By Eleisha Fisk, Visitor Services Host
When I first heard that there was a ship buried in the Old Bank Arcade I almost didn’t believe my ears. After all, how on earth does a ship find itself landlocked underneath a major city? After some digging I slowly learnt the origins of this well-known Wellington landmark and I will re-tell it for you.
John Plimmer, nicknamed the ‘Father of Wellington’, was the owner of this ship; however, he was not the first. In fact, this ship started its journey half way around the world in the Bras D’or shipping yards of Nova Scotia. It was originally a three-mast sailing ship known as the barque, Inconstant.
In 1849, only a year after she was built, the Inconstant sailed from Australia to Peru carrying a cargo of tea and animal skins. In need of fresh water she entered Wellingtons harbour to resupply for the rest of her journey across the great Pacific Ocean. However, the Inconstant was fated to never leave Wellington’s infamous harbour, which has claimed many ships both in our recent history and more distant past. The Inconstant hit rocks at Pencarrow head, at the entrance of Wellington harbour. The Royal Navy pitched in and hauled the ship off the rocks at Pencarrow and towed her into the harbour where she was beached at Te Aro.
A ship builder called William McKenzie bought the ship at an auction. Shortly after, he sold it to John Plimmer for ₤80. Once Plimmer took ownership the plan was set to move her to the foreshore in front of Lambton Quay, across from what are now known as Plimmers steps, which conveniently led to his house. In order to get the ship from Te Aro to Lambton Quay empty oil barrels and large casks known as hogsheads were strapped to the ships hulls to re-float her. At high tide, with the help of 40 men and a lot of rope, the Inconstant was dragged along the coast to her final resting place. Many locals who saw the commotion were said to have jumped in to help along the way – one can imagine it would have been quite a sight to see.
Once the ship was in position, the first major changes began. Plimmer had the bilges filled with spoil, levelled the ship by cutting away the upper works of the bow section, and erected a building with a pitched roof on the midsection of the hull. It was this building that would give rise to the ship’s new nickname. That night, across the road in Barrett’s Hotel they celebrated their success and christened the vessel ‘Plimmers Noah’s Ark’ after the well-known Christian story. The lower part of the ship formed a basement and a small bridge provided access from the Ark to Lambton Quay. The ship, or what was left of it, would now serve as a wharf, business offices, immigration, and bonded warehouse.
And it worked well, until the largest earthquake in New Zealand’s history hit Wellington in 1855. The 8.2 magnitude earthquake was so big it lifted the harbour’s foreshore by at least one metre and dislodged the Ark, causing it to tip over. The water surrounding the vessel was now too shallow to act as a jetty where immigrants and cargo could unload. It continued to be used as a warehouse and offices, though, as the years passed the city grew and began to reclaim land from the sea. Eventually the city reached the Ark and she became landlocked. The structure on the old ship that had earnt her the nickname ‘Plimmer’s Ark’ was demolished, her ribs were cut down to ground level, and she was buried as the city gave way to progress.
In 1899 excavations for the new Bank of New Zealand head office uncovered the remainder of the ship and sections of her timbers were turned into three chairs. One of which was given to Alexander Turnbull, and can be found even today in the Turnbull Library. The second was given to the Department of Education, and later gifted to the national museum, Te Papa, where it currently sits in their archives. And the third went to the head office of the Bank of New Zealand where it likely stays until this day. And the remainder you may ask? It was buried once again and would stay that way for almost 100 years.
During renovations to the Old Bank Arcade in the late 1990s, the Inconstant was re-discovered and excavated. Thanks to being buried under the city the timbers of the old ship were preserved from any serious deterioration. A display was set in the bottom of the Old Bank Arcade to house the timbers in their final resting place and this is how it has remained – a hidden surprise under Wellington’s inner city. You can view the timbers, along with other remains, and read further stories there.
It’s curious how we find ways to repurpose pieces of history. I wonder what George Old, the ship’s builder, would think about the fate of his vessel and all the extensive changes it underwent after leaving his hands in 1848. One thing is for sure however, the future of the Inconstant/Plimmer’s Ark looks bright, and remains assured.