Late 19th century public transport out of Canterbury to the North Island was transformed when in 1895 the United Steam Ship Company (USSCo) introduced the first interisland ferry service with the 31-year-old iron hulled steamer, Penguin (749 tons). Somewhat rough around the edges with regards to passenger comforts, the ferry service from Lyttelton to Wellington and return, was nonetheless popular with business travellers and politicians alike, so much so that the USSCo replaced the Penguin with the much larger trans-Tasman liner Rotomahana (1727 tons) just 2 years later in 1897. In 1899 she was joined by the Mararoa (2466 tons) and by 1905 the two steamers began an all year round overnight interisland ferry service.
Much maligned by the politicians of the day, who much preferred their creature comforts as well as a good night’s sleep, the USSCo finally commissioned a purpose-built passenger ferry complete with all the then most modern of conveniences – and in 1907 the S.S. Maori (3399 tons) was launched. Built by W. Denny & Bros. of Dumbarton, Scotland at a cost of £108,848, the Maori was 107 m long, 14 m in breadth with a 5 m draught. She used innovative coal fired steam turbine propulsion for quiet running, with a bow rudder for astern berthing, and set a record time of 8 hours 46 minutes for the Wellington to Lyttelton run.
Featuring a music room outfitted with a grand piano and luxurious couches in gold and blue; and a majestic dining room with a grand wooden staircase, crimson upholstery, parquet floors and stained-glass dome; the Maori set the standard for all subsequent ferries of the Steamer Express. Equipped to handle 423 saloon and 130 second-class passengers, there were still some improvements to be made in the passenger cabins with the then early 20th century’s ‘modern comforts’ yet to include a shower, toilet or indeed electric power sockets.
The era of luxury interislander transport truly began when the Maori’s partner ferry S.S. Wahine (4436 tons) joined the ferry service in 1913, replacing the ageing Mararoa. For another two decades these iconic vessels came to define the early 20th century New Zealand way of life, although with some rough edges such as the USSCo ‘shake-downs’ or collapsible beds that were sometimes brought out to accommodate extra economy class passengers. Or the large and somewhat rough and ready, male-only ‘Glory Hole’ cabins at the stern above the screws where one might perhaps bet on a bout of fisticuffs.
The Maori sailed the interislander route all through the First World War with the old Mararoa returning to service while the Wahine served as a troopship and minelayer for the British Navy. After the war the Maori and Wahine were converted to oil burning boilers to run their steam turbines and resumed the ferry service until the Maori was retired in 1931. Taking her place was the Turbo Electric Vessel Rangatira (6152 tons) which brought hot and cold running water and reading lamps to her cabins, set a new record of 8 hours 8 minutes for the Lyttelton to Wellington run, and would go on to ply the the newly branded “Steamer Express” route for another 22 years.
The Maori was not done, however, and returned to service for much of WW2 while the Wahine and Rangatira ferried troops in the South Pacific theatre. When the Maori was suddenly laid up in early 1944 in Wellington Harbour, she would never again sail the interislander route. Being sold to a Chinese shipping company in 1946 she plied the passenger routes between Australasia and China until sunk in Shanghai port during a hurricane in 1951. And just one year later, the new T.E.V. Maori (8303 tons) was launched, joining the T.E.V. Hinemoa (6911 tons) that had entered service in 1947, ushering in the fully modern post-WW2 era of the old Steamer Express.