  I can hear the angry longshoremen striking in Auckland Harbour.  Their voices are calling to me.  I just need… a little… more…

The New Zealand Defence Force Archives have proven their worth.  Included within the folder that came by post are copies of correspondence between a young Naval Reserve Lieutenant and the Navy Board about training exercises and promotions.  Enticing details on letterheads give clues about the Reserve Officer’s civilian job and life, such as a request for compassionate leave before the birth of a child, and the names of the merchant ships to which he was then assigned.  A fourteen-year period of the young Robert Fraser’s life emerges in a little more clarity.  Still, he didn’t enlist in the Naval Reserve until 1950, and by then he had already earned his Merchant Navy Master’s Certificate and been at sea for twelve years.  We need more.  We need to know about the Union Steam Ship Company.

And a search, often conducted, finally leads us to a new source.  A discussion board for ship enthusiasts and old sailors, Ships Nostalgia, has an entire forum for the Union Company!  I posted a question there to see if perhaps anyone who sailed with my father might recall him, and within a matter of hours someone replied to tell me where I might even find a photo taken of my father upon his promotion to Master (the caption says January 1957, but I believe this is incorrect; from other sources I believe the correct date is early 1956 or even late 1955):

Wellington Maritime Museum, New Zealand Ship and Marine Society

That’s him, all right, at the age of 35.  My correspondent went on to tell me that the Wellington City Archives kept copies of all the records, including personal files, of the Union Company, because the company with its 125-year history is considered significant to the national history.  For half of its existence it was the largest private employer in all of New Zealand.  So, I wrote to the Wellington City Archives, and they have agreed to search their files for my father.  That search is still ongoing at this writing, and I’m not certain how long it may take.

Before joining the Union Company, however, as a Cadet Robert Fraser worked for the British merchant company J & C Harrison’s, serving on at least three of their ships during the early years of the war.  That record, or rather his “seaman’s pouch”, has turned up with the British National Archives (aka Public Records Office), and I am currently awaiting an estimate on the cost of copying and posting it.  Since I’m not sure just how many pages might comprise the record, I don’t yet know if it will be cheap or expensive, but I expect it will be more on the inexpensive side.

In the midst of this research, I came across one final little oddity.  The New Zealand Defence Forces, just this year, have created a new medal, retroactive, to recognize those with at least three years of service in the post-war years.  With fourteen years in the Royal New Zealand Naval Reserve, my father qualifies.  It seems he might be receiving one last medal for his service to add to his collection, the New Zealand Defence Service Medal.  When I called him up and mentioned his medals (he has six now), he nonchalantly declaimed “oh, I don’t care about medals.”  When I mentioned that it looked like he would be getting a seventh, after all these years, his response was “Really?” and he got quite excited.  Doesn’t care, eh?  It seems deep down we all like to be recognized for our achievements, even if the proper response is to act as if we don’t.  It’s ok, Dad.  You certainly earned it.

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Captain Fraser 1


A good place to start is with those still around to tell us their stories, and so a week ago I sat down with my father, set my iPhone in front of him on the Voice Memos app, and asked him to talk about anything he liked.  He was uncertain at first, even said I shouldn’t have told him I was recording so that he’d be more natural, but it didn’t take long before he forgot all about the recording device and just talked, and talked, and talked.

Mostly he talked about his time at sea, as those are the stories he remembers best and most likes to tell, and of course I had heard some of them before.  In times past he would suddenly launch into a detailed rendition about some naval engagement in World War II, and I would always regret that I didn’t have a tape recorder handy.  This time, with a little prompting, he went into much more detail, and the larger story of his early life began to emerge.  Before we were done that evening, I had recorded over an hour of our conversation, which I am still transcribing.  We covered the period of his life in some detail from the age of 17 until his late 20s, which covers the war years through obtaining his Master’s Certificate as a merchant mariner.  We touched on later events in a little less detail up until the time of his emigration to the United States at the age of 48, not much older than I am now.  I expect to follow up with him when he’s ready to go back into this period (1945-1969) in more detail, and also to press on to the later years, when of course I was more present in the picture and have a few memories of my own to complement.

Our discussion naturally raised more questions and left me with some leads for further investigation.  He mentioned attending “Clifton College” or the “University of Clifton” in Bristol, England, in 1938, studying in their Department of Navigation.  So, I contacted the Assistant Keeper of the Archives for Clifton College, which is a well-regarded public school (private school to Americans), knowing that it didn’t seem the sort of institution which would be training merchant mariners.  It is really more of a university-prep high school, and indeed the Archivist confirmed that my father was not on their rolls.  He suggested, however, that I try the City College of Bristol, which does have a marine studies program today.  I am waiting to hear back from them.

My father served on ships belonging to the J & C Harrison company out of England, but J & C Harrison is now out of business after having run steamships around the world for nearly 100 years.  He then served aboard ships for the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand; they too are now defunct.

Southerly aspect from Norwich Quay. At No.4 Wh...
Union Steamship Company vessel MV Kaimiro at Lyttelton, New Zealand, in 1956

However, I have contacted Maritime New Zealand, which in the 40s and 50s was known as the Marine Department, and from them obtained a scan of handwritten entries in their register showing the dates my father’s 1st Mate‘s and then Master‘s Certificates were issued.  His received his 2nd Mate‘s Certificate in England, so they don’t have a direct record of that.  Unfortunately the actual Certificates, along with his papers detailing the ships he served aboard, have been mislaid during a house move in recent years, which is something of a tragedy.  I do hope that perhaps we will still find them among papers held in storage, but my confidence in this is not high.

I do have, however, a crew manifest from the Hartlepool upon her arrival in Astoria, Oregon, from Nagoya, Japan, in April 1939, in which my father’s name appears as a Cadet.  I also have a document from the British National Archives detailing one or more of the medals he was awarded for service aboard merchant ships during the war.  The actual medals still hang upon his wall in a frame.

Together we also applied for a copy of his service record from the New Zealand Defence Force Archives, as he was an active member and officer of the Royal New Zealand Naval Reserve.  I am still waiting to hear back, but as this is happening by regular postal mail, it may take a while.  It appears similar records may exist with the British Royal Naval Reserve and merchant service, but most of these do not appear to be available online; they will eventually require a personal visit to their offices.  Fortunately, I may be able to call upon family in England to help with that.

Slowly, piece by piece, his life is coming together as a coherent narrative.  For these early years, at least, it is a narrative of adventure, a boy running off to sea to find his future, a war shaping the boy into a man, and a man coming home only to sail over the horizon once more, commanding ships as they ply all the waters of the world.  There are torpedoes and dive bombers, cold Russian ports and warmer Pacific ones, romance across the Atlantic, and love found while far from home.