Picton: a small port town at the top of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s known as the gateway to the stunning Marlborough Sounds. The Cook Strait ferry sails to and from it, but other than that it’s a quiet settlement. Most people pass through it, never knowing it’s the home of the world’s last surviving convict ship, the Edwin Fox. And you can board it.
The Edwin Fox was built in 1853 with the help of elephants. (It was built in India, you see.) Starting life as cargo vessel, it was soon repurposed for use in the Crimean War. Florence Nightingale herself may very well have graced its timbers! (There is actually evidence for this; it’s not just wildly wishful thinking.) In 1858, it began transporting British convicts to Australia and, in 1873, British immigrants to New Zealand.
Not only is the Edwin Fox the world’s last surviving convict ship, it’s the second-oldest surviving merchant sailing ship, the oldest surviving East Indiaman, the only surviving wooden New Zealand immigrant ship, and the ninth-oldest ship in existence. The story of how it came to be preserved in Picton is fascinating in itself, told lovingly at the Edwin Fox Maritime Museum, which you should not leave Picton without visiting! We visited it on our most recent New Zealand campervan trip, and getting to explore the venerable ship was wonderful.
The atmosphere changed the moment we entered the hulking wreck. Bright sunlight filtered through the rotten planks, but everything felt hushed; smothered by the weight of so much history. All those lives: soldiers, sailors, prisoners, families… There were bunks, showing how horrifically cramped conditions would have been – one narrow stall for a mother, father and multiple children to share. We saw how they would have eaten and whiled away their hours, days, weeks and months at sea. We saw the hammocks and barrels, chests and manacles, and then we descended into the bowels of the ship.
What struck me was how much like a cathedral it looked. My English childhood was woven with picturesque ruins, the broken stones arching overhead like whale bones. These wooden bones were almost as magical.
So, next time you find yourself in the Marlborough Region, spare an hour for the Edwin Fox Museum. I personally think it’s one of the ten best museums in New Zealand. If this kind of thing interests you, allow me to recommend my articles Across the Sea: A Brief History of Immigration to New Zealand and The Legend of Charlotte Badger, New Zealand’s First White Woman, which is about an Australian convict who mutinied and escaped to New Zealand.