The Somerton Man – found dead on Somerton Beach near Adelaide on 1st December 1948 – had, in his fob pocket, a small slip of paper on which was printed “Tamam Shud”. It was subsequently determined that this slip had been torn out by hand from the last page of a Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: and that the specific edition of the Rubaiyat had been published by Whitcombe and Tomb’s in New Zealand, as part of their “Courage And Friendship” series.

(Note: if we knew what other books in the “Courage And Friendship” series were listed on the inside front cover of the Somerton Man’s Rubaiyat, we’d almost certainly be able to determine the precise year in which the book was printed).

The Tasman Sea

So: given that the Rubaiyat had started in New Zealand but ended up in Australia, it seemed highly likely to me that the book and its mysterious owner had travelled across the Tasman Sea from the former to the latter between 1st January 1945 and 1st December 1948. But… exactly how did they make that journey?

To try to answer that question, I bought a copy of Peter Plowman’s (2009) Wanganella and the Australian Trans-Tasman Liners to find out. Plowman’s book covers the history of all the major passenger ships that travelled the roughly 2000km across the Tasman Sea very well, and with admirable attention to detail (the page numbers in the following refer to Plowman’s book).

It didn’t take long to discover that we would appear to have only three ships to consider: the Katoomba (briefly), the Wanganella (also briefly), and the Wahine. Let’s look at each of these three ships in turn…


As 1946 began, there was pressure on the Australian government to help get “the thousands of New Zealand residents who had been stranded in Australia for the duration of the war” back across the Tasman Sea (p.118).

However, this apparently simple-sounding objective proved very difficult to attain in practice. Of the ships that had seen Trans-Tasman service before the Second World War, the Awatea had been sunk en route to Gibraltar in 1942; the Monowai’s intense war-time usage had left it needing an extensive refit; while the luxurious liner Wanganella similarly needed a year’s refitting to turn it back from the hospital ship it had served as for many of the war years.

In the short term, this only really left “the veteran coastal liner Katoomba” (p.118), which had been converted to a troopship during the war: as a result, it was only able to take passengers across in what at the time was called “austerity” quarters. I found a nice picture of it here.


The Katoomba made only a single round trip, initially carrying 600 passengers and 2,000 tons of cargo out to Wellington: even so, its departure was plagued by industrial action that delayed its departure by a fortnight, before finally arriving on 6th February 1946. Its return journey terminated at Sydney on 23rd March 1946 (travelling via “Totokina and Rabaul”), (p.121), but the ship never made another journey on that route.



(Image from Reuben Goossens’s excellent webpage)

The Wanganella had been a beautiful (and much-loved) liner before the war, but its post-war refit took until October 1946 to complete. And its first journey then was from Sydney to “Auckland, then on to Suva, Honolulu and Vancouver. Leaving Vancouver on 27 November, Wanganella returned to Sydney on Saturday, 28th December”. (p.122).

However, its heavily anticipated (and fully-booked) second journey on 17th January 1947 fared much worse. As the gigantic ship entered Cook Strait in Wellington Harbour on the evening of 19th January 1947, it was accidentally steered onto Barrett Reef, where it remained stuck for seventeen days amidst remarkably mild weather (since then known locally as “Wanganella weather”) (p.130). Unsurprisingly, it then needed extensive mending in the shipyards before it could take to the seas again.

So as things turned out, the Wanganella’s next journey was to be 9th December 1948: and as a result, its part in our timeline comes to a close here also.


Though the Wanganella’s much-hoped-for fortnightly sailings had been booked out for months, after its accident in the harbour put it out of commission there were simply no suitable ships to replace it with. So the Wanganella’s owners (Huddart Parker) decided to use the “veteran steamer Wahine” instead (p.136).


(Image taken from a website devoted entirely to the ship!)

It carried 300 passengers on its first journey from Wellington to Sydney on 14th February 1947: it left Sydney on the 21st February 1947. It then left Wellington on 28th February 1947, and continued a regular service for the next three months. However, the trips stopped for the (antipodean) winter on 3rd June 1947, restarting on 12th September 1947. “In all, Wahine made sixteen return trips across the Tasman Sea in 1947” (p.137).

In 1948, however, the Wahine made only ten round trips across the Tasman Sea, with its last departure being on 14th May 1948. “For the rest of 1948 there was no passenger service provided by Huddart Parker or the Union Line across the Tasman” (p.137).

And so…

It may not sound like much, but I harbour [*] a very strong suspicion that the Somerton Man travelled from New Zealand to Australia on one of these trips, with the little Whitcombe and Tomb’s “Courage and Friendship” Rubaiyat stowed [**] in his pocket.

And, moreover, I further suspect that should we list all the male passengers aged (say) between 45 and 55 who travelled on the Wahine’s twenty-six journeys during this period, we would see the Somerton Man’s name.

How many names would that yield? Perhaps three hundred or so would be my finger-in-the-air guess: but we may be able to eliminate many of them very quickly. And we may may already have seen one or two of the names from other directions (I have one particular surname in mind… but that’s a story for another day completely), which would be a highly intriguing development.

OK, so… shall we draw up a list, then?

[*] Sorry about that. 🙂
[**] And that. 😉

25 thoughts on “Crossing the Tasman Sea, 1945 to 1948…

  1. Diane on June 25, 2016 at 11:04 pm said:

    errm. Sorry to pour cold water, but books by Whitcombe and Tomb weren’t sold only in New Zealand. Australia and New Zealand were, until relatively recently, were so close that you didn’t need a passport to go from one to the other and residents of one had (I think) rights of residence, if not voting, in the other. So many of our schoolbooks were by Whitcombe and Tomb that until I read your posts I had assumed they were an English company. Since the Somerton Man seems to have had very little and that looking rather “op-shop”, he might as easily have bought the book locally, and second-hand.

    Sorry to be a wet blanket.

  2. nickpelling on June 26, 2016 at 10:06 am said:

    Diane: it’s not a matter of passports, it’s a matter of the transport across the Tasman Sea not being at all easy during that period. The only “Courage And Friendship” Rubaiyat advert I found in Trove was from 1942: the absence of further adverts would seem likely to be a consequence of the difficulties everyone then faced in getting between the two countries during wartime, and then subsequently in the post-war peacetime period to the end of 1948.

    I don’t believe the C&F Rubaiyat was ever printed in Australia.

  3. Diane on June 26, 2016 at 11:33 am said:

    I take your point about being printed in Australia. What I meant was that Australasia was a single region as far as distribution went. Back in the 1940s, Australia was still very much an offshoot of England, entirely ‘Commonwealth’ in character. The post-war period began the change. The bookshops only contained English and Australasian books, and primary school texts as I recall were very often ‘Whitcomb and Tomb’ just as children’s books were often by Dent & Sons, etc. I know one bookseller who specialises in Australasian works. I’ll give him a call and see if he can tell me anything specific about W&Ts distribution in 1942-49.

  4. Diane on June 26, 2016 at 12:05 pm said:


    W&T’s Australian market is outlined in Maslen pp, 145-6

    for general readers –
    Douglas Ross Harvey, K. I. D. Maslen (eds.), Book & Print in New Zealand: A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa (1997)

    online G/books


  5. milongal on June 26, 2016 at 11:03 pm said:

    Re residency/rights between the two.
    All kiwis have an implicit visa to Australia (actually, that’s not quite true, we still refuse certain criminals, I think – like Shane Martin). The kiwis are far more accomodating (I think). A few years ago I had a brother move to NZ and I believe he almost instantly becomes recognised as one of them – to the point he could claim governmnet benefits if he needed.
    I also think that it’s entirely plausible that a small bookshop sourced other versions of the Rubaiyat and never advertised it – I’d assume newspaper advertising was relatively expensive, and I’m not sure a little bookshop (as opposed to something like Angus & Robertson, Dymmocks or Borders) would see value in advertising a book that, by the sound of it, walked off the shelves fairly well by itself….

    I think looking into the ships is an interesting idea. It does, however, assume that SM bought the book himself (as opposed to was gifted it) and bought it brand new (as oppose to pick it up in a “jumble sale”/”trading table”/fete etc). AFAIK, NZ is (almost entirely) significantly cooler than Australia – so while Adelaide is enjoying temperatures of 35+ in the Summer Aukland is about 10 degree cooler. This seems to be at odds with his clothes “…being consistent with someone used to a warmer climate”. Granted, he may have routed through NZ or even lived somewhere within Australia with a warmer climate for some time after his arrival* (and of course there is the (probably unlikely) possibility that he was dressed post mortem which makes it a moot point), but nonetheless there is a potential inconsistency there.

    I think it’s important to check everything out, and I can follow the sound reasoning to NZ, however I wouldn’t be surprised if nothing pops up (even if we found someone who disappeared on those lists).

    *I’m not sure how long it would take someone to acclimatise to warmer weather. Certainly I’ve been at Canberra airport in the past when the temperature is below 0 and a plane from QLD lands (Shorts and T-shirts all ’round). They certainly use some colourful language as they leave the terminal….

  6. I tend to agree with Dianne on this one Nick. I think it more likely that the Whitcombe and Tombs Rubaiyat was purchased in Australia.

    Can we not also consider that it was given to the somerton man by Jestyn?

  7. nickpelling on June 27, 2016 at 1:26 pm said:

    Sunny: well… it’s all very well tending to agree, but I don’t think there’s any evidence that W&T ever published a “Courage & Friendship” Rubaiyat in Australia, unless the rather drab-looking one that Gerry Feltus found (without the triangle, and without the decorative border) was part of a short run printed by W&T in Australia in 1942 or so. Which is entirely possible, but that wasn’t the same edition to which the Somerton Man was connected.

  8. Diane on June 27, 2016 at 2:15 pm said:

    I think what we southerners are trying to say is that Australia was included in the distribution area served by W&T, and having the larger population sales to and through Australian outlets were a large part of what kept W&T going. It had even been worth their while to have a print-shop in a couple of cities and bookshops under their own brand. Despite the bit of water, the analogy is rather like the link between London and Scotland. One would actually expect W&T books to be available in Australia as we know they were. I take your point about that particular print-run.

    The title given the ‘Courage and Friendship’ series leads me to wonder if it weren’t being printed specifically for the Americans arriving on the R&R ships. I know they regularly visited Sydney but not so sure about N.Z.

    As I think I mentioned, some time ago, I suspected that the Somerton man (chewing gum and all) may have been one of 9 deserters recorded as having hopped it from an aircraft carrier which was in Sydney at the time, not long before he turns up. The levels of titanium suggested that possibility though ‘titanium white’ is another.

  9. nickpelling on June 27, 2016 at 3:50 pm said:

    Diane: during the war years, crossing the Tasman Sea was considered too risky – and, as I described in the post, logistical problems with ship availablity in the post-war years meant that there were few crossings then. As a result, I strongly suspect that W&T got no books from New Zealand to Australia during wartime (and very few in the postwar years), but feel free to prove my strong suspicion wrong. 🙂

  10. Diane on June 28, 2016 at 2:32 am said:

    I have difficulty with the idea that historical research is about proving any individual right or wrong – its about collectively getting the picture a little clearer.

    Since we are talking about the production in Australia, or the transport from New Zealand of goods rather than of persons, I thought some data about the merchant marine, imports and export data, and ideally the annual accounts of W&T might shed some light. Unfortunately, I have little time for the work which would be needed: flat out at the moment.

    I do see that the Australian Year Book says that during the past century, the “the share of Australia’s total imports coming from New Zealand has remained steady for most of the century”(p.1036) and the graph (p.1037) shows no great fluctuation during the years of WWII.

    Annoyingly, the examples of shipping and goods’ tonnage which are given on p.1038 are taken from the years 1904; 1924-25; 1949-50 but there is a mention that some Australian ships were registered in New Zealand.

    Sorry I can’t do more, but perhaps Trove will include more detail.

  11. Diane on June 28, 2016 at 2:34 am said:

    Sorry – that’s the Year Book 2011 edition (G/books). If I were in the library I’d look up the 1950 edition. 🙁

  12. Diane on June 28, 2016 at 2:43 am said:

    PPS – Nick, did you see this one:

    , Peter Plowman, Across the sea to war: Australian and New Zealand troop convoys from 1865 through two World Wars to Korea and Vietnam, Rosenberg Publishing, Dural, NSW, 2003.

    I have the reference from a website:

  13. nickpelling on June 28, 2016 at 9:24 am said:

    Diane: actually, I think historical research is as much about disproving incorrect ideas as “about collectively getting the picture clearer”. It takes insight, logical thinking, bravery, and moral courage to do the former; and clear-headedness, dogged persistence and good communication skills to do the latter. But perhaps that’s why there’s so little good historical research about these days. 😐

  14. Diane on June 28, 2016 at 11:52 am said:

    Perhaps I’m just used to the longer-term and more collaborative sort of history, where we (if that’s a permissable term) know that being ‘right’ is scarcely ever total or permanent, and it would be a waste of everyone’s time to point out that Herodotus made mistakes, or Pliny or Isidore or Gibbon. We add or modify as we learn more, and expect that the future will bring further modifications and additions. You have a very heroic idea of the historian; I’m afraid mine is more workaday.

  15. nickpelling on June 28, 2016 at 11:59 am said:

    Diane: it’s probably more a matter of aspiration than of anything else, I wouldn’t worry about it. 😉

  16. Diane on June 28, 2016 at 12:11 pm said:

    I’m all for high moral courage etc., in matters of personal ethics. After all I’ve voluntarily joined a society known for having preferred to die in prison than taking an oath. But in works of history – honestly, now – high moral tone and sense of crusader purpose does tend to make dreary reading and sloppy history 50 yrs later, don’t you think?

  17. nickpelling on June 28, 2016 at 12:45 pm said:

    Diane: “sloppy is as sloppy does” – and you don’t need to wait 50 years before calling it out as sloppy. 🙂

  18. milongal on June 29, 2016 at 12:40 am said:

    Re “the share of Australia’s total imports coming from New Zealand has remained steady for most of the century”
    I found graphs that show similar online somewhere, but the problem is “…the share…” – on the graphs I’ve seen this transfers to a percentage (which makes sense, it’s what it means, I guess). This means that if ALL shipping dropped significantly during the war (as it likely did) then the Kiwi shipping dropped proportionately too (I only realised it when I was going to use those graphs to suggest the opposite). For mine, that actually suggests that the shipment of goods across the dutch probably did ease during the war years…

    NB: Were we already flying to NZ by then? It seems flights (not necessarily PAX) to American, Asia and Europe already existed by the mid-40s….

  19. Diane on June 29, 2016 at 2:02 pm said:

    I might let that last statement of yours settle out a little before saying yay!! or neigh. 😀

  20. Dave on July 23, 2016 at 8:27 am said:

    Hi Nick: Some stupid annoying f@ckwit had decided to hijack and take over my email account. I’ve reported the matter to the police and and organisation in my country called netsafe. I just thought I would keep you in he loop. It’s so annoying because I communicate with my daughter who is travelling around the world. Some people really don’t have better things to do. Dave

  21. John sanders on July 23, 2016 at 11:52 pm said:

    Whilst I believe that your crossing the Tasman work was most useful I think that it has now served its purpose and become redundant albeit for all the wrong reasons. SM was I feel almost certainly a regular visitor to NZ and of course was familiar with Tasman crossings. I think he was also Polish or possibly Russian by birth and Jewish despite his built in condom. I’m not going to drop a name only because it could create more problems than it solves at this stage suffice to say he was a world traveller and in the entertainment industry so to speak. He was born in either 1899 or 1901 was quite famous in his day had many variations in his name spelling and has been variously described as brash & deceitful in his youth but the master of illusions. The biggest problem I face at the present is to bring him back to life following his unexpected demise in 1945 and I’m much afraid that absolutely nothing is as it seems. There are very big names involved including all those lefty people at Packies and you might care to check out the scene at a spot called Merioola and all its resident Bohemian arty weirdo spooks. Oh and by the way his widow re-married in 1948 to a pharmacist and I’ll let you guess where they chose to start their new life together. Both are long gone to heaven but I think their kids still walk to the beach or have a quiet drink or two at the pier hotel. I note that Dave has a problem with eavesdropping and I have a feeling that I may have too but refuse to become paranoid.

  22. milongal on July 24, 2016 at 10:38 pm said:

    Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you…..tin foil hats on.

  23. John Sanders on July 25, 2016 at 10:02 am said:

    As I said, I’m not but I’ll probably take your advice anyway. Why take chances.

  24. nickpelling on July 25, 2016 at 12:07 pm said:

    milongal: and just because they are out to get you doesn’t mean you are paranoid 😉

  25. John sanders on July 25, 2016 at 2:03 pm said:

    Well put that man. Greatcoats on greatcoats off. As you were & rest easy (ier).

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