Page 1: Biography
Niccol, George Turnbull
Shipbuilder and ship owner
This biography, written by W. A. Laxon, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
George Turnbull Niccol was born in Parnell, Auckland, New Zealand, on 17 August 1858, the son of Sarah McLarty and her husband, the leading Auckland shipbuilder Henry Niccol. Educated in Devonport, George found that his first job, in an office, had little appeal and he soon joined his father in his Devonport shipbuilding yard.
The Niccol yard was versatile, turning out all manner of wooden ships, both sail and steam. George gained extensive experience of all aspects of the shipbuilding trade before taking over control of the yard after his father's death in 1887. Space around the Devonport yard was at a premium, and in order to give himself scope for building larger vessels in 1897 he moved his business across the harbour to Customs Street West, Freemans Bay.
Niccol then began to turn out in ever-increasing numbers and of larger and larger size that craft so distinctive to Auckland shipbuilding, the scow. Earlier, smaller scows were coastal traders, ideal with their flat bottoms for working the shallow tidal harbours of northern New Zealand where they could safely be left to go aground and the cargo worked as the tide ebbed. Niccol was largely responsible for introducing the scow to the longer distance coastal trades and to deep-sea ventures such as shipping timber across the Tasman. Scows such as the Zingara, Korora, Arrah na Pogue and Cead Mile Failte, exceeded 200 tons gross with a length approaching 130 feet, the ultimate development of this highly efficient cargo carrier.
Niccol also made a major contribution to the building of the local steamer fleet, with such vessels as the Northern Steam Ship Company's Hauiti built in 1911, the passenger ferries Pupuke (1909) and Toroa (1925), and all the early vehicular ferries of the Hawk class from The Goshawk (1909) to the Eaglehawk (1926).
From the time of the First World War, few new scows or steamers were built and Niccol concentrated his output on auxiliary-motor driven cargo carriers of shallow draft especially adapted for restricted river ports. Examples of these craft were the Canterbury Steam Shipping Company's Foxton (1929), the Anchor Shipping and Foundry Company's Taupata (1930), and the Northern Steam Ship Company's Toa (1927) and Waka (later Clansman ) (1930). A vessel he built in 1932 on his own account, the Atua, subsequently became the Northern Steam Ship Company's second Waiotahi. She was his last ship, and after 90 years as a family business the yard then closed down, a victim of the depression.
George Niccol had been active as a ship owner as well as a shipbuilder. Apart from temporary ownership of vessels built on speculation to keep his yard busy at slack times, he traded a number of sailing vessels on his own account in the trans-Tasman timber and coal trades and around the coast in the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1912 he took over the Kaipara Steamship Company from its receivers, partly with an eye to employment for his yard and partly to open up a large block of land he had purchased in the Omana district on the upper reaches of the Wairoa River. The result was the building between 1913 and 1915 of the Wairua and Ruawai for the Helensville–Dargaville trade and the upriver steamer Omana. He was also active on the Waitemata Harbour, importing from Britain the excursion steamer Rangitoto in 1924 and the cargo vessel Ranginui in 1936; both were subsequently sold to the Northern Steam Ship Company of which Niccol was a director from 1918 to 1925.
George Niccol had married Ada Beatrice Eastham at Auckland on 9 February 1887. In later years they lived at Remuera, where Niccol died on 28 September 1940, two years after his wife. He was survived by two daughters. His passing marked the end of the golden age of commercial wooden shipbuilding in Auckland.