Today in History: 7 Feb 1863 – New Zealand’s Shipwreck Claims 189 Lives

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Wreck of HMS Orpheus, Illustrated London News, 1863 (ATL, PUBL-0033-1863-437)

Source: NZ Gvt History Page

7 February 1863 – Bringing naval stores from Sydney, the modern 1706-tonne steam corvette HMS Orpheus ran aground on the bar at the entrance to Auckland’s Manukau Harbour. Of the 259 naval officers, seamen and Royal Marines aboard, 189 died. In terms of lives lost, it remains New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster.

The disaster was caused by errors and bad luck. Instead of rounding North Cape to reach Waitematā Harbour, Commodore William Burnett decided to berth at Onehunga in Manukau Harbour to save time. Unfortunately, his charts were outdated and the channel through the bar had moved. Lookouts on shore signalled a warning when they realised the ship was off course, but the Orpheus missed the message.

The vessel was pounded by waves after striking the bar, and only one small boat got away. As the ship sank into the sand, men climbed the rigging. The masts eventually collapsed, throwing the crew into the sea. Rescuers arrived too late to prevent a catastrophe.

A marble memorial tablet to the victims was erected in the Mariners’ Church in Hobart (it was later moved to the Tasmanian Museum). A memorial tablet was also set up in the Chapel of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, London, in 1882. Perhaps surprisingly, no similar memorials were erected in New Zealand. However, on 20 November 1976, more than a century after the event, the NZ Historic Places Trust attached a small bronze memorial plaque to Paratutai Rock on the northern Manukau Heads, close to where the signal flagstaff had stood in 1863. This read: ‘On 7 February 1863 the steam / corvette HMS Orpheus was wrecked / entering the Manukau Harbour / Of the 259 officers and men / there were 70 known survivors.’

Some years later, the plaque was dislodged by vandals. It was retrieved by a park ranger and after a period in storage was placed in the Huia Settlers’ Museum, where it remains on display along with Orpheus memorabilia. A commemorative ceremony was held at Paratutai on the 150th anniversary of the disaster in 2013. At Cornwallis, not far away, several HMS Orpheus graves are marked.