Topic: Ernest Marshall Smith

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Ernest Marshall Smith (Service Number R. N. No 1777) enlisted for the First World War with a Peterborough Street address.

Ernest Marshall Smith was born on the 15th of March 1894 in Oamaru to James Marshall Smith and Susan Smith nee Perry. He was the eldest of three children; his brother James Roland was born in 1898 and his sister Nina in 1908.

Ernest's father James was a barman and at the time of his marriage worked at The Empire Hotel in Oamaru. Later, after the family moved to Christchurch, he worked as the assistant manager at the Occidental Hotel on Hereford Street.

The family lived at 202 Peterborough Street, and it was from here that Ernest joined up with the Royal Navy.

The Naval Defence Act had been passed in 1913 creating the New Zealand Naval Forces, part of the British Royal Navy. The British government offered New Zealandits first warship in 1914, HMS Philomel.New Zealand also raised funds to subsidise the British naval presence in the southern hemisphere plus provided some of the crew for HMS Psyche and HMS Pyramus. During the First World War these vessels were part of the Royal Navy but had many New Zealand crewmen.

Ernest served on board HMS Pyramus, a Pelorus Class Cruiser. Launched in 189, the Pyramus had a maximum speed of 20 knots and eight 4 inch guns. Over 60 New Zealanders served on the Pyramus, and in total some five hundred New Zealanders served in the Royal Navy during the First World War. 

HMS Pyramus going alongside at Lyttelton. Image from

In August the Pyramus, under the command of Viscount Kelburn, left for German occupied Samoa. The capture of German Samoa was achieved with efficiency and the Union Jack flag was hoisted over the courthouse at Apia on Sunday 30th of August. The Pyramus then departed for New Zealand escorting the military transporters with their troops and prisoners of war.

Next stop for Ernest and the Pyramus was East Africa, where the German cruiser SMS Könisberg was blockaded. The Pyramus was initially involved in patrolling the river deltas; later in July 1916 when the Könisberg was eventually destroyed, the Pyramus bombarded enemy batteries. 

The Pyramus was on the move again, first for a fit-out in South Africa and then onto Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf. Here the Pyramus undertook standard patrol duties but was also involved in more dangerous action such as defending the Port of Bushehr and a skirmish at Dilwa.

The aging Pyramus needed another refit and was sent to Bombay. The crew was also feeling the effects of two seasons in the Gulf: the intense heat, mosquitoes, flies, monotonous rations and a variety of rashes and boils all took their toll. The New Zealanders were sent on leave for the duration of the fit-out.

In September 1916 seventeen ratings from HMS Pyramus arrived at Lyttelton "Looking fit and well, yet glad of at least a month's respite…from the unnerving and unpleasant atmosphere in which they had lived for so many dreary months". The Pyramus had by this point travelled some 74,000 miles.

After several weeks leave Ernest returned to the Pyramus but in March 1917 the 48 New Zealanders on the crew were transferred to HMS Doris. Doris was an Eclipse Second Class Cruiser with a crew compliment of 450 who’d seen service in Syria and at Gallipoli. With her fresh crew of New Zealanders HMS Doris was sent to the East Indies Station and from there to Mauritius, Freemantle and Yemen.

HMS Doris 2nd Class Cruiser

In 1919, at war’s end, HMS Doris was sold for scrap in Bombay and her Kiwi crew was paid off, arriving back in New Zealand in late February 1919. Ernest was officially discharged on the 7th of April 1919. He had served 4 years and 246 days with the Royal Navy.

During his period at sea Ernest was promoted to Leading Seaman, roughly equivalent in rank to an Army Corporal. For his service he received 1914-1915 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal.

The Electoral Roll of 1919 shows Ernest living back at home with his parents at 202 Peterborough Street, who were no doubt glad to have their son back home and safe- but happiness for the Smith family was short-lived.

Ernest’s father James went missing from their Peterborough Street home on Wednesday 11th of February 1920. His bicycle was found the next day on the Avon river bank at Wainoni and later the same day his body was discovered by a police constable in the Avon. Mr. Smith had recently suffered a bout of influenza and was subject to fainting fits due to a weak heart. The Coroner, Mr. S.E. McCarthy determined that James Smith’s death was “due to drowning self-induced, as a result of depression supervening influenza”. He was 54 years and was buried at Linwood Cemetery.

Worse, unfortunately, was yet to come. Ernest joined up again with the Royal Navy, and he appears to have been out of New Zealand for several years. He was again discharged from the Navy in 1924 and moved to Auckland. On the 5th of May 1925 just before 8pm Ernest was found dead in his boarding house on Queen Street, Auckland. A half-empty bottle of poison was found beside him. The Coroner ruled a verdict of suicide by poison; Ernest had been very short of money and was worried he could not afford to pay his board.

Ernest was buried at Hillsborough Cemetery; his headstone reads “in loving memory of Ernest Marshall Smith died 5th of May 1925 aged 31 years, respected by all.”

Related Resources

Online Cenotaph Record for Ernest Marshall Smith

Ernest Marshall Smith's military personnel file, Archives New Zealand


From the East Press, Volume LII, Issue 15712, 4 October 1916, Page 2

Casualties Press, Volume LVI, Issue 16758, 14 February 1920, Page 8


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Ernest Marshall Smith

First Names:Ernest Marshall
Last Name:Smith
Place of Birth:Oamaru