At 5am on the morning of 10 April 1968, as she entered Wellington Harbour, the brand new interisland ferry Wahine ran into one of the worst weather events in our history.
An hour later, a massive wave pushed the now stricken ship on to the infamous Barrett’s Reef. At 1pm, the order was given: abandon ship.
In 1968 Eastbourne, on the shores of the harbour, was a small, isolated community – one rugged road winding around the foot of steep hills was the only land connection to the rest of the city. But it was to Eastbourne that many of Wahine’s lifeboats – those that survived the waves – were driven by the tempest.
Many people on board the Wahine on 10 April 1968 owe their lives to the ordinary men and women of Eastbourne, who did whatever they could to help as disoriented, frightened and hypothermic people were plucked from the raging storm, or were just given something hot to drink after clambering out of a lifeboat.
Many of those local heroes still live in Eastbourne, and some of their younger relatives now attend Muritai School, where lots of Wahine survivors were given shelter and treatment.
Fifty years on from one of New Zealand’s most tragic days, principal of Muritai School Bec Power says that the Wahine disaster makes for the most authentic of learning contexts. The school’s term 1 focus on the story, and their connection to it, has culminated in opening to the public the Muritai Wahine Museum, housing projects by students who started with an artefact from or associated with the Wahine.
“Everyone who still lives here, or was once connected to the place then, remembers how they played a part in the day, and the days following,” says Bec.
The 50th anniversary commemoration of the Wahine tragedy began with Muritai School hosting a dawn ceremony. The memories must have been overwhelming for many, as the same school hall served as a muster point for Wahine survivors all those years ago. Fittingly, Eastbourne was battered by another storm on 10 April 2018, and so the school ended up once again providing shelter to those gathered in remembrance, as plans for an entire days commemoration had to be changed.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for students to meet many of the people they had been researching, says Bec.
“It was extraordinary – the children actually getting to meet and talk to these people they’d been learning about for the last 10 weeks. [The students] saw them as celebrities of a type. As they walked around our museum, some of the guests were able to point out, ‘oh, that’s my handbag, or that’s me in that photo.’ The children just couldn’t believe it.”
Starting with a ‘big idea’
Associate Principal and Year 7 and 8 teacher Annette Borgonje played a leading role in the school’s Wahine inquiry. Annette and her colleagues and students started with a ‘big idea’: ‘we learn from the past to improve our future.’
“As a staff, we developed the title ‘Hands of Time’. Given that we had an end point in mind, and we were getting artefacts ready for the Muritai Museum, [the inquiry] fit really naturally within the social science aspects of the New Zealand Curriculum – specifically focusing on identity, culture and organisation; place in the environment; and continuity and change.
“Within that context, we unpacked together some key understandings that we wanted the students to get from the inquiry. These were things like the fact that the past affects people’s present; that people and places are connected; communities come together to support each other; and that historic events are passed onto future generations – which can be done in many different ways, so that included the cultural aspect of storytelling and song as well.
“We really wanted students to take away from this context a sense of place – their connection to that place, and to the community. [We wanted to explore] what the Wahine meant to them and their families. I think that comes through really strongly in their sense of pride – I had students coming in very excitedly telling me about their interviews with people in the community. And when the museum opened, students came to me saying ‘this was the man that’s in that photo!’ It’s really linked the social studies understandings to their lives here and now.”
Annette says that a school-wide aim was for students, through their Wahine artefacts, to develop an understanding of how museums tell stories, and the way those stories are connected to the communities in which they’re based.
The inquiry began with an introduction to the events of the disaster. Year 7 and 8 classes watched news footage from 1968, and students went to the commemorative mast that stands on the foreshore in Eastbourne. Once hooked and excited to delve deeper, students were asked about what questions they had that they wanted to explore. Annette and her fellow teachers then worked alongside students to develop project plans. Steps along the way included things like interviewing members of the community and presenting researched timelines. Annette says the response from the community was overwhelming – they had several visits from people connected with the tragedy.
This student-led approach means that there is an incredible range of artefacts and displays to be absorbed at the Muritai Museum – both traditional and modern - including coding and robotics projects, animated films, and projects involving 3D printing. Seeing locals, particularly older people with first-hand memories, completely engrossed in these projects is a real testament to the level of student buy-in that the Wahine inquiry achieved.
Hazel Devenport, a Muritai School student, says her project aims to capture something of the shock that radio listeners would have experienced on the morning of April 10, 1968 – and to imagine what it would have been like to be tasked with informing the public.
“I decided to present my learning through an old radio that I got from an op-shop. I’ve made a radio broadcast, based on what I thought it would have been like back then. I listened to a lot of radio broadcasts, and I was really surprised by how they sounded, because they sounded really calm, but also nervous at the same time. I think they wanted to sound quite professional, and were trying to make sure nobody worried too much.”
Imogen Twose’s project is her imagining of a diary written by one of the Wahine passengers. The recycled pages of Imogen’s diary are made from newspaper articles from the time of the disaster. She’s tried to imagine the thoughts of a passenger leading up to the tragedy, says Imogen.
“It’s about her experience before she got to the last lifeboat – which actually overturned. The story she tells made it to the shore, but she didn’t.”
Theo Thompson proudly introduces the artefact that is the centre of a multi-media project he and Charlie Watkins created. In fact, part of the audio from Theo’s work introduces the video that accompanies this story. Theo says he was focused on getting people involved with his project, and trying to give the public a sense of what it must have felt like to be on board the Wahine.
“This is an actual bannister that was on the Wahine. It was loaned to us by the Wellington Museum. To go along with it, we’ve created a soundscape, which is six minutes long to represent the six hours of wait time that the passengers experienced. People [who view the display] can write a response, and hang it on the bannister. We wanted to add some interaction to the museum. The whole idea is to have quite a sensory experience.”
Personal connections create bridges
Annette comes back to the fact that for Muritai School teachers, students, and members of their extended community, the significance of the Wahine tragedy, particularly pride in the Eastbourne community that came together on that tragic day 50 years ago, added such deep significance to the learning that culminated in the Muritai Museum. It was the personal connections, that create bridges between those that were there and those Eastbourne kids now trying to imagine what it was like that imbued the whole endeavor with some learning magic, says Annette.
“Joanne Finlayson, rescued as a baby during the Wahine disaster, is connected to the family [of two of our students] because their grandfather’s mother [Leslie Morgan], pulled her into a life-raft from the arms of a gentleman called Brian, who rescued Joanne. They both came in and spoke to our students, and talked about the wonderful connection they’ve had for a lot of their lives.
“I think one of the things that stood out for the students was that it was 19 years before Brian told anyone that he’d rescued this baby – the students were very moved by that.
“We had lots of other locals come in and speak to the students. One grandmother was very emotional because obviously she’d seen some pretty horrific things. She talked quite frankly to our senior students – you could have heard a pin drop. The whole thing has had a really deep emotional connection for the students I think.”
On 10 April 2018, Principal Bec Power spoke to the gathered survivors and their families in the same school hall that many had found themselves sheltering in, shocked and shivering, 50 years ago. She thought that a passage from her speech that day would be an appropriate way to demonstrate the connections that her school has strengthened this year - with the wider community, and between the present and times now distant.
“The principal of Muritai School in 1968 was Stuart Hatch. He had the foresight to write down a recount of the events that happened that day on April 10, which I was delighted to find a copy of at the Wellington Museum.
“After sending students and teachers home due to the storm, when he heard about the Wahine, he returned to school to get the temperamental oil heater going again, and after a visit from the deputy Mayor, set about calling locals to come and set up the hall from survivors. The community of Eastbourne brought their electric heaters, made hot tea with lots of sugar, and a group of women set about distributing baking to anyone who arrived.
“This week, our parents and staff have done exactly the same 50 years later – I arrived early to get the heaters going, and opened the doors to gather donations from our parent community, who baked from the survivors who were our guest, and provided plenty of hot drinks.
“Our Wahine Muritai Museum isn’t just about having an interest in historical artefacts. Instead, it’s been about learning how to be connected to our past, and to each other now, to be connected to the names and stories of those who survived, and those who did not.”