Henry Brusey

Henry Brusey was the skipper of the trawler Nora Niven in 1918 when that vessel was requisitioned to sweep mines laid by the German Auxiliary Cruiser SMS Wolf off New Zealand in 1917. Despite no experience in the field Henry was described by Captain Hall-Thompson as being very competent and the best of the four skippers who found themselves in the same situation.

Henry Brusey was born in Hull in 1859 and in common with the majority of the menfolk of the area went to sea as a young man. He married in 1884 and a son, Harold, was born in 1887. Over the following years Henry continued his seafaring occupation, fishing out of the Humber and unlike many of his contemporaries, qualified as a Master Mariner.

Mine found Bay of Islands
Mine found Bay of Islands

In 1906 a large, modern trawler was built in Selby by Messrs. Cochrane and Sons for the Napier Fish Supply Co, of Napier, New Zealand. Christened as Nora Niven, the vessel was launched on 17 November and steamed via Melbourne and Wellington, to her new home port of Napier, arriving there in early 1907.

By 1912 Henry was lured by the challenge of an opportunity at the other end of the world and emigrated to New Zealand. He took passage in the Royal Mail Steamer Athenic, travelling third class, to Wellington arriving in New Zealand in September. He soon assumed command of the Nora Niven at Napier and was quickly at sea, fishing in the Cook Strait area. Life in the Dominion was going well for Henry and in 1913 he married again, to Emily Conroy. This marriage was nearly short-lived because in December of that year he was riding his motorcycle and was lucky to survive colliding with a train at a level crossing in Napier.

Nora Niven with Henry in command continued to sweep for mines until May 1919

Being well above military age (maximum 45) Henry continued fishing out of Napier during the war, providing fish for the people of the Wellington Province. By 1915 the threat of mines being laid around the coast of New Zealand had been recognized by the Naval Authorities, but dismissed by the Chief of the General Staff. When it was learned in the latter part of 1917 that mines had indeed been laid off New Zealand the two most powerful trawlers in the country were requisitioned and fitted for minesweeping. One of these was the Nora Niven, the other the Simplon. Because there were no available naval personnel in the country, the vessels were chartered with their normal crews and Lieutenant Commander Charles Keily with a Petty Officer and a Signalman controlled the minesweeping operations.

At 6.20 am on 11 February 1918 the two ships left Wellington on their first minesweeping operation. They soon found their first mine and eventually brought it to the surface. Some unexpected difficulties were now highlighted. Fixing the position of the mine was difficult because of the primitive compass fitted to Nora Niven and there was no radio. Both of which highlight the difficulties under which Henry worked as a matter of course.

SMS Wolf
SMS Wolf

Nevertheless Nora Niven with Henry in command continued to sweep for mines until May 1919. On 12 March 1919 Captain Hall-Thompson, the Naval Adviser to the New Zealand Government recommended to the Chief of the General Staff as the senior military officer that the skippers of each of the minesweepers should be recommended for the British Empire Medal. In his recommendation he noted that “Henry Brusey is a good deal the most deserving”. The recommendation was passed to the Governor and forwarded to the Colonial Office and in the London Gazette of 14 October he, along with the other skippers was awarded the newly instituted Meritorious Service Medal. In order that they could actually receive this medal they were formally designated members of the ‘New Zealand Auxiliary Service’.

Henry continued fishing until 1922, by which time his son Harold a prominent pianist, had also come to New Zealand. Henry died in 1932 at the age of 73 and his wife Emily passed away in 1941.