NZ Cemeteries Heritage Week: The shipwreck cemeteries


Good morning everybody, I’m really pleased to be here to share with you one of our really interesting shipwrecks the greatest civilian or the most terrible civilian disaster on our series of far flung resting places I’m talking about shipwreck cemeteries This is the S.S. Tararua and the actual cemetery’s called the Tararua Acre you get a little bit of a glimpse of the picture here that it’s really quite a desolate place If we can have the next slide this will actually show you whereabouts it is in New Zealand the first slide which shows the bottom of the South Island and then it’s really on this little point here that this incident occurred on a reef The sad part as you’ll see when I tell you a little bit more about the story is that this incident was actually preventable and it was really sad that people just didn’t follow the rules The next slide shows us the ship This is a picture of the S.S. Tararua this was from obviously before it was wrecked in the New Zealand Herald on 14 July and the next one is a photo just showing a picture of the wreck now how they got that I have no idea and whether it was somebody who just drew it or whatever but that’s purported to be the Tararua So let’s have a look at actually what happened The Tararua was an intercolonial passenger steamer of some 828 tons now that doesn’t mean anything to me I’m not sure what an 828 ton ship should looks like but you saw the picture before and it was sailing from Port Chalmers in Dunedin and left on 28 April and it was en route to Melbourne via Bluff so it had to go round the bottom of the South Island on the way to Hobart and the Captain actually thought that they had cleared the southernmost point which was not correct And at 5am he struck this reef and the reef goes quite a long way out into the sea so as you’ll hear a little later on at the inquest it was not only the Captain who obviously didn’t really understand where he was but also the able seaman on lookout who didn’t actually watch carefully what he was doing After the ship was wrecked they had a lifeboat that was taking a volunteer – one of the seaman who could swim well to go to the shore and raise the alarm and he raised the alarm at a local farm house and the guy from the farm then rode 56km to Wyndam to send a telegraph imagine it to send a telegraph to say that the ship was in trouble and when you actually read on Papers Past and some other sites it’s just disastrous because the telegraph went but it didn’t have ‘Urgent’ on it so people didn’t know that this was a really serious situation and when it went it also gave an indication that all the passengers were ok so that there were messages going backwards and forwards and saying that things were all right when they obviously weren’t so people didn’t come fast enough to help The boat took some 20 hours to sink so just imagine men, women, children, the crew, in a rough sea, you can just see it and the waves, the rocks and they could hear the waves pounding on the rocks and no one coming to help them many of them couldn’t swim the lifeboats – there were not sufficient, lifeboats and people just, even if they could have put the lifeboats out it would have been difficult to get people on because this was in the dark and so while attempts were made to get them off the rising sea was just, it just really was too difficult for them. So what happened, 151 people died of those, 104 were passengers and 27 crew 78 men, 12 women, 14 children and only 20 from the whole boat were saved and apparently people around could hear the last cries of people just saying ‘Help me!’ and ‘Save my child!’ all those sorts of things that you can imagine and only one man actually managed to swim that was the volunteer that went to the farm to raise the alarm to actually go from the ship to shore and for days afterwards bodies were swept ashore and identification of some of those bodies was impossible and just a bit like Tangiwai which we are going to talk about this afternoon you got not only the bodies, but you got some of their belongings so you got suitcases, clothes, toys, and if you can just picture what that scene must have been So we then had a court of inquiry The court of inquiry findings were that it was primarily caused by the captain failing to establish his correct position at 4am a bit difficult to do in the dark and going round rocks and things and the seaman was also blamed for not keeping a proper lookout what fascinated me was that the court recommended that steamers should carry enough lifebelts for all their passengers because there were only twelve on the Tararua for all those passengers and crew and that a lighthouse should be built at the Point to light up the area so boats could actually be warned that here are the rocks and here is the place to go So we’ve then got the picture now of the lighthouse this was built after the catastrophe catastrophe happened in 1881 the lighthouse is built by 1884 and is a very poignant reminder of this tragedy people can get foot access to the cemetery at the present time the Tararua Acre and it’s signposted from the Waipapa Point lighthouse. The next one shows you that there is a walk and you can see the signpost up there and that walk is actually listed on New Zealand walking routes which is quite interesting and it takes 15 minutes so it’s one of those things most of us could handle not like two hours or three hours The walk gives you the location by the lighthouse and Waipapa Point and it’s across private property – and I thought this was interesting – that it’s closed during lambing so from the first of September to the first of November you can’t go across because we don’t want you to disturb the sheep and also that you could find sea lions among the dunes and if you go on to any site and just put up Tararua wreck you’ll see pictures of sea lions on the shore and things like that and there’s beautiful tussock grasses so it’s really quite an attractive area and it says ‘Would you please keep 15m away from the sea lions’ I think I’d be quite a bit more than 15m away from sea lions, but there you go And the information on the walk also says that it’s inaccessible to wheelchairs so that it’s actually a bit of a winding, uphill walk The next slide tells you about the cemetery itself it’s almost opposite the site of the wreck and it was made into a cemetery for 55 of the dead Some who could be recognised and whose family wished them to be buried other places as always happens with any disaster you might have a place with all the unidentified people are or you might have a place where some people feel I want that to be there at that place because that’s where it happened but others say I want to bring them home so they are buried in other places as well and Fortrose Cemetery about 10km away is where several of the other people are buried The next picture shows the Tararua Acre It shows you now the three gravestones that are there and a memorial plinth that is there today In our cemetery books where all of these are transcribed there is a page which has actually been transcribed to tell us about those three plinths that still are there, and that’s on the collection The actual plinth itself says “The S.S. Tararua, in memory of the 104 passengers 78 men and women, 14 children, and 27 members of the crew who lost their lives in the wreck of the S.S. Tararua at Waipapa on the 29th of April, 1881” So that’s the story of the S.S. Tararua and as you know from many things you get the information, you get something that’s online, you get something that’s in a cemetery book and then of course there are other references that you could see There is a really interesting book which is called New Zealand Disasters by Eugene Grayland and there are quite a few pages of the S.S. Tararua in that and then there is a book by Joan MacIntosh, The Wreck of the S.S. Tararua so one of the things that people forget is that you find a little bit of information and then you don’t go further to look at either the local press on Papers Past or some other paper that you might find or the books that actually are written about a particular disaster so don’t forget when you go online and you find information to just look a little further because here’s a whole book about the people, about their stories and it’s really quite interesting reading so thank you Now Michael, you can tell us all about the Orpheus shipwreck 1863. Good morning, thank you, thank you Nicholas and obviously thank you to coming back here again it’s always a pleasure to be here to talk about naval history or military history I should say too as well Obviously it is quite an important week for the Royal New Zealand Navy Obviously today is the Napier earthquake where the sloop Veronica was present when I left the base this morning to come over here we had a hundred men colour guard, getting prepared for Waitangi Day so they doing all the training that they’ve been doing for about a week now, getting ready for that and it’s 175th, again, there is Royal Navy involvement and of course the Orpheus, and I was very privileged a couple of years ago to be able to talk about it for the 150th commemoration there was a number of events held around the Manukau harbour and was actually interesting also meeting descendants of the people So it is the worse maritime and naval disaster in New Zealand’s history The Orpheus was a flagship of the Australian station and she was lost on 7 February 1863, at the Manukau bar Governor Grey in a dispatch to the colonial office in London described the tragedy as melancholy and lamentable and 152 years on, one still wonders how a ship of the worlds’ most powerful Navy was lost on that day What kind of ship was she? She was built as a Jason-class wooden screw corvette one of the six that were built for the Royal Navy she was laid down in 1858, launched in June of 1860 completed and commissioned into the Royal Navy in October of 1861 – she was brand new so this is brand new technology as well She’d just placed 2,400 tons, was 68.5m in length and had a draft of 5.79m most importantly she had four coal fired boilers that powered her steam engine at a maximum speed of 11 knots Her telescope funnel could be raised or lowered, and the screw could be raised as well and this allowed her to use sails and save on coal And as common as you can see, she carried a full set of rigging We tend to talk about these ships in naval history as a transitional ship much like the Tararua carrying a full set of sails but also using a coal fired engine She was armed with 20 eight-inch smooth bore muzzle loading guns weighing about nine tons each that fired an 80kg shell She had 10 of those port and starboard fixed in position and another two 110 pounder Armstrong breech loaders that could be pivoted This gives you a bit more of a plan To man and sail this ship required 240
officers and ratings although on this voyage her complement was 259 She was specifically designed to be used on the Australian Station She had a brief deployment to North America before she arrived on Sydney on 20 March 1862 In early 1863, the colony of New Zealand was asking for naval support. The Colonial Office did meet some requests, especially where there seemed little harm in doing so if only to assuage Governor Grey who was seen to be most bothersome in London One such occasion would be to send the Commodore of the Australian Station to New Zealand, thus Orpheus was sent She left Sydney on 31 January 1863 under the command of the Commodore, William Burnett He was ordered to consult with Governor Grey about the situation in the Waikato Although she was supposed to arrive in Auckland in the Waitematā decision was made by Burnett during the voyage to join the warships Niger and Harrier in the Manukau Harbour and possibly look at the Waikato River After a pleasant cruise across the Tasman, the west coast of New Zealand was sighted just before 7am on Saturday morning, 7 February, when she approached the Manukau Harbour This gives you the idea of the guns as you can see big hunks of metal As she approached, the signal station ordered the ship to go north and enter the channel but she didn’t respond, and in fact passed the entrance to the surprise of the signal station that was because Commodore Burnett had not visited Manukau before and the navigator aboard was relying on a chart from 1853 that had the passage marked 1km southward of its current location and as we know, bars move Frederick Butler, a rating aboard the ship, and he was aboard that ship in the brig for desertion from Harrier in Sydney he knew the ship was in the wrong place because he had crossed the bar before The real tragedy I think is that the knowledge that the passage had moved northwards was known to the Royal Navy in 1861 That was because HMS Miranda had been in New Zealand, visited the Manukau Harbour and communicated the updated information to the previous commodore of the Australia Station The 1853 chart’s directions for crossing the bar noted “will lead over shallow and dangerous waters” Signals came from the station to take the bar this was followed by a signal to keep more to port Evidence from one of Orpheus signalmen indicated that this had been communicated to the Sailing Master By this time Commodore Burnett, Commander Burton and Sailing Master Strong sensed that something was wrong with their charts At this time the signal was sent advising the warship that it was dangerous and the ship should stand off the bar Butler below decks in the brig was calling out desperately to be released as he realised all too quickly that the ship was on the wrong course After speaking to the Sailing Master, Butler was taken to Burnett and commander Burton and it was here that Butler stated the ship was “going wrong” This disturbing news soon reached all the men aboard seeing the chart being used was incorrect, the frantic Butler pointed out the correct entrance Commodore Burnett immediately ordered the helm to be put a-starboard and the engines reversed But it was too late She struck the bar at 8 knots slewing around to broadside on the sea as the signal master watched helplessly from the signal station As soon as she struck that bar it was chaos guns came loose and other gear slid around the deck men were knocked off their feet and waves began to pour into the lower decks Moments earlier men had been looking forward to docking in the harbour and now their lives were in peril Some ratings and midshipmen on the main deck were badly injured or killed by the guns coming loose and you can imagine a 9-ton gun you can’t stop it and it will just go wherever it wants to go But naval discipline took over directed by Commodore Burnett and his officers the ship’s company began to desperately lighten the ship the initial crashing waves prevented the ship’s boats being launched so Burnett ordered those who wished to save themselves to get a launch overboard and attempt to make the shore It managed to get away but was struck by a wave and hit the warship and sank drowning 40 men while the men still aboard looked on in horror She began to be pounded by the sea Men were being washed overboard and drowned rescue must have seemed very distant at this point Despite this hopelessness courage, commitment and comradeship seems be a part of the Royal Navy story in the Orpheus many helped each other into the rigging some midshipmen risked their own lives to bring injured men into the tops and this is part of the legend of the tragedy to me that remains a vivid image 152 years on But by this time the men were in the rigging barely hanging on for their lives they were heard singing and cheering in an effort to keep spirits up Commodore Burnett ordered another two ship’s boats to attempt to reach the shore one was the ship’s pinnace with the paymaster carrying the ship’s papers and the other was commanded by Lieutenant Hill after hard and exhausting rowing much like Tararua both successful reached safety Captain Wing who run the signal station exchanged his boat for the Orpheus’s boat and headed back out to try and rescue more men with his four Māori crew The steamer Wonga Wonga was stood off about 200m from the smashed ship and tried to bring survivors to the steamer where the men were given blankets and food only the strong swimmers who had survived the initial striking of the bar were able to be saved many men drowned trying to reach safety but most of the ship’s company still remained in the rigging Commodore Burnett was on the main mast with his officers at about 8.30pm that night when this fell the men perched upon it were heard to give three heartrending farewell cheers answered by the men in the other masts which then soon followed the main mast in the sea Commodore Burnett was seen by a survivor to have drowned after being hit by a wooden spar Of the 259 officers and ratings aboard, approximately 80 survived Of those who lost their lives approximately 60 bodies were recovered and amazingly, Butler, the man in the brig the man that knew the ship was going wrong, survived Commodore Burnett, Chief Boatswain John Pascoe, Assistant Master Taylor, and an unidentified Cook were buried in the Symonds Street Cemetery when the Grafton Gully Road was built they were cremated and their names placed on the memorial wall the ship’s chaplain Charles Haslewood is buried at St Peter’s Church in Onehunga and three unidentified midshipmen are buried at the common grave located on Cornwallis Wharf Road 189 lives lost, or was it? It seems some sailors could swim and clung to debris and they appear to have made their way to shore it is known that the Kilgour family of Cornwallis rescued several sailors and sheltered them from the authorities this is a time when Royal Navy sailors still deserted These rescued sailors set about working in the kauri mills with new identities the Kilgours, with their wide coastal views, would set goats free with bells on whenever authorities came enquiring approximately 150 bodies received a proper funeral, the remaining 139 were never found The inquiry held in 1863 in April found that the loss was due to the shifting nature of the Manukau bar No blame was attached to Commodore Burnett, the ship’s master, or the ship’s company However, that may have been a different situation had he survived, he probably would have been court martialed You can do a lot of things wrong in the Navy but you can’t lose a ship losing a ship is a big thing Men were awarded medals for attempting to rescue Humane medals were awarded, and 10 pounds were given to the Māori crew one of whom actually rescued the son of the governor of Victoria But the inquiry said, the event had shown how British seamen could face death with that gallant, chivalrous, fortitude for which they are proverbial and which would be held up as an example for others in later days You see the classic painting of the wreck of the Orpheus and that’s the Wonga Wonga standing off trying to rescue Even nowadays a rescue at the Manukau bar of this kind of ship would be a very difficult rescue at sea Signalman Wing was also exonerated and found that the correct signals had been semaphored from the shore station and that the signalman had discharged his duties faithfully and faultlessly This disaster on 7 Feburary 1863, was not the fault of one man but as a combination of factors we often talk about some disasters being a catastrophic chain of events and I think this is it, you could easily point the finger at any number of individuals but it’s usually a series of decisions The men of the Orpheus on the morning of 7 February 1863 would have not known that the decisions that would be made would lead to such a disaster So let me end today on a contemporary poem “The saved stood on the steamer’s deck, straining their eyes to see their comrades clinging to the wreck, upon that surging sea, and as they gazed into the dark upon their startled ears, there came that fast sinking bark, a sound of gallant cheers again, and yet again, it grew, then silence round them fell the silence of death, and each man knew, it was a last farewell” Thank you

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