Key Prize of War - WW1 in WA
Key ‘Prize of War’
Anzac Centenary commemorations have been the impetus for Archivists at the SRO to examine the State Archives Collection for First World War stories. One of the stories about WA's official 'War' file has already been presented in an online exhibition called “Tipsified Germany Glyphic” - revealing the actions and responses of government, administrators and the community to the comencement of the First World War a century ago.
Recently, a fascinating collection of legal records have been found documenting the seizure of three German ships – ‘Neumunster’, ‘Thuringen’ and ‘Greifswald’ - off the WA coast at the start of the war. These ‘Maritime Prize Court’ files (series938, cons4230, items 1-3) are Supreme Court of Western Australia records, in the court’s capacity as a Colonial Court of Admiralty, and were deposited in the State Archives in 1991. The court cases for the three ships are also detailed in ‘Minutes - Maritime Prize Court’ (series939, cons4335, item 1).
In 1914, upon declaration of war, enemy vessels and cargo which were captured in port or at sea were processed through the courts of the captor's country. A "Prize Court" was especially constituted for this purpose, deciding questions of maritime capture in time of war according to international law. This court decided whether the capture was lawful, the ownership of the vessel, whether the cargo was "neutral" or "enemy" and what should be done with it. The archived files in the SRO contain relevant Prize Court documents as well as seized ships records, such as ships certificates, log books, bills of health, sailing and arrival codes, port clearance papers, manifests, etc.
For the Thuringen a key from the ship is also retained as an archive. In one of the Prize Court depositions the circumstances of the taking of the Thuringen are described. Lieutenant Dalglish of the HMAS Pioneer is recorded as saying that when they boarded “I was received by the third officer, and was taken up to the bridge where the captain was. I informed him the ship was a prize and he asked why. I informed him that war was declared between Great Britain and Germany … I then went down to his cabin and he produced all his confidential books, which I locked up in a safe. Then pay master Ramsay came in, and we examined them together …”. This evidence indicates that the key could well be for the ship's safe.
The seizure of these ships and subsequent Prize Court adjudication were covered in the newspapers in 1914 and 1915. The Norddeutsher Lloyd ship Greifswald arrived in Fremantle Harbour the day war was declared and was detained by naval authorities. The liner Neumunster was captured off Fremantle on 16 August 1914. ‘The West Australian’ newspaper reported that the Norddeutscher Lloyd steamer Thuringen was seized off Rottnest on 27 August 1914. 
For weeks these ships sat in Fremantle Harbour, their cargo off loaded and crews interned at Rottnest while Prize Court proceedings ensued. On 8 October 1914 ‘The West Australian’ reported that Acting Chief Justice Burnside granted an application made by the Crown to hand over the ships to the Admiralty and also handing the cargoes to the Crown for delivery to consignees.
On 23 December under the headlines
“THE PREMANTLE CAPTURES. NEUMUNSTER AND THURINGEN CONDEMNED. APPEAL TO PRIVY COUNCIL PENDING.”
‘The West Australian’ reported that Mr. Justice Burnside had “delivered his reserved decisions with respect to the applications made by the Crown for the condemnation of the German ships Neumunster and Thuringen.” Furthermore “leave was granted to the defendants to appeal in the Privy Council, and all questions other than costs, were deferred till the issue of that appeal”.
In June 1915 word came that the appeals “would not be persisted in” and the ships became crown property. The Thuringen was renamed the Moorina and was leased to the Indian Government. This ship, carrying Indian troops, was torpedoed by German submarines in the Mediterranean on 10 November 1915. The Neumunster renamed Cooee remained in service in Australia until 1926 when it was sold to a Finnish shipping company. The Greifswald was renamed Carina in 1915 and was engaged by the navy to transport cargo to and from Europe during the First World War.
The crews of these merchant ships remained interned on Rottnest until late 1915 when they were transferred to Holsworthy Internment Camp in New South Wales, most remaining there until the end of the war.