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Parallel histories – Steamships Trading Co and PNG


Steamships coverSteamships Trading Company 1918-2008: A History’ by James Sinclair, Alan Caudell and Associates, Palm Cove Qld., 2008, 468pp.  Around $300 or K450 if you can find a copy.  I understand Bill Mcgrath at Pacific Bookhouse has one for sale

THIS MASSIVE BOOK is not commercially available and it has taken me a while to lay my hands on a copy.

It weighs 2.8 kilograms and measures 346x250x37 mm.  It is a sort of personal indulgence on the part of past Steamies directors and board chairmen. 

Lugging it from Steamies head office on Champion Parade to the airport in my backpack worked up quite a sweat.

Having read it, I would urge Steamies to consider bringing out an abridged version in a cheaper paperback. 

It is a book well worth reading because the history of the company runs parallel to that of Papua New Guinea.  The numerous crossovers are both fascinating and enlightening.

A paperback would also mitigate the aching arms that you will inevitably experience reading the present version.

Jim Sinclair is no Shakespeare but he is a very deft master wordsmith.  He is also meticulous with a capital ‘M’. 

He has been producing these sorts of commissioned volumes for some time now and they are building up to be a unique reflection on Papua New Guinea’s past.  He is currently working on a commissioned history of Edie Creek.

He told me that when he was posted to Port Moresby just before independence as a district commissioner with a vague portfolio and not a little spare time on his hands, that he noticed the Australian administration diligently junking what they thought were irrelevant records. 

Jim managed to insert himself between the dumpers and the dump and this material now forms an important resource for his writing.

He got a scare in this year’s floods in Queensland but fortunately it all survived.  He plans to leave it all to a selected institution when he finally runs out of steam.

But back to Steamies. The company kicked off around 1918
but a serendipitous event in 1924 was the impetus for its remarkable rise.  The Steamies website tells the story.

“The company's history began in 1919. Retired sea captain Algernon Sydney Fitch was growing apples in Tasmania for a living when he read about a barge named the Southern Cross going aground in the Bass  Strait.

“He decided to salvage it and travelled to Melbourne to raise 5,000 Pounds sterling and find a suitable ship for the salvage operations. He discovered a 90 ton coal burner, built in 1855, called the SS Queenscliffe. A group of businessmen backed Fitch and together formed a company which they appropriately called Steamships Limited.

“Fitch's plan had no connection with Papua and New Guinea. But what happens next was not in the scheme of things. The Southern Cross sank beneath the waves.

“To make matters worse the syndicate ran out of money whilst making the veteran Queenscliffe seaworthy. Fitch proposed that he sail the ship to Port Moresby and earn some money by trading along the Papuan coast. In 1924 the Public Company was formed”.

Steamies had many competitors over the years, including the mighty Burns Philp, but it outlived them all and is still thriving.

There are some good reasons for this, not the least being its long held policy of training and employing Papua New Guinean staff wherever possible. 

Coupled with this were a commitment to Papua New Guinea in general and a refreshing aversion to the profit-at-all-cost mentality.  It supported many charitable and other causes in Papua New Guinea, mostly in the background and without undue fanfare.  It has been a strong supporter of the Crocodile Prize since its inception.

Throughout its history, Steamships scrupulously followed the letter of the law, albeit sometimes reluctantly when it perceived the law as inappropriate.

In other words, while it could be a ruthless and intimidating adversary it was and still is an honest and ethical company.   Its  environmental credentials are a credit to it.  And, no, I haven’t got shares.

When you mention Steamies in Port  Moresby, people in the know will tell you that it has been taken over by Swires, the big British trading company based in Hong  Kong, and is no longer the Steamies of old.

This is technically correct but, as Jim Sinclair explains, Swires has had a very long history in Papua New Guinea and beginning in 1952 has had many active partnerships with Steamies.  That it now holds a majority shareholding is more luck than anything else.

The diversification of Steamies from the original shipping company into a multitude of businesses and then its retreat to its current core businesses of shipping, transport, manufacturing and hotels is an intriguing and mind-boggling journey which must have come close to driving Jim Sinclair nuts when he was writing the book.

Through it all, however and as Chairman Bill Rothery said in 2008, Steamies has been “proudly Papuan New Guinean for 90 years”.  He adds, This is a testimony to the determination and strength of its owners and managers over these years and to the growth and resilience of the country and its people.”

Steamies founder, Captain Algernon Fitch, had an uneasy relationship with Sir Hubert Murray, the famous Papuan Lieutenant-Governor, but they eventually came round to appreciate each other’s point of view. 

Sinclair suggests that it was probably Hubert Murray’s enlightened views eventually rubbing off on Captain Fitch rather than the other way around.

In any event, the good captain steered Steamies out of the total devastation wreaked by World War II and set it on a healthy course of expansion.  He was gone by the time of the equally devastating reign of Prime Minister Bill Skate.

Skate managed to wreck the Papua New Guinean economy in a very short space of time and also came close to wrecking Steamies and many other companies like it. Despite the valiant efforts of his successor, Mekere Morauta, the Skate effects are still felt today. 

Unfortunately Michael Somare in his second incarnation as Prime Minister failed, or wasn’t interested, in keeping up the momentum that Sir Mekere had generated.

It is not until you read the history of Steamies that you realise how bad Skate was and how many of Papua New Guinea’s chronic problems started with him.  If Somare founded Papua New Guinea, Bill Skate came close to sinking it.

A lot of people worked for Steamies over the years.  A lot were dedicated but  unassuming.  Some, like the bean counters, were downright tedious but there were also some delightful mavericks, rogues and eccentrics who gave the company an exciting flavour.

Jim Sinclair had access to most of the surviving managing directors and a lot of the current and retired employees.  He sprinkles their histories and views liberally throughout the text.  Some of the most colourful were the sea captains that Steamies trained and employed and who lent their names to the company ships. 

Sinclair also consulted board minutes, including those from the very first formal meeting in 1924, which not only survived the war but two conflagrations of the company headquarters in the 1970s, annual reports, old newspapers and numerous other sources.  How he is still sane is nothing short of a miracle.

It is a history well worth sharing with a much wider audience.  How about it Steamies?


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James Timbi Timbi

My father was taken to Bara Matha Copra Plantation in Central Province back in 1969 to 1971.

He was as a hard labourer flown from Mt Hagen then to Port Moresby on chartered plane.

Then to a cocoa plantation on large Steamship Trading Company ship.

He was only paid 3 Australian dollars a month. He was aged 16.

With his commitment and sacrifice, Steamships has grown.

My father is still living and I wonder is it possible for Steamships to recognise him and at least give something back?

His name is Rami Waria from Mt. Hagen.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Bill McGrath passed away last year Michael.

I don't know what has happened to his business.

Michael J Connolly

Philip, I have tried sending a few emails to Bill McGrath but all returned with the following message:

"Your message wasn't delivered to [email protected] because the domain couldn't be found"

Wonder if you have details of another website or email address for Pacific Bookhouse?

Philip Fitzpatrick

As far as I know there is not an eBook version available Michael.

The publisher, Alan Caudell and Associates is listed as being in Palm Cove in Queensland. The company is registered in the Northern Territory.

If any reader knows of a contact for them it would be appreciated.

They also did a James Sinclair book about Brian Bell called 'Mr B' that is hard to locate.

Michael Connolly

I worked for Steamships for seven years from 1989 to 1996 having started in Gerahu as Distribution Manager eventually becoming General Manager Merchandise Division.

I have been trying to get a copy of Steamships Trading Company 1918-2008 by James Sinclair. I notice that there is mention of the book being available on Kindle and I would be delighted to be able to access if possible.

I have contacted several book shops here in Ireland but unfortunately there are arrangements between Irish book importers and the printers in Australia.

Can you please let me know what is the current position with downloading to my Kindle.

Kind regards,

Michael Connolly

Patrick Zalewski

I worked for Steamships Trading Company in Rabaul the late 1960; in the hardware section under Ron Zimmer.

I remember Les Corbet, who was manager at the time, with his stiff white shirt and long pants, which was a dress code leftover from the colonial period.

There were some very good people that were easy to deal with, such as Stan Jarrat and others that bounced off the wall every time you spoke to them.

Elaine Staples

Off topic....
Trying to track info on Herbert Meissner, a telephone technician in Port Moresby 1969/70, or thereabouts.

Also Gilbert John Barker, owner/manager of a hardware store in Port Moresby, 1969/74 or thereabouts.

Elaine Staples

Mary Bacic

My father Bernard Hawkins worked for Steamies. Is Mr Underwood's name Delmar? As I'm pretty sure my brother was named after him.I use to love the Xmas party's as a child. Good old days!!

Rena Szabo Masters

Hi - I am happy to announce the updated Steamships history book will be available for free on Kindle later in the year.

It will also be published on a free Steamies app...again available later in the year. This launch will be a part of our 100 year celebrations.

I am happy to collect stories, old pics (etc) for inclusion. These will be collected and returned at our cost and full credit given. Email me at [email protected]

J Diatau

I am looking for a man named Reinhard Meyer who worked for Steamship HQ in Port Moresby in the 1970s. Does anyone know of him or is in contact with him please let me know. Thank you.

Philip Fitzpatrick

There are a few copies available on the internet but you are looking at AU$660 - AU$675 for it.

Steamies seems to have ignored my hint about a cheaper paperback.

Bernard Corden

I managed to skim through this book at Phil Franklin's Haus Guria one evening over at Salamaua several years ago and Jim Sinclair has done an excellent job.

He also wrote a good book on SP Brewery, which featured the infamous Jumbo expedition up the Highlands Highway.

My late brother Ron Corden had some fabulous tales of long lunches in The Aviat Club with many ex Steamship renegades but they were timid somewhat compared to any of the Bank of NSW functions.

Chris Smart

I joined Steamships in 1972 as sales rep for the wholesale grocery department at No 3 Shed in Port Moresby.

I rejoined the company a few years later as Assistant Manager of Wholesale Grocery.

I loved every minute of my time with STC & being in POM.

Don George

I worked for a short time around1967-68 for Steamships at their Mariboi rubber plantation In the Kanosia district.

I have endeavoured to find out a little more on this area and Steamships operations in the past without success: so I am very pleased to come across this site.

Phil Fitzpatrick

Steamies first big fire was at their Mt Hagen Hotel on 3 January 1971. On 3 November the Mount Hagen Hardware Store was totally lost in another fire.

The Main Store in Port Moresby caught fire at 6.45 am on Saturday, 9 September 1972. The Supermarket, Ladies Wear, Packing Room, Country Orders and Reserve Stock areas were all consumed and there was a great deal of water damage to stock and fittings in other sections of the store.

The store re-opened on a limited scale on 21 September (there was a big fire sale on 15-16 September). It took until July 1974 for the store to be rebuilt and open again.

Pauleen Cass

I wonder if the book mentions when the Steamies store burnt down during the 1970s. The question has come up in the FB group "I lived in PNG".

Paul Neaves

Hi,I did a fitout of the goroka store in 1970 only to see it all tumble down when an earth quake hit about 5am in the morning,I had a great time there as the people were so retired and hoping to take a trip back there one day

Ian Humphreys

I also worked at Steamships Goroka, Lae, Rabaul & Port Moresby, leaving in January 1984 for Cairns, now back in Campbelltown.

Eddie Beljaars

Hi Phil, I was accountant at Steamies, Samarai, and my wife was the senior clerk there from January 1973 to September 1975.

Prior to that, I was based at Moresby and was the accounttant for Liquid Air, Rabaul Stevedores, Coral Sea Travel, Sevensons and Nabiri Quaries.

We experienced some geat times with Steamies and they were a great company to work for. I have been trying to get hold of the book for some time now but haven't been successful.

Love your comments!

Barry Smith

Good to hear the comments from Bill Dunlop as I worked with Bill at Plant and Transport, Works and Supply H.Q.Boroko.

I left at the end of 1981,

William Dunlop

G'Day Phil
I had the pleasure to be the Transport Manager, From Easter 1973 untill 1976, When I then Became the Manager
Fot the Plant And Transport Authority,Bougainville.
"North Solomons".In those days.
Mr H D Underwood, Was "GOD" { MD } of Steamships,
Just like Tom Ellis Was he Kiaps GOD.
God bless All.

William dunop

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