H.M.S Orpheus 1863

H.M.S Orpheus 1863

H.M.S. ORPHEUS, steam corvette: In point of number of lives lost, the wreck of the warship on the Manukau bar on February 7, 1863, is the most disastrous in New Zealand maritime history. Of a complement of 259 officers and men, 189 lives were lost, including that of her commander, Commodore W. F. Burnett, C.B.

The Orpheus left Sydney on February 1, carrying stores for Her Majesty’s ships on the New Zealand station, and arrived off the Manukau bar about 1 p.m. on the 7th. The weather was fine and clear, with a moderate breeze from the south-west. On receiving the signal “Take the bar”, the corvette, under plain sail, and with steam raised for half speed, proceeded across the bar, the tide being just on the turn to ebb. Steering by the Admiralty sailing directions, the course being altered now and then in obedience to signals from the pilot station, all precautions were taken with the steering and the ship kept, as it was thought, in mid-channel. Apparently the Orpheus was not kept far enough to the northward, or the middle bank which had very recently extended unknown to the pilots, for very shortly after passing the bar, and when about two miles from the heads, the ship struck at about 1.30 p.m. on what was subsequently discovered to be the extreme northern edge of the middle bank, and about 50 feet from deep water. The order was given to go astern, but the engines did not move, and the ship immediately broached to, with her head pointing to the north. The rollers made one complete sweep over the port broadside, tearing to pieces and sweeping everything before them, whilst the heavy bumping of the corvette forced up the hatchway fastenings, in consequence of which she soon filled with water. All hands were employed in lightening the ship of her heavy broadside guns, and getting out the boats.

At this time, 2 p.m., a small steamer was seen coming out of the harbour, but, finding she was not coming to the wreck, the commodore despatched first the cutter, with the records and valuable papers, and half an hour later another boat, with instructions to obtain the services of the lifeboat at the heads, and to give the alarm to H.M.S. Harrier, known to be in the port. With great difficulty, and in imminent danger of swamping in the rollers, the boats succeeded in reaching the heads at 5 o’clock. At the heads they met the pilot and observed the small steamer Wonga Wonga, which had a few hours previously proceeded to sea, returning to port by the south channel. The lifeboats having been reported unserviceable, the steamer took the corvette’s boats in tow and steamed out to the scene of the wreck, which was not reached until 6 p.m. They found the Orpheus almost buried in the water, the seas breaking clear over her and half-way up the rigging. All hands were in the rigging, the commodore and his officers being in the mizzentop. It was at once seen that the only chance of saving life was from the bowsprit and jibboom, which overhung the still deep water. The boats were placed to pick up all who ventured to jump and swim for the boats. With the exception of the boats’ crews, all who survived were saved in this manner. Nearly all who left the ship from abaft the foremast were drawn down by the eddies and undercurrents around the ship. Some of the more active and young sailors slid down the stays from mast to mast until they reached the jibboom. It was stated by the men who were picked up that, shortly after the two boats left the ship, the launch was got out and manned with 40 hands, but in endeavouring to clear the ship had been swamped alongside and all in her drowned.

About 7 o’clock the flood tide set in strongly, and the rollers became very high and dangerous. The bowsprit soon broke off short, and the boats had occasionally to be towed to windward by the Wonga Wonga, which kept burning blue lights. Towards 9 p.m. the masts went by the board, one by one, and the men in the tops could be heard cheering and encouraging one another as they fell. The passengers on the steamer spoke of this as a most heart-rending scene, for the ship seemed to break up completely. Fragments of spars and large masses of wreck could be seen (it was a clear, bright, moonlight night) drifting inshore with the tide, clinging to which were a number of sailors, who were picked up, in the last stages of exhaustion. The boats remained until all had disappeared. Nothing could be seen or heard during the remainder of the night. At daylight the wind had subsided and the sea was perfectly calm. The Wonga Wonga steamed close to the wreck, but nothing was visible but the stump of one mast and a few bare ribs. Right throughout the tragic occurrence discipline and good order were maintained, and there were numerous instances of personal courage and endurance. From the commodore down to the youngest boy, all acted up to the highest traditions of the Royal Navy.

The Wonga Wonga had left the Onehunga wharf at noon on February 7, and on arriving at the bar at 2 p.m. those on board noticed the vessel in the offing, apparently a man-of-war. When well clear of the channel Captain Renner, master of the steamer, noticed the vessel labouring very heavily, and apparently ashore. Captain Renner then proceeded to the outer entrance of the North Channel, and signalled the warship, asking if she could be of any assistance. Receiving no reply, and being unable to take the North Channel on account of the heavy sea on the bar, the Wonga Wonga returned to the pilot station by the South Channel.

On reaching the station Captain Renner found two boats, the pinnace and the cutter, in charge of the second lieutenant and a midshipman, who had landed the mail and the ship’s papers. It was then that those on board the steamer learned that the vessel ashore was the Orpheus. The pilot boarded the Wonga Wonga, the two boats were taken in tow, and the steamer proceeded to the scene of the disaster.

Unfortunately, H.M.S. Harrier, in getting under way, went aground, and was therefore unable to render any assistance. Her commander, Captain Jenkins, then proceeded in the Avon, and on arriving at the heads immediately boarded the Wonga Wonga. Finding that the crew of that vessel had done everything possible under the circumstances, Captain Jenkins transhipped members of the shipwrecked crew into the Avon, which proceeded to the pilot station and took on board the crew of the cutter and the remainder of those saved. The Avon arrived at Onehunga about midday for the purpose of obtaining medical treatment for the survivors. Up to March 6, 22 bodies were recovered. Two only were taken to Auckland, that of the chief boatswain’s mate, upon which the inquest on all who were lost was held, and that of Commodore Burnett, who was buried with full military honours.

H.M.S. Orpheus was practically a new vessel when she arrived at Port Jackson in July, 1862, having been commissioned at Portsmouth late in 1861 for the broad pennant of the commodore in Australia. She was designated as one of Sir Baldwin Walker’s new improved, flush-decked corvettes of 1,706 tons. Her extreme length was 252 ft., her extreme breadth 40 ft. 8 ins., and her armament consisted of 20 8-inch broadside guns and one pivot Armstrong 110-pounder. Her engines were of 400 h.p. horizontal, direct acting. With four boilers in operation she attained a speed of almost 12 knots. The Orpheus had an appearance of great speed and beauty of proportion, but was, however, what sailors call a wet ship. On the morning of May 27, 1890, part of the hull of the Orpheus was washed up on the ocean beach at the Manukau Heads. Captain Daldy, a member of the firm which had purchased for £100 the remains of the wreck in May, 1863, 27 years previously, proceeded to claim and protect his property. Two days later the wreck was again covered by a sandbank. The portion visible measured 66 feet in length by 25 feet deep, and this portion of New Zealand’s most disastrous wreck was soon cut up by unauthorised persons in their efforts to take the copper bolts. (See plate 6, also page 251 (1893) for Orpheus wreckage at Ruapuke Beach.)

scroll to top