A Different Kind of Shell

By Maxine Northam

beachcomber on new lealand beach

I am a treasure hunter. Not a deep sea diver, chest of gold and jewels type of treasure hunter, but more of a rambling beachcomber, picking up interesting things that catch my eye. 

What interests me include a  smooth and frosty piece of wave tumbled sea glass perhaps, or an old Victorian chemist bottle, embossed with the makers name. I seek out pieces of our social history, discarded as rubbish so many years ago  but new and fascinating to me.

One afternoon while beachcombing at low tide in New Zealand, I carefully climbed the rocks around the base of a cliff to reach the skeleton of an ancient Pohutukawa tree. It had toppled from the cliff above many years ago, bringing down with it the long forgotten buried rubbish of the people who lived on the clifftop, before such modern conveniences as a weekly rubbish collection.

Around the gnarled and rotting trunk I found beautiful pieces of broken pottery and glass, their edges smoothed by the decades of ocean tides. I came across a big piece of metal railing, a teapot with its handle missing, and some unidentifiable lumps of rusted steel or iron.

bomb shell found on beach in new zealand

And I found something else—a heavy metal cylinder about eight inches high, rusty and covered in some sort of black gunk, with some small stones stuck to it, but looking like it could be…something interesting.

I picked it up and turned it over—not knowing anything about guns or ammunition, I mused that it was bullet shaped, but why was it so very large? I tucked it in my backpack for further investigation and spent the next  hour searching for treasure with the waves lapping beside me.

Back at home I showed my husband the curious object, he proclaimed it to be a shell casing from some sort of very large gun—unexploded by the look of it! After carrying it around nonchalantly in my backpack for ages, I suddenly viewed this rusted object with great suspicion, and hurriedly texted a friend who knew a lot about such things. He rang me straight away. “Take it outside and put it as far away from the house as you can,” he said, “and call the police.”

explosive team with beach found mortar shell new zealand

I gingerly deposited the now terrifying object at the far end of my driveway, and within the hour a very large unmarked white van arrived with two uniformed young men and a large amount of sophisticated equipment. I had not expected to spend my Friday evening watching the bomb disposal squad (from a safe distance) as they carefully examined and X-rayed my find, trying to determine if it was still live.

Unable to say for sure, they decided to take it away with them and if it turned out to be still live, it would be dispatched on the firing range the following morning. Ever hopeful of keeping my treasure, I asked if I could perhaps have it back if it turned out to be safe.

explosive found on the beach

Midmorning the next day, the two young men returned with my prize. Not only had they emptied the shell casing of its contents, they had cleaned and polished the brass case up for me.

mortar shell found on beach in new zealand

So I am now the proud owner of the shell casing from a QF 1-pounder pom-pom anti-aircraft gun, a type only used up till the end of the First World War and never on any New Zealand naval ships.

How it ended up on my beach remains a mystery. Was it some sort of souvenir belonging to the owners of the house on the cliff? It remains one of  the most interesting and unusual find from my years of coastal adventures.

All photos courtesy of Maxine Northam

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2023 issue.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published