Did Helena Selwood cut the ribbon to launch the steam ship Earnslaw? That is the question we ask here. Some of the grand-children of Helena were very adamant that their parents, as children, were with mother at the time of the launching on 24 February 1912, and that Helena cut the ribbon at the launch. Sadly this generation is no longer with us but I can certainly recall just a few years ago Irene Calder, daughter of Nellie Selwood and grand-daughter of Helena Selwood, describing passionately that her grandmother was there to cut the ribbon at the launch.
It is a question worthy of exploration.
We know that the Earnslaw was assembled in Kingston. We also know that Helena Selwood, assisted by most of her younger children, owned and operated the only hotel and accommodation in Kingston at that time, and that the hotel was the local gathering point for socialisation, partying and drinking.
Let us examine a number of press reports covering the launching of the Earnslaw.
The Lake Wakatip Mail’s edition of Tuesday 27 February 1912 carried this report:
“Launch of the s.s. Earnslaw: A SUCCESSFUL UNDERTAKING. A most important stage in the progress of the new twin screw steamer, s.s. Earnslaw, which is being built at Kingston, was reached on Saturday last when this promising vessel was successfully launched at 1 pm. Although no special ceremony had been arranged, a large number of local residents took advantage of the excursion for the event. Several people also came from Garston and Athol. Among those present were Mr J. Edgar, Mayor of Queenstown, Mr T. Connor, Mayor of Arrowtown, Rev. Father O’Donnell and Dean O’Donnell, besides other representative residents of the district. The Government officials present were: Mr P. McIntosh, Inspecting Engineer, Working Railways, Mr A.J. McCredie, District Engineer, Mr W. Hunter, Locomotive Foreman, and Mr A. McSwan, Officer-in-Charge Lake Wakatipu Service.
“For some days previous the elements had been decidedly unfavourable, but after a shower on Saturday morning, the conditions were perfect, a gentle northerly breeze and a calm lake being all that could be desired. When the visitors arrived at 11 am hammers were still busy but there was a lull in operations when the workmen ceased for lunch -everything was now ready. The men issued from their mid-day meal, blocks and wedges were knocked away and an exclamation upon all sides “She’s away!” and with perfect precision, the s.s. Earnslaw ran down the well-greased slips -an incline of 1-16ths to the foot, and took the water as gracefully as a swan. The deadweight of the launch was 160 tons. Cheers were sent up by those whose privilege it was to be aboard what is probably the largest steamship ever launched in the Dominion, and these expressions of joy as the successful culmination of their efforts were echoed by the workmen ashore. The Ben Lomond was quickly in attendance upon the new steamer to tow her to her moorings, and as the two vessels came in side by side, the vast difference was apparent.”
The article then went on to describe in detail the features of the vessel and it’s fitting out. The article concluded:
“The Earnslaw now lies alongside the Kingston jetty where the construction will be pushed on with all speed. The work of laying the decks is now under way and the boilers will shortly be put into position.”
The Southland Times, Tuesday 27 February 1912:
“THE LAUNCHING OF THE EARNSLAW: (Athol Correspondent) Owing to the uncertainty of the weather but few journeyed up to Kingston to witness the launching of the Government steamer for lake Wakatipu, the ‘Earnslaw’. She looked quite big when high and dry out of the water, as she then appeared without masts, engines or internal fixings, in her first coats of priming. Upon the arrival of the train the last bond that held the vessel on land was severed. Then slowly and amongst continuous cheering from onlookers and about thirty boat hands aboard, she made her way to her new home and career on the placid lake, which she entered without a splash, so true was the planking laid. Once out in the water she was taken in tow by the Ben Lomond to the jetty. She drew about 1ft. 9inches of water. Mr McGregor and his hands deserve to be heartily complimented on their punctual and manifestly good work. After the engines, &c., are put in, and she is completed in all respects, a big ceremony and official gathering and trial trip will be taken. Then we will furnish full particulars of this, the biggest boat so close to the bounds of Southland.”
Otago Witness, 28 February 1912:
“The new steamer Earnslaw was launched at Kingston on Saturday. An excursion was run from Queenstown, but there was no ceremony. The launch was most successful, the steamer gliding into the water without a hitch.”
So we can conclude that there was no official ceremony and that there is no hard evidence that there was any ribbon cutting ceremony. But I would think it highly probable that Helena Selwood and some of her children were there to witness the launch. We know that eldest son Henry worked on assembling the boat. Helena, as the “mine host” of the Lake Wakatipu Hotel would certainly have been there to help all the visitors celebrate the launching of the Earnslaw in the best way possible.