From deckhand on the Union Steamships to recording their history

87 year-old John Fenton proudly shows his macrame frame work for pictures of ships in the Union Fleet.

Eighty seven-year-old John Fenton has laminated photographs of steamships including some he worked on in the 1950s and 1960s and has created intricate, knotted macrame frames for them.

He’s hoping to exhibit the images at the Lyttelton Information Centre, as a fundraiser for the rebuild of Lyttelton Museum of which he is a life member.

The photographs come from John Farquar’s book Union Fleet 1875-1975 which details the history of the Union Steamship Company.

Mr Fenton first went to sea for them in 1949 as a deck boy on the TES Wahine, working the daily steamer-express sailing between Lyttelton and Wellington.

This was the first Wahine, not the one that foundered and sank in Wellington Harbour in 1968.

He stayed with the Union Steamship Company for 14 years, graduating from deck boy to able seaman and boatswain.

Always good with his hands, he taught himself macrame and also makes fancy bell ropes for ships; one of the only people remaining who makes them. He still does this for Canterbury Museum.

Mr Fenton and his wife Kitty have lived in Sumner for 55 years, raising three children there.

But his is actually one of the oldest families from over the hill in Lyttelton. His great-grandfather was born there
and his great-grandmother “Nanny Fenton” had 13 children who almost all married in Lyttelton, including his own father Albert.

After leaving school in 1945, Mr Fenton worked in an office job but found it stifling and threw it in after four years.

“I couldn’t stand the office; the collar and tie was choking me. I followed my dad out to sea. He was a cook and steward on the old Canopus that used to run from Westport and Greymouth to Lyttelton with coal.”

Upon marrying his wife Kitty, Mr Fenton gave up the sea, taking a job onshore in the rigging loft at Lyttelton Port.

It was a deliberate choice, having seen “too many fellas not sending money home and going on the booze. I thought well that’s not for me.”

They share a keen interest in history, as Mrs Fenton works at the Sumner Museum several times a week. Mr Fenton created the knot board that is displayed there, showing the many different types.

And they’re both life members of the Karamea Museum – that’s where Mrs Fenton comes from.

Of the 20 or so of the steamship photographs, Mr Fenton has now completed frames for about 16 and he plans to gift them to Lyttelton Museum.