The Orpheus Disaster

by Lynton Diggle

An orchestrated litany of lies is perhaps what Justice McMahon may have said, had he also presided over the inquest into the sinking of the Orpheus on 7 February 1863. Someone had installed the incorrect co-ordinates into the computer used by Captain Collins on that fateful flight which crashed into Mt Erebus Antarctica on 29 November 1979. Air New Zealand tried to blame only Captain Collins.

Someone also provided the commander of the Orpheus, Commodore WF Burnett, with an outdated and wrong Admiralty chart for the Manukau Bar. The navy tried to blame Burnett for the tragedy along with the signalman Captain Wing’s son.

Captain Collins died in that crash into Mt Erebus, along with 250 passengers and crew. Commodore Burnett also died, when the Orpheus crashed into the Manukau Bar, along with 198 of his crew, the two worst disasters ever to strike in New Zealand’s territory.

Thayer Fairburn’s book, The Orpheus Disaster, describes the wrecking in great detail. ‘By 5.30 the guns were beginning to break loose and plunge about as the ship still wallowed and quantities of wreckage were drifting down wind. Ropes hung in festoons from aloft, swinging pendulum-wise with the weight of the blocks still attached, and masses of cordage washed back and forth in inextricable tangles and hung by the side of the ship, streaming down to leeward with every bursting wave.


About six o’clock, Commodore Burnett hailed the crew and addressed them: ‘Every one of you is to say his prayers and look out for himself. I will be the last. The Lord have mercy on us all.’ By about eight o’clock the guns had finally broken loose and the deck began breaking up. Around 8.30 pm the mainmast went by the board, and fell to port, taking the foretopmast and mizentopmast with it. The mainmast, falling, carried with it Commander Burton, Mr Strong the Sailing Master, Midshipman Broughton and Hunt, and about 50 hands.’

On 7 February 2013, 150 years later, commemorations were held on Whatipu Beach to mark the occasion. A bright, windless day saw some 200 invited guests and general public gather on the black sand dunes of Whatipu beach.

Also present were descendants of some of the survivors of the tragedy. Jenny Newman, descendant of the ship’s carpenter coming from Australia and Caroline Fitzgerald from Dunedin. Her great grandmother, Orpheus Beaumont, came to live in Dunedin in the 1870s and was the brother of Henry Newman, a survivor of the wreck.

Named after the wreck, Orpheus went on to invent the Salvus Kapok Life Jacket in Dunedin after the sinking of the Titanic, in response to a call by the British Board of Trade in the form of a competition to invent a better life jacket than the cork one. Orpheus took six years creating the jacket. With her design accepted, the first 30,000 were made and sent to the UK.


The British High Commissioner, Sir Bob and Lady Barbara Harvey, navel historian Michael Wynd and other dignitaries arrived with a naval escort. The Manukau Coastguard came in to the beach to pick up two wreaths which, with solemnity, were cast near the bar by Lady Harvey, a descendent of Captain Wing and Jenny Newman, descendant of the ship’s carpenter, while the assembled guests sang Abide With Me.

Few were not moved.

Near the Cornwallis wharf lies a mystery grave. Here three unnamed from the Orpheus who drowned are laid to rest in a neat grave in a quiet place.

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