The New Zealand Training Ship Amokura, formerly HMS Sparrow, was purchased by the New Zealand Government in 1905 with the aim of training boys for a life at sea. The first trainee joined on 19 March 1907 and the last was discharged on 16 December 1921. Some of these joined the Royal Navy, many more the Merchant Navy and a small minority did not seek a career at sea.
In March 1905 Captain Frank Worsley took command of the former HMS Sparrow in Sydney and sailed the vessel to Wellington. Sparrow was gunboat that had been launched in 1889, displacing 805 tons, 165 ft (50.3m) in length with a beam of 31 ft (9.5m), capable of 13 knots, but was also rigged as a three masted barquentine. The armament was six 4inch (102mm) guns, two 3 pounder guns and two machine guns. It had a naval crew of 76. Although purchased to become a training ship for New Zealand boys, the vessel spent the next year at anchor at Wellington while the details of its future were determined by Parliament.
The boys would be between 12 and 14 and would be instructed in navigation, seamanship, gun drill and engineering as well as “the usual matters which are taught to those who are to become sailors”.
By August 1906 the various aspects of the training to be undertaken were becoming quantified: the boys would be between 12 and 14 and would be instructed in navigation, seamanship, gun drill and engineering as well as “the usual matters which are taught to those who are to become sailors”. Captain G.E. Hooper replaced Captain Worsley who had resigned in March and remained in command for the next 15 years. In October the ship received a Maori name, Amokura, which is the Phaethon rubricauda, a tropical bird with white feathers, a red bill and long thin red streamers. In a final ‘civilianisation’ of the ship, responsibility for Amokura was transferred from the Defence Department to the Marine Department in February 1907.
The first class of sixty trainees joined the ship in March 1907. The boys were between 13 and 14 and were expected to be under training for about a year. In this time the ship undertook a series of cruises that fell into a pattern over the years. In the New Year it sailed north to the Hauraki Gulf and to Raoul Island. The winter was spent in Wellington Harbour and in the latter part of the year a southern cruise was made to Campbell Island, the Antipodes, Auckland and Bounty Islands. These were not just for training, checks being made of the castaway depots on the outlying islands and calls at remote lighthouses. Most of the sea-time was under sail.
The bulk of the “Amokura Boys” as they were known, went to the merchant service, but some such as Frank Turvey joined the Royal Navy.
After about a year in Amokura the Marine Department would endeavour to find places for the trainees in merchant ships, although some did join the Navy. As would be expected a few did not complete their training and others did not wish to pursue a career at sea. In these latter cases the parents were liable for the cost of their training, up to a maximum of £50. In 1913 the annual report of the Marine Department listed 168 boys who had passed through Amokura since 1907. Of these 13 had joined the Navy, 130 had gone to sea in the merchant service, 11 had returned to their parents, three had been discharged on medical grounds, three had shore or river employment with marine companies, four had deserted and another four had been discharged, no longer required. This indicates is a successful training rate for the maritime services of 87 percent. Countered against this is the cost of the programme, £7,754 or about £129 per trainee – a significant amount of money in 1913.
As would be expected the cost of operating an aging ship such as Amokura did not reduce. During routine maintenance on the ship in 1919 it was revealed that the ship was not seaworthy and that a large sum of money would be required to make it so. In the immediate post-war financial climate the money was not available and although boys were entered and trained, it was all done at anchor in Wellington Harbour. By the time of an enquiry by the ‘Economy Commission’ in 1921 the per capita cost of training had risen to £166 and the commission was of the view that the training of boys for a career at sea should be undertaken by the mercantile marine, not the Government. This view was accepted by the Government and the last trainees left the ship on 16 December 1921 and it was sold the next year, becoming a coal hulk in Westport and later Wellington and finally a store hulk in Kenepuru Sound before being broken up in 1955.
As evidenced by the 1913 report, the bulk of the “Amokura Boys” as they were known, went to the merchant service, but some such as Frank Turvey joined the Royal Navy. Similarly, while most of the trainees became seamen, a small number were entered as cadets by the Union Steam Ship Company and finished their training onboard the company’s training ship Dartford leading to a career as officers in the Merchant Navy.