Understanding the Lanes by Baden Pascoe

Understanding the Lanes by Baden Pascoe

As time drifts on, there is much confusion growing over who actually built some of our older wooden boats. I often skim through Trade-A-Boat or surf the boat section in Trade Me and see these old boats with, Bailey Built, Lane Built, and Miller & Tonnage etc. Often you see boats with the wrong builders name and the broker is at a total loss over the heritage of the boat. I have told one or two of them if they spent a little time on getting their facts correct, they may have more of a chance of selling the boat! However the name is often correct but most of these families had no business relationship with other family members even though they were in the same industry and often the designs varied as well.

Overall Lanes would have to be the most confusing name in the wooden boat building industry in New Zealand. I will endeavor to give you a very brief overview of the history and structure of this amazingly talented family. This subject certainly deserves more words than I can put in this article. I will also add that the history of the maritime side of the Lane family is one of my favourite subjects, thanks to my old friend Arch Fell and the writings of David Ward. Arch was Joe Fells (served time at Lane & Brown and married into the Lane family) son and he was a very meticulous man and a perfect gentleman may I add, who understood the boat building side of things.

I may receive a little flack for making this statement, but the roots of this boat building dynasty dates back earlier than our most popular Auckland based boat builders who are fairly well researched and recorded. To add to this the Lanes and their extended family built the widest range of designs and size in this country.

All this started when William Lane and his wife Mary Ann, Cotswold farmers who arrived in Auckland on 20th August 1860 on the “Persia”. Soon after this they traveled north and settled in the Bay of Islands at Clendon Cove (near Russell) while their house was being built at Kaeo. Most of  the timber and hardware for the house they brought with them.

While at Clendon Cove they became good friends with a man by the name of William Paine Brown who ran a business repairing smaller trading boats. This was the perfect place for their second eldest son Thomas Major Lane to learn the trade of shipwright and boat builder. His older brother Soloway was immediately apprenticed to Sydney based ship owners, W. McArthur & Co as a seaman.

William Paine Brown was a man with the sea in his blood. He came from the southern English port of Deal and was the son of a local pilot and attended a school set up for, only sons of pilots. At the age of 12 he started his apprenticeship as a shipwright & boat builder with his uncle and by the age of 16 he wanted to extend his seafaring abilities, so signed on as crew on the ship “Pusine Hall”. He stayed with this ship for quite a few years after visiting many ports on both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans including Japan. In 1833 he left Deal for the last time, final destination, New Zealand. He arrived in the Bay of Islands in 1836 and to cut a long story short after a lot of crewing problems on the ship, went A.W.O.L into the hills of Kawakawa. After the ship left he then returned to Kororeka (now Russell) where he spent 3 weeks. He described the town as a “hell hole”. He did go back to sea and served on several missionary coastal ships for about three years as first mate. In 1838 when back in “ The Bay” he met William Gardner and formed both a friendship and business partnership. They purchased land at Te Whahapu from Gilbert Mair who had the “Karere” built in 1831. (one of the first boats built in New Zealand, poss first 5)

The two Williams were possibly the first ones to establish a ship and boat building business, as we know it today. Before this most of the boats were built as one off projects on temporary sites. Brown had eight children and amongst these was son William Jnr who was two years younger to apprentice Thomas Major Lane. Things got more intertwined when William Paine’s wife, Catherine died of pneumonia. By his time William was 46 years of age with five smaller children and he needed help. So he married Mary Elizabeth Lane aged 22  sister of Thomas Major Lane.

After T.M Lane finished his apprenticeship he left Browns business and went freelance building,  houses, bridges and boats around the district but set up base in Kaeo in 1868.

The first boat he built there was the 45’ x 12.8 x 5.2 “Sunbeam” and he called on the help of his close friend William Brown Jnr and relations William and Joseph Hare and Thomas Skinner. She was launched in 1870 (reg). This was the very beginning of the famous Lane & Brown name that I think is a major part of the D.N.A. of the boat building industry we have today. Another boat was built near the site of the Kaeo Fish factory (was a dairy factory) and at a later date they took up the site in Totara North where the Lane Timber Mill still stands. Looking  back, I think the strengths of these two families and the business was that they were surround by the very best boat building timber known to man. They ran their own mill and milled the timber exactly how they wished, especially for various parts of shipbuilding. Willie Brown and Thomas Lane simply lived and breathed ship and boat building and as a result of this so did their off spring. Both of these men and their wives were deeply religious and honesty and integrity was a part of every thing they did. At the height of things the building sheds (there were two) had a total floor space of 15,000 square feet, one shed was 140’ x 40’ and the other 120 x 30’. The larger shed and its slipping gear could cater for ships up to 350 tones. The equipment included two vertical, one band and five circular saws. They also had planing, trunelling, moulding and turning machinery, all driven by a portable Marshall semi-portable engine. So it was not hard to see this would have been a state of the art place for young men to learn the trade. The quality of Lane & Brown ships and boats was high and orders came from Australia and the Pacific. Some say this partnership built the greatest tonnage of wooden ships and boats in New Zealand. That is to be researched and debated.

Moving on from here to about 1900, between Willy and Thomas they had eleven boys who all wanted to be in the business. So mutually the business was split. Willy and his sons moved to Te Kopuru near Dargaville and set up W. Brown & Sons, and Thomas stayed put because I think this land was originally balloted to his father when he emmigrated to New Zealand. The name changed to T. M. Lane & Sons Boat building & Saw Milling. Later on an Auckland branch was established in 1909 on the Auckland waterfront and specialised in launch building with a few import agencies like Scripps Marine Engines. This business was run by Major Lane and later on by his son Garth and renamed the “Lane Motorboat Co” in 1927 on the death of Thomas. The business moved to Panmure in the early 1950’s. In 1904 one of the other brothers, Ernie after a stint in North America set up shop in Picton alongside the Rowing club. (were the Eco is now). He was a very versatile builder and built a range of workboats, launches and motor whale chasers right up until his death in 1949. From what I have researched he was possibly the father of our high-speed hard chine workboats.

Marrying into the family was another talented likable young man who was apprenticed to Thomas and Willy, named Joe Fell who eventually married Capt Solloway Lanes daughter, Hannah Laura Lane. They moved to the Hokianga about the same time as the other boys had spread their wings and built many farm launches and the legendary steamer “Traveller” now “Romo” in 1904.

There were other Lane boys who followed in Soloway’s footsteps as master mariners, and bloody good ones at that! Capt Henry Ellis Lane, master of the Tasman record breaker T.S. “ Huia” from 1917-1936. An absolute ace at his job! Then there was Edmund Lane (1896-1971) who grew up in the homeland of the Bay of Islands. He in fact started “The Famous Cream Run”, not A.E. Fuller is thought. There were others as well.

These people left a legacy of beautiful classic launches and work boats that we are now starting to enjoy and cherish. They are built from an irreplaceable material by a set of skills that are almost lost. We have to save and preserve as many as possible for the future. In addition to what we can still see and touch are all the men who started their careers as shipwrights and boat builders who have also carried on the Lane values. For example, names that still ring are, Jack Morgan who started with Ernie, George Curnow was another of Ernie’s boys and he taught many greats like Doug Robb. In Auckland there was many as well, Brian Lane, Ray Pateman who worked  for Lanes for the duration of his whole career, Max Carter and many more fine tradesmen.

And if you think the name Lane has gone for good, think again, there is Richard Lane of Whangarei with his Phoenix boats, in the aluminium workboat market. Richard is son of Picton Boy Dick Lane and Grandson of Ernie. Richard, I bet the old boy has a smile on his face when he looks down over our great boat building nation and your aluminium motor scows. Good on ya mate, keep on training those boys!

Credits: Arch Fell, David Ward, Kaeo Museum,

4 thoughts on “Understanding the Lanes by Baden Pascoe

  1. Thanks for the info. Joe Fell was my great grand father and have been looking for understanding of the Lane boat building legacy.. No wonder i love the looking at the hull lines those beautiful boats) would love to learn more.
    Kevin Hill.


  2. My newly acquired Woollacott “Selena” has a “built by Lanes 1959” brass plaque. I’m trying to trace her complete history if anyone can help


  3. All of Jack’s models are in safe keeping with his son David. (they were all on display at “The Tree to The Sea Day”). Ernie only had one son, Dick who owned the launch Lassie. There is a nice photo of her in John Pascoe’s book. Just getting back to Jack Morgan, yes, he certainly developed Ernie’s boats into the chine work and pleasure boats we have today. Mind you others were big on them as well, Collings and Bell, Leone Warne and even Percy Vos. But, in my mind Jack cut the track to make them acceptable to commercial fishermen. “Avenger” (1970) is one of my favorites. He built some absolute stunners. Both Phil and Jim Carey and McBride took up the batten. My close friend David Jones knew Jack Morgan very well and quotes that Jack was the most likable and honest man . All the locals say the same and the quality of his work was a direct reflection of his person. One of the legends of the industry..


  4. The reply below was posted by ‘CapnJ2ds’ on the USA WoodenBoat Forum- Alan H

    “Have a very vague early childhood memory of Ernie Lane. After he passed the yard was for some time run by his son “Tinker” Lane. (Don’t know his real first name.) Some time later Bob Swanson moved his operation from Blackwood Bay to Lane’s yard.

    My enduring memory of Jack Morgan is of the half-models of whale-chasers that were mounted round the walls of his office. Jack sort of took up developing the ‘chasers where Ernie left off (I think a number of the models were actually those of the Lane-built boats) and you could follow the progression of development round the walls of the office. I occasionally wonder what happened to those models.”


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