Southern Cross Through the Years

Published: May 28, 2024

Photo: Ninth Southern Cross in 2016.

Earlier this year, the Anglican Church of Melanesia, commissioned the 10th Southern Cross mission boat. MMUK’s Archivist Emeritus, Canon Brian Macdonald-Milne, looks back at this essential part of the mission to Melanesia.

George Augustus Selwyn became the first Bishop of New Zealand in 1941 and arrived in his Diocese from the UK by sea in 1942. In 1949 he founded the Melanesian Mission and set about acquiring a ship to reach some of the islands, which he had visited on other vessels up till then.

From 1849 to 1857 he had the small vessel ‘Undine’, built at Auckland, but by 1954 he realised that a much larger vessel would be needed as the work grew. He commissioned the building of the first ‘Southern Cross’, a sailing vessel of 100 tons built in Blackwall, England in 1855, which reached New Zealand that year. It was used by John Coleridge Patteson, who had arrived earlier with Bishop Selwyn, and who was returning from England where he has raised funds with the help of his friends to pay for it.

The ship was wrecked in New Zealand in 1860. It was replaced by a sailing vessel of the same name built in Southampton, which was in service from 1863 to 1873. It carried Bishop Patteson, then the first Bishop of Melanesia, to the island of Nukapu in the outer eastern Solomon Islands where he was killed in 1871.

The third ‘Southern Cross’ was larger, being of 180 tons and was the first of the line to have steam power as an auxiliary to sail. It was built in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1874, and this was partly financed by a Fund of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) in memory of Bishop Patteson. It was in service till 1892.

The fourth vessel was even larger, being another sailing vessel with auxiliary steam power of 240 tons. It was built in Wivenhoe in Essex in 1891 and was in service in Melanesia from 1892 to 1902. It was partly funded by Bishop John Richardson Selwyn, who had been the second Bishop of Melanesia from 1877 to 1891.

Being rather unsatisfactory, it was replaced by the fifth vessel of the same name which was built in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1903. It served for 29, years, being decommissioned in 1932, and was described by the missionary priest Dr Charles Fox as “the best the Mission has ever had”. SPCK gave £1000 towards its construction.

Its successor, number 6, was the first to be powered only by steam. A large vessel of 500 tons it foundered on the island on Aneityum (Anatom), the most southerly inhabited island of the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), on 31st October 1932, on its initial voyage. It had been dedicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, in England in July of that year, who described Melanesia as “the most romantic of Missions” of the Church of England. 

Southern Cross VII was a diesel-powered motor yacht of over 298 tons, built in 1933 and in service from September of that year. During the Second World War in the Pacific it was acquired and used by the Royal Australian Navy. After the War, it served till 1954 and was sold in 1955.

The Diocese of Melanesia then decided to have two smaller ships, one of which would be mainly for the Bishop’s use in touring; it was the eighth ‘Southern Cross’, and was only of 90 tons. It was a wooden two-screw vessel built in Ballina, New South Wales, and came into service in 1958. It was wrecked at Maravovo on the coast of Guadalcanal in the Solomons on 29th March 1960, in a sudden storm, and then destroyed in a tidal wave which followed soon after on 7th April.    

The ninth ship of the Anglican Church of Melanesia, also called the ‘Southern Cross’, was built in Australia in 1962 at the request of Bishop Alfred Thomas Hill,  Bishop of Melanesia, who was himself a Master Mariner. He had originally come to Melanesia to captain one of the Church’s smaller ships serving Anglicans living in New Britain, then in the Diocese of Melanesia. Southern Cross IX was designed in 1961 by Arthur N Swinfield, M.R.I.N.A. It was wooden and copper-sheathed, 84 feet in length, and had a twin-screwed diesel engine. It was dedicated in Sydney by the Archbishop of Sydney, Hugh Gough, in May 1962, and in October it hit Alite Reef, a small atoll off Malaita island in the Solomons. It was grounded there for two and a half months before being dragged over the reef into the lagoon and re-floated. It served effectively for many years with a succession of European and Melanesian captains and a Melanesian crew.

MMUK’s Archivist Emeritus, Canon Brian Macdonald-Milne