South African Maritime Museum

John Henry Marsh 1914-1996

The passion of John H Marsh

Heritage spot Published:Feb 10, 2008

Article published in the Cape Times

A treasure trove of maritime history exists at a museum in the Cape, Judy Bryant reports.

Graceful: The Armadale Castle, built in 1903 for the Union-Castle Steamship Company, is one of 19000 photographs in one of the John H Marsh Maritime Collection

Dedication: Journalist and maritime historian John H Marsh with his wife Leona, photographed against New York’s skyline in 1958

Unsunk hero: HMS Howe, one of five King George V-class battleships, visited Cape Town on her way home after the end of hostilities in 1945

Tucked away on the first floor of the old, dusky-pink Union Castle building at Cape Town’s bustling Waterfront, among busy curio shops and busking musicians, is a unique collection of 19000 photographic negatives of 9200 ships that called at the Cape during the 20th century.

Known as the John H Marsh Maritime Collection, this treasure trove of photographs — taken mainly between 1921 and 1953 by journalist, author, publisher and maritime historian John H Marsh — is internationally renowned as a superb maritime resource: Marsh filed meticulous, hand-written notes with nearly every photograph, giving numerous details such as a description of the vessel type, tonnage, launch date and the ship’s final fate.

Many of the well-preserved, black and white photographs of stately liners and smartly uniformed officers reflect a glamorous era when mail ships and passenger travel were in their heyday. Other photographs portray ships camouflaged for war and buttressed with guns: Marsh received special permission from naval authorities to photograph most of the ships that called at Cape Town during the first years of WWII. Many of these vessels later became war casualties and these photographs are their sole surviving records. If the vessel was sunk, Marsh recorded the co-ordinates, the U-Boat that sank it and even the name of the submarine’s captain.

Marsh, who was born in Sea Point and began collecting photographs of ships at the age of nine, was also renowned for bringing the dramatic tale of the Dunedin Star shipwreck off the Namibian coast to a global audience. With the backing of Field Marshall Jan Smuts, he wrote an international bestseller called Skeleton Coast about the 13000 ton British Blue Star liner that was carrying passengers and war munitions to the Middle East when it ran aground in November 1942.

In the book — which has been translated into several languages and has just appeared in its 20th edition — Marsh recounts numerous dramatic events that took place over six weeks until the exhausted survivors and their rescuers finally arrived in Windhoek on Christmas Eve: a rescue tug ran aground before it reached the Dunedin Star and two crew members drowned; a bomber sent from Cape Town with supplies got stuck in loose sand when trying to take off; a second bomber crashed into the sea after dropping off supplies; and road rescue convoys struggled with major vehicle problems while traversing the tortuous route of steep ravines, crusty salt pans and high sand dunes.

“This is the most amazing shipwreck and rescue story that I have come across in my 50 years of reporting about ships, their crews and the sea,” Marsh said in his author’s preface.

Marsh also wrote several other meticulously researched books, such as No Pathway Here, based on his experiences as the sole Press representative on the secret South African expedition to annexe the Prince Edward Islands in 1948.

The Marsh collection includes several hundred shipping reference books dating back to the 1800s, biographies of famous naval and merchant shipping personalities, and comprehensive back and current issues of shipping publications.

Marsh Centre Assistant Peter du Toit, formerly in the Financial Services, now maintains the valuable image and catalogue material. He uses it to answer an average of three to five queries daily from local and international history buffs and researchers, shipping companies and SA port authorities, artists and members of the public. Many want information on shipwrecks, about relatives who travelled on the majestic cruise liners and mailboats, or persons who lost their lives at sea.

He has welcomed visitors from throughout the world, including former British PM Margaret Thatcher; John Bendall, Secretary of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich; and Peter Anderson-Withy, former Falklands War base commander, South Georgia.

John Marsh’s son, David Marsh, MD of Now Media, a travel and trade publishing company set up by his father after Skeleton Coast’s bestseller success, says Marsh was only 14 years old when he began contributing ship photos and articles to local newspapers and magazines. He was a pupil at Sea Point Boys High School when he supplied the Cape Argus with a photo, taken with his Brownie camera, of a ship called the Vestris that sank in the Caribbean after it had left Cape Town. The editor, recognising Marsh’s passion, commissioned him to write a weekly column on famous ships that called at the Cape.

In 1933, aged only 19, the Cape Argus appointed him full-time shipping editor and he worked on the newspaper for 20 years. He not only reported on ships, interviewing the crews for human interest angles on maritime stories, but encouraged campaigns that resulted in the building of Cape Town’s Duncan Dock and its Sturrock Dry Dock.

His job enabled him to travel extensively, starting in 1936 with the record-breaking voyage of the lavender-hulled mailship the Stirling Castle, the biggest Union Castle ship yet built. Transit records were big news then and Marsh organised and carried out the first actuality broadcast at sea for South African listeners.

In 1984 Marsh semi-retired and began cataloguing the John H Marsh Maritime Collection. He vigorously pursued a number of ideas, ranging from making Cape Town a centre for historical ships, to the reintroduction of low-cost sailing cargo ships to help create more jobs. He also established the Ship Information Service which advertised that anyone could ask him any reasonable question about any ship and expect an answer.

David Marsh said at this time his father returned to the scene of the Dunedin Star wreck and also researched the lives of the survivors. He found that many of the crew had signed on to a sister ship, the Melbourne Star, after they had recovered from their ordeal. The Melbourne Star was shortly after torpedoed off Bermuda by a German U- Boat. Only four men survived — and none of them had been in the crew of the Dunedin Star.

With his usual boundless energy, Marsh incorporated his findings into a new edition of the book and threw a party at his Forest Town home so that many of the survivors could meet up for the first time.

Dave Marsh said: “It gives you a measure of the man that he was able to research all these details at a time when the Blue Star line no longer existed; and the SA Naval Forces, Air Force, Army, Police, Railways and Harbours and the Royal Navy had all been involved in independent rescue missions.

“The book was a bestseller not only because it was a very good story, but also because he mentioned so many people. Relatives and acquaintances bought the book to find out about the people they knew.

“It was almost exhausting to be with him because of his positive energy. When he walked, you couldn’t keep up.”

Marsh died in his Johannesburg library in 1996, surrounded by his maritime reference books and photographs. His wife, Leona, continued her husband’s work, and after her death in 2003 the prints, books and records were all donated to Iziko Museums of Cape Town.

Lalou Meltzer, Director of Iziko’s Social History Collections, said: “It was the wish of the late John Marsh that his unique and historic ship image collection be used to encourage young South Africans who may be interested in a maritime career, to further their calling. The Iziko Maritime Centre at the V & A Waterfront is therefore proud to be able to display and manage the collection for the benefit of all who may call.”

A catalogue of the John H Marsh photographs is maintained on the internet, Prints of these original negatives can be ordered online. Enquiries can be e-mailed to

Article on the "Noted maritime photographer and author" published in the Cape Times
Article on the "John Henry Marsh 1914-1996"

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