In the late 1950s and early 1960s, before mass air travel (and mass photography), John Rykenberg roamed Princes Wharf with his Leica 35mm and memorialised heady occasions full of new beginnings and emotional farewells. Britomart's Summer Exhibition in the Atrium on Takutai and Te Ara Tahuhu uses Rykenberg's images as an echo of every summer's exciting excursions, reunions and departures.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s passengers gathered on Auckland’s Princes Wharf with whānau, before boarding MV Tofua II and other ships bound for Sydney, Suva, San Francisco, Southampton and ports in between. Frocks were good, emotions ran high, a band played Pō Atarau (Now is the Hour) and photographer John Rykenberg memorialised the scenes with his Leica 35mm. An outdoor exhibition of Rykenberg’s photographs – a partnership between Britomart, Auckland Libraries and the New Zealand Maritime Museum Hui te Ananui a Tangaroa, curated by Frances Walsh – in Britomart’s Atrium on Takutai and Te Ara Tahuhu invites people to revisit these heady occasions full of new beginnings and emotional farewells. The exhibition is entitled Bon Voyage Good Trip Be Good, words taken from a telegram sent to Mrs Aileen Cook on board the Castel Felice in 1959. To see more of those telegrams, read on.
In the days when most people didn’t have cameras, photographer John Rykenberg roamed Auckland’s Princes Wharf with his.
He didn’t bother with arriving passengers – once people disembarked they left quick-smart – but departures were different. Farewellers lingered, only going after streamer-lobbing and when ships manouevred into the Waitematā. Rykenberg had plenty of time to press the shutter dockside and onboard, and capture cutely mutinous and wistful children, giggling women, disengaged men, intergenerational entourages in home-made outfits, effortful and effortless cool, and intrigue.
Sometimes Rykenberg caught his subjects unawares. At other times he’d approach people and cajole them into position. If somebody was fooling around he was polite: ‘When you’re ready sir,’ he would quietly say. Photo executed, he handed over a card for Rykenberg Photography.
The next day, proof sheets were available for examination at the Town Hall Pharmacy on Queen Street. The cost of a postcard-sized black-and-white photo was five shillings. In 1960 that was the price of about three pounds of butter, or one ‘Pink Cha Cha’ lipstick. Rykenberg’s wharf and ship shots from 1958-1962 document a last hurrah for slow travel on high seas. Swifter long-range air travel soon took over, and it was goodbye to most of this.
Below: Wharfside, 1959. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1269-B0133-29.
The Australian shipping company Huddart Parker’s liner Wanganella crisscrossed the Tasman from 1933-1962, apart from a stint as a hospital ship during the Second World War. There was accommodation for 400, and a menu that in 1962 featured veal tendrons Chateaubriand.
But someone was putting on airs. Wanganella may once have been a posh ride, with décor that was opulent-country-house-goes-to-sea-with-Italianate-doodahs, but by the 1950s degeneration had set in. Here’s one passenger recalling a 1960s’ voyage for which he paid £20, the equivalent of two weeks' wages:
‘I booked on one of the most unstable trans-Tasman “passenger liners” you could ever entrust with your life and luggage... It was an uncomfortable, rocking and rolling rustbucket that would have churned your stomach on a millpond let alone plying one of the most treacherous stretches of water on this planet. It took about three days and seemed like three vomiting weeks. Remember, I was sharing a tiny iron cabin only just above the waterline with three male strangers who didn’t seem to wash much or have a second pair of socks. It was hardly a love of the sea that put me and the Wanganella together. It was solely because it was much cheaper than flying…"
Below left: Postcard featuring Wanganella, circa 1950s. New Zealand Maritime Museum, 1994.14. Below right: Photograph showing Wanganella departure, 1959. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1269-B0111-27.
To the islands
The passenger and cargo ship Tofua II worked a circular route from Auckland to the Pacific Islands from 1951-1971. After leaving Auckland the ship called at Suva (Fiji), Nuku’alofa and Vava’u (Tonga), Niue Island, Pago Pago (American Sāmoa), and Apia (Sāmoa). Then it was back to Suva and Auckland, often with bananas in its five holds.
Passengers could kick back in a lounge and smoking room on the promenade deck. In the dining room crumbed mutton cutlets were on the menu for breakfast; top-rib Jardinare for luncheon; and croutes Yarmouth for dinner. The ship accommodated 73 passengers from Auckland, but once the ship reached the islands another 200 passengers on short passages were housed on deck under tents. Note: they had to bring their own bedding and food for the trip.
In 1973 the Union Steamship Company sold Tofua II. Air travel and containerisation had seen the service off.
Below left: Dockside, Tofua II departure, 1959. From second left: Evening Ikuia, Keke Utatoa, Fou (Foufou) Gahuatama, Merry Ikinepule, Sipe Sionetali, Nia (young girl), Elvis Jackson (young boy), Trevor Ikinepule (in hat), Ata Kepu, Kupa Etuata, Maketoni (boys at front), Tinaola (Tina) Fata (waving), (Papa) Tuhega (at back, extreme right). Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections,1269-B0117-22.
Below right: Luggage tag, Union Steam Ship Company Tofua II, circa 1960. New Zealand Maritime Museum, 1994.14.
John Rykenberg memorialised elegant, put-together, accessorised characters. Their knits and frocks were often expertly home-made; the crafting was of necessity – import restrictions were still in place, and would be until 1982.
In his 1958-1962 shots Rykenberg also caught fashion on the turn, when young people began to cease dressing like the parental units. As well, people were opting for ease of movement. Christian Dior’s 1947 clinched waist, full-skirted ‘New Look’ silhouette was being usurped by a waistless look credited to a 1920s’ Coco Chanel design. Men tentatively started ditching the tie, the cravat, the suit and the decorous pocket square in the breast pocket. And hats—fedoras, porkpies, garibaldis, cloches, toques etc—started to lose their appeal.
Case in point: In 1965 the English model Jean ‘The Shrimp’ Shrimpton went to the Melbourne Cup in a white shift dress. Melbourne’s Sun News-Pictorial screeched: ‘There she was, the world’s highest-paid fashion model, snubbing the iron-clad conventions of fashionable Flemington with a dress five inches above the knee, NO hat, NO gloves and NO stockings!’
Rykenberg may have similarly disapproved; he rarely wore anything but a suit, including to the beach.
Below left: Onboard, Wanganella departure, 1961. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1269-E0142-27. Below right: Gangway, Wanganella departure, 1959. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1269-B0110-19
Bunking up with seven men, or bopping with pizza
From 1957 the Italian liner Castel Felice – Happy Castle in English – offered an around-the-world service. It brought government-assisted immigrants to Australia and Aotearoa from Europe, and then returned to the old world for more. Although there was only one class on the ship, and all passengers were in theory equal, levels of satisfaction differed.
Wolfgang Kahran emigrated from Germany to Australia on Castel Felice in 1960, when the ship was 30 years old, and ‘already in the scrap yard... The crew tried their best, but the ship was unsteady. We were eight men in a double cabin. Four-tiered bunks. There were no luxuries for us.’
But another 1965 passenger remembers Castel Felice as having a bella-figura captain, and sweet idiosyncrasies. ‘At midnight in the middle of a frantic dance if you put your hand out you might likely end up with a slice of hot pizza helpfully placed by a passing waiter.’ Passengers were also permitted to hang their washing on the ship’s prow; crew would let female passengers know over the speakers when rain was approaching so they could get the washing in. The SITMAR (Società Italiana Trasporti Marittima) Line ship was retired in 1970.
Below left: Postcard of SS Castel Felice, circa 1959. New Zealand Maritime Museum, 2008.117.2. Below right: Castel Felice departing Waitematā Harbour towed by the tug William C Daldy, 1960. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1269-Z0368-35.
Mrs Aileen Cook boarded Castel Felice at Princes Wharf on 12 May 1959 with about 1299 others. The Italian SITMAR liner was bound for Bremerhaven in Germany, via Singapore, Naples, and Southampton. Aileen left behind the attentive and possibly anxious Bill. He sent these three telegrams to Castel Felice, before the ship even left New Zealand waters.
His first telegram, sent at 8.30am, simply said 'Bon Voyage Good Trip Be Good, Love Bill'. The second, sent at 6.50pm, read 'Look after yourself chin up it won't be long Love Bill'. The third, sent at 7.20pm, said 'Hope good trip enjoy yourself Love Bill'.
Aileen kept the telegrams and other souvenirs from her trip, which are now in the collection of the Auckland Maritime Museum.
Below left: Telegram One: received aboard Castel Felice, Auckland, 12 May 1959, at 8.30am. New Zealand Maritime Museum, 2008.117.2. Below right: Telegram Three: received aboard Castel Felice, Wellington, 16 May 1959, at 7.20pm.
When the carnival is over
There was a moment during the farewell rituals on Princes Wharf when melancholy came calling. On rare occasions Wendie Wright (then Wendie Jones), who worked at Rykenberg Photography, covered her boss’s beat and witnessed the scenes.
Things changed when the ships’ departure was imminent. People who had gone onboard to scope the quarters sometimes lost it when ‘All Visitors Ashore’ sounded over the speakers. Then a band struck up the tear-jerker Pō Atarau (Now is the Hour). Streamers lobbed by passengers at the whanāu below snapped like so many fragile strings of the heart as the ships eased into the Waitematā. It was hard on mothers, remembers Wendie Wright—they were saying goodbye to adult children, sometimes not knowing when or if they would see them again.
For John Rykenberg, his much-loved gig on the wharf ended in the early 1960s. That was when the Auckland Harbour Board hiked the fee for Rykenberg Photography to do business there. The photographer’s exit coincided with another fatal development. Swifter long-range air travel arrived. The ships featured here—SS Arcadia, SS Castel Felice, SS Mariposa, MS Rangitane II, RMS Rangitata, MV Tofua II and TSMV Wanganella were in their dying days. Wanganella was withdrawn from the trans-Tasman route in 1962, the same year Rangitata was scrapped. Auckland’s international airport opened in 1966, and the newly formed Air New Zealand acquired three DC8 jet aircraft for a trans-Pacific service. The New Zealand Shipping Company halted its service to and from Britain in 1968, retiring Rangitane. The Pacific Island-hopping Tofua II didn’t survive much longer. Launched in 1951, it was the last passenger-cargo liner built for New Zealand’s Union Steam Ship Company.
Below left: Rangitata departure, 1959. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1269-B0128-26. Below right: Tofua II departure, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1269_B0115_2.
The commercial photographer John Rykenberg (1927-2014) liked the farewells on the Auckland waterfront, and not just because many prospective customers were conveniently massed in one spot. He may have identified with the emotional scenes, for he had experience of being left and leaving.
He grew up in the Netherlands city of Woerden, where his parents had a drapery shop. When the German occupation of his country commenced in 1940 he was 13. Most of his Jewish schoolmates went away and never came back.
After a stint in the Dutch army, he emigrated to New Zealand in 1952. He pressed suits for the Cambridge Clothing Company in New Lynn and built state houses in Tāmaki. By 1958 his hobby of photography had become a livelihood. He memorialised people on Princes Wharf, but also in restaurants, clubs, and halls. For a while he took candid shots of people on Queen Street.
His business grew to include commissions and weddings and passport mugshots. By 1961 Rykenberg Photography was quartered at 28 Swanson St/44 Albert St in the central city. The unassuming and courteous Rykenberg rarely left home without a camera. If he was working—and he usually was—he could talk to anyone. Cameraless, he was socially awkward. When he took the family back to Woerden he (and they) would nip to Germany, to the Voightlander factory for cameras and lenses and to the Agfa factory for film and paper. He put down his Leica 35mm for good in 2009, aged 82. ‘We just about had to force it out of his hands with a crowbar,’ says Wendie Wright.
Her ex-husband, she adds, ‘was photography’.
Below: Wendie Jones (now Wright), John Rykenberg, John Thompson, Joy Jones, Rykenberg Photography premises 28 Swanson St/44 Albert Street, 1963. The occasion was Wendie and John Rykenberg’s engagement party. John Thompson worked for Rykenberg, and Joy Jones was Wendie’s mother. Photographer unknown. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, OH-1285.
Nearly all of John Rykenberg’s photographs displayed here and in the exhibition at Britomart feature unidentified people. Recognise anyone? We’d love to let them or their whanāu know about the images, and hear their voyaging stories. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Our thanks to Wendie Wright and the Rykenberg family, who gifted 1.6 million images from Rykenberg Photography (dated 1958-2006) to Auckland Libraries. Thanks also to those named in the photographs. The Rykenberg collection is held in Auckland Library’s heritage collection.
Bon Voyage Good Trip Be Good is on display in Britomart's Atrium on Takutai and on the exteriors of the Pavilions in Te Ara Tahuhu from December 1 2022 to January 23 2023.
If you'd like to learn more, curator Frances Walsh and Britomart's Jeremy Hansen speak to Auckland Libraries' Sue Berman about the exhibition on this podcast.
Below left: Wanganella. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1269_E0144_32 Below right: Onboard Wanganella, 1960. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1269-B0715-16