German raiders, Wellington Hospital and a Waikato explosion: The search for Sydney Lloyd

Credit: Original article can be found here

The story starts with two letters unearthed in a family trunk. One referred to the repatriation to England of a prisoner of war, Sydney Lloyd.

The other contained a further clue: “name Sidney Claude Lloyd, Seaman, Wairuna, not soldier.”

The first, a response from the High Commissioner’s Office in London to a request from Sydney’s brother in New Zealand, suggested active service during the First World War and, as intriguing as it was to Hamilton man David Lloyd, led him nowhere.

The second, however, set him on the SS Wairuna trail in search of the story of a great-uncle who had all but vanished from the family annals.

The trail led him to the dramatic story of the interception of a merchant vessel by a lurking German raider. It led him to the grim conditions of prisoner of war camps in Germany. It led him to Wellington Hospital where Sydney was to die of cardiac failure. And it led him to a tragic explosion on a west coast Waikato beach.

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The SS Wairuna set sail from Auckland on May 31, 1917, heading for England via San Francisco and carrying wool, hides, copra and flax, along with food provisions including live sheep and 1150 tons of coal.

Among the crew of 42 was able seaman Sydney Lloyd who, like his shipmates, could have had no inkling of immediate danger ahead. Three days out, however, the ship made the fatal mistake of sailing close to the German converted freighter, the SMS Wolf, which was anchored at Raoul Island in the Kermadecs.

The mayhem began. The Wolf’s captain, Karl Nerger, sent its seaplane, the Wolfchen, to drop a sandbag with a note attached requesting the Wairuna not to use its wireless but to head to the Wolf. For good measure, it dropped a warning bomb into the water ahead of Wairuna’s bows.

“And the SS Wairuna fell victim to the Wolf,” Lloyd says.

“Their boat was raided, and it was very much appreciated by the Germans because they had already been at sea for six months and here was live sheep, fresh produce.”

Here also was invaluable coal. The crew were taken prisoner, joining those already captured from earlier raids as the Wolf, a disguised commerce-raider, continued its grim mine-laying and marauding mission to disrupt shipping lines in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Once the SS Wairuna had been cleaned out, it was sunk. The captives were to endure nine months in wretched conditions at sea, with more and more added to their number, swelling ultimately to about 400 before landfall in Germany in February 1918. Sydney Lloyd would then be interned for the remainder of the war at Gustrow and Parchim prison camps.

David Lloyd’s quest to uncover the long-forgotten story of his great-uncle Sydney's wartime experience started with finding two letters in a family trunk.


David Lloyd’s quest to uncover the long-forgotten story of his great-uncle Sydney’s wartime experience started with finding two letters in a family trunk.

But the Wairuna crew’s voyage on the Wolf started with a return to New Zealand. The vessel sailed southwest to become what is thought to be the only ship to launch a direct attack on New Zealand during the First World War, laying 25 mines north of Cape Reinga and then 35 at Farewell Spit before sailing off undetected to Australia. In 1918, David Lloyd says, a passenger ship from Australia, the Wimmera, struck one of the northern mines with the loss of 26 lives. At Farewell Spit, the Port Kembla also hit a mine, but with no loss of life.

And in a sequel in April 1919, a huge explosion on a beach near Raglan was reported in newspaper accounts that complete the story of the Wolf’s destructive impact on New Zealand.

On April 23, 1919, The Auckland Star reported that an explosion at Waikouria Creek, north of Raglan, had claimed the lives of three men and the horses they were riding. It said the three were heading south from Pukewera to a gathering at Karaka, near Raglan.

“They evidently reached the mouth of the Waikouria Creek about 9.30am on Tuesday. About that time, as stated in yesterday’s telegram, a terrific explosion was heard by Mr Michael Ryan, a farmer, who on reaching the beach found the fragments of three human bodies, scattered in all directions. The horses were also blown to pieces.”

The fragments of what was thought to be a mine were found, and there was a crater in the beach. It is believed to be a mine from Farewell Spit that had come loose and drifted up the coast before beaching.

“That was on PapersPast,” Lloyd says, “and if it hadn’t been, that story would have probably been lost.

“Unfortunately I think it is a story that hasn’t been brought to the attention of New Zealanders.”

Lloyd possesses two books that cover the Wolf’s epic voyage. One is The Cruise of the Raider Wolf, an eyewitness record by Roy Alexander, the Wairua’s wireless operator. The other is The Wolf, an award-winning book published in Australia in 2009. As invaluable as those have been for Lloyd, to get closer to his own family history he has cast the net far wider.

Lloyd is a rangy and energetic character with an extraordinary array of modern art on the walls of his home. A supporter of working artists, he is also an artist in his own right, and, in a varied career, founded David’s Emporium. Well into his 70s, he appears almost completely undimmed by time apart from the occasional moment when a name or detail escapes him.

When the chase is afoot, you sense he will be deterred by nothing, and there is a remarkable completeness about his research into his great-uncle.

A copy of an artist’s illustration of the seaplane’s attack on SS Wairuna, part of David Lloyd’s extensive dossier of research material into his great-uncle Sydney Lloyd.


A copy of an artist’s illustration of the seaplane’s attack on SS Wairuna, part of David Lloyd’s extensive dossier of research material into his great-uncle Sydney Lloyd.

It’s impossible not to be caught up in the hunt when leafing through his dossier of printouts that weighs in at 1.8kg. It includes numerous emails, searches in Papers Past, information provided by fellow researchers, copies of official missives from the War Office, and prisoner of war accounts from the other side of the world. The Union Steam Ship Company of NZ, for example, supplied to the Board of Trade in London a Wairuna crew list of those interned in German prison camps. It includes the name Lloyd, though with a different initial, underlining the difficulty of his descendant’s search.

That search has helped shed light on the circumstances of Sydney’s imprisonment once on land. At Gustrow, he may have been among prisoners used as forced labour on repairs to railway lines.

As for Sydney (sometimes spelled Sidney, points out Lloyd, who wonders if he may have been illiterate or at least semi-literate), there was no family memory to build on. Nor were there surviving letters from him, while mentions of him in other family correspondence were brief. Lloyd knew the story of his grandfather Edgar Lloyd, which included coming out on the SS Turakina, but of Edgar’s brother almost nothing.

The paper trail is unclear on whether Edgar was ever reunited with his brother after the war.

“Grandmother Lloyd was the last one of her generation to die in 1965; he (Sydney) had never been spoken of to my memory. I have an older sister, and she has no knowledge of it. And partly, I think because Sydney could have been the black sheep, I think he might have stuck to himself.”

Now, however, there are some dates and facts to attach to this enigmatic will-o’-the-wisp, along with David Lloyd’s deductions.

Sydney Claude Lloyd was born January 14, 1891, in Warrington, England. He first arrived in New Zealand around 1911 in the footsteps of his older brother Edgar, and Lloyd has found reference to him working as a fish merchant living in Levin and also found a reference to him on a World War I army reserve roll in Wellington. All this before he set sail on his fateful journey.

He was to spend eight or nine months in prison camps before repatriating to England at the end of the war. Then, in an extraordinary twist, in February 1919 he signed up on an ex-German steamer which had been captured by the British, and eventually sold to the Union Steamship Co, which renamed it SS Wairua. It sailed to New Zealand on April 18, about the time the mine exploded at Waikouria Creek. Sydney returned to New Zealand on a ship bearing exactly the same name he had left on two years earlier, arriving back in August 1919.

David Lloyd has an array of photos showing the SMS Wolf’s capture of the SS Wairuna and conditions on board for the captives.


David Lloyd has an array of photos showing the SMS Wolf’s capture of the SS Wairuna and conditions on board for the captives.

Lloyd thinks the atrocious conditions in which Sydney spent his final war months may have taken a toll that contributed to his early death. He survived the war by a mere three years. The story ends with a death notice in Wellington’s Evening Post that said he died on December 26, 1922. He was three weeks shy of his 31st birthday.

But the point of the story, for Lloyd, is that it has not ended.

It lives on because of his pursuit. “I don’t know that a future generation would have picked it up. I tell people of my age that I think one of life’s imperatives is to put down family history to pass it on to future generations.”

Without Lloyd’s dogged research, Sydney Lloyd’s story would have disappeared forever. Sometimes, though, the pursuit of family history is a simpler process, concerned with making connections for their own sake.

Those connections can be made with and for people on the other side of the world. Christine Barbour, convenor of the Hamilton branch of the NZ Society of Genealogists, has done just that for the Scottish side of her family.

Via a circuitous route that involved posting on Facebook pages with a piece of information, she was eventually contacted by a distant relation from Scotland’s far north.

Barbour later met the woman during a visit to the Isle of Skye. The mutual ancestor had had three partners, all named Mary; Barbour was descended from the first Mary, and her new-found relative was descended from the third.

“She had been searching for her grandfather on the Isle of Skye for 30 years. And when I connected with her, I could say, ‘but I know your grandfather, I know where he is. I know where he’s buried.’ So all of a sudden, I could put it together [for her].”

That is the power of painstaking research, and is just one of many of Barbour’s examples. She got the bug as a youngster, listening to family stories and has pursued it ever since, building up a detailed and many-branched family tree.

“I have an exciting life. I’m a detective of the best kind. I just love it,” she says.

“Really, it’s a virus that we have that, you know, we can’t resist a good hunt.”

It is also, says fellow branch member Colleen Osmond, about building a picture of a person. “It’s not just about names and dates, it’s finding out about who they are and the lives they led.”

Expertise helps. It can start with a name or an anecdote, it can continue with phone calls to relatives, with scouring public records like births, deaths and marriages, or shipping records. It can lead you to a long-lost relative, or a skeleton in a cupboard, or the chance to complete a branch of the family tree.

Trish Macky edited a rich trove of family letters to produce The Darlimurla Letters.

Christel Yardley/Stuff

Trish Macky edited a rich trove of family letters to produce The Darlimurla Letters.

Painstaking detective work is at the core of the genealogists’ craft, but sometimes when it comes to family history, the source material is there already.

Like Lloyd, Waikato family historian Trish Macky has told the story of forebears’ dramatic – and tragic – World War I experience at sea.

In her case, however, she had a trove of transcribed letters to start with, and a story that was the stuff of family legend.

Her great-grandfather Joe Macky and his second wife Mary sailed from New York in the Lusitania, bound for Liverpool and a reunion with their daughter and her family following a business trip to the US. They, along with 1193 other passengers, never made landfall after the Lusitania was torpedoed off the Irish coast by a German U boat on May 7, 1915, just hours from its destination. The Lusitania was the first civilian target of the war, and the Mackys were the only New Zealanders who died – going down together after Joe helped free a jammed lifeboat’s rope and Mary declined the chance to leave his side.

Fortunately for posterity, the Mackys were prolific letter writers, and a descendant, Trish Macky’s aunt Helen Kominik, performed sterling duty in transcribing them. “They used to write on every little bit of the paper, both sides,” Macky says. “They’d apologise for a short letter, and it would be three or four thousand words.”

Macky then played her part, inspired by hearing a radio interview with Matt Elliott, creator of a graphic book, Nice Day For a War, based on his grandfather’s war diary.

“I had a little epiphany, and I thought, oh, we’ve got this story, and it would be really good to get it out there.”

A replica of a German propaganda medal marking the sinking of the Lusitania, gifted to Trish Macky.

Christel Yardley/Waikato Times

A replica of a German propaganda medal marking the sinking of the Lusitania, gifted to Trish Macky.

She set about editing the two volume collection for sense and accessibility. It became a Masters project at Wintec, and bore fruit in a book called The Darlimurla Letters, named for the family homestead above Cheltenham beach, Devonport.

The bulk of the letters come from a two-year period around 1900 when Trish Macky’s grandfather Tom was in London, and his parents wrote to him, describing daily life in Auckland.

But the book also traverses a much wider time period, and one letter, written by six-year-old Tom, stands out. Joe’s first wife, Bella, who was Tom’s mother, died soon after giving birth to the couple’s fourth child, and on August 10, 1881, Tom wrote to family friend Mary, who was to become his stepmother. In part, he writes: “Dear mother was taken away so fast from us up into heaven to be with Jesus and dear brother Archie and good grandfather Kenny. You know that she is very happy there but I don’t understand it yet.”

The letter is tear stained. As Trish Macky says: “It rips your heart out.”

Also poignantly, the book concludes with a letter written from on board the Lusitania, just before it sailed on May 1. Joe writes: “There is a warning from the German Govt just published here this morning not to travel across the Atlantic, but we think we are safe in this good and fast ship.”

Surprisingly, Macky found little interest from publishers in the rich social history, and printed 200 copies through crowd-funding in 2015. Six years later, the memories spring back, though the book itself no longer looms large for her. It is held in some libraries, and she still has a few copies because her children wanted her to keep some for the next generation. That was always her primary purpose, as it has been for Lloyd with his own family stories.

“My dad had died already. All that generation had gone. So that was one of my main motivators, really, because I love those stories and I think they are interesting and relevant.”

Macky pauses to reflect. She likens the process of piecing together family history to whakapapa, the idea of drawing strength from ancestors.

“I wanted it to go past my generation and be available to the family. And I thought it was an interesting story in the whole context of New Zealand in the First World War.”

Letter in possession of David Lloyd

supplied/Copyright David Lloyd

Letter in possession of David Lloyd

Meanwhile, the indefatigable David Lloyd now has his sights set on future yarns. He has come across a letter to his grandmother, Lilian Lloyd, written in 1919. The writer, addressing Lilian as her “dear niece”, said she was not in good health, and was enclosing a 200 pound bank draft as a gift. She hoped Lilian would use it “to good advantage”.

The following year, the writer died and left behind a far larger sum to her daughter-in-law than the 200 pounds would have suggested – 100,000 pounds, in fact.

“And I’d never heard of her. M A Williams. ‘Your affectionate aunt, M A Williams’.”

That got Lloyd thinking back to a cousin of his father’s who had told him about a Bully Williams, captain of the boat that had brought his great-grandparents to New Zealand in 1881.

“And I thought, ‘Hang on a moment: Bully Williams? M A Williams?”

He discovered M A Williams was Mary Ann Williams, great-aunt of Lilian Lloyd. Bully was Mary Ann’s husband, and he didn’t just skipper the boat, but owned it, along with a fleet called the Black Diamond Line.

The chase is afoot.

So you want to do some digging?

Christine Barbour can’t resist a good hunt.

Tom Lee/Stuff

Christine Barbour can’t resist a good hunt.

The internet has hugely opened up the world of family research beyond old-school microfiche, and DNA testing has opened it further.

But no matter what the advances, Colleen Osmond and Christine Barbour, of the Hamilton branch of the NZ Society of Genealogists, both stress the importance of verifying all information.

Osmond says there are a few big well known websites like, which Hamilton library members can access free for a limited time.

But she prefers because it helps narrow down the search. “The more details you give, the less results it will come up with.”

She also recommends Archway, from the National Archives, which may cough up the likes of land transaction records and wills.

Council records and electoral rolls can also be useful, she says, along with shipping records. Put those together with births, marriages and deaths records and you can start to seriously join some dots. Osmond, for instance, discovered her great-great-grandfather travelled from England to Canada where he met his wife. They had a child before moving to Ireland where they had another child, then back to England. Two further children later, they migrated to New Zealand.

Most records have gone online, Barbour says, though she points out the white pages have lost a lot of value. That still leaves Facebook as an important tool. And of course the phone: “You ring different aunts, cousins, whatever, and get a phone number, and ring them, who can tell you things.”

Occasionally a family member won’t be interested, but most are helpful, she says.

Both women say PapersPast can open up a lot of information. But while births, deaths and marriages have also gone online, they have a limitation, Osmond points out. To find a birth, it will need to be at least 100 years ago, marriage 80 years ago and death 50 years ago. “Anything more recent than those, you still need to use the microfiche.” She has found a lot from using the microfiche records held at Hamilton Central Library.

Genealogy is addictive, says Christine Barbour.

Tom Lee/Stuff

Genealogy is addictive, says Christine Barbour.

Osmond also mentions Legacy Family Tree software, which enables people to build an electronic family tree without having to share it publicly on a website.

Multiple organisations offering a DNA test service, Barbour says. In April this year, using such a service, she discovered a close match, a second cousin once removed. “And I thought, where does she come from, because I had no idea. I tell you, I’ve got thousands of people in my tree, and generally I can tell you where they come from.”

She emailed the woman and discovered she had been born to an extremely young mother and didn’t know her paternal side. “So, of course, there again, I can’t resist it, I found her father eventually. I found that he died 40 years ago of cancer, and he was in my family tree.”

For those wanting to research their family history, members of the Hamilton branch are available to provide assistance on Thursday mornings at the central library.

Be warned, though, should you decide to take your own steps into the genealogical world. “I do 12 hours a day,” Barbour says. “It’s a bit addictive.”

The branch has 112 members, holds regular meetings and will next year mark 50 years.

Barbour says the Hamilton branch is keen to gain new members, while membership of the national society offers access to resources including overseas databases.