02 October 2014


Wreck of  H.M.S. ORPHEUS  On Manukau Bar New Zealand Feb'y 1863.
Richard Beechey 1868. On loan from the Edmiston Trust
On display at New Zealand Maritime Museum
The ORPHEUS disaster is often called ‘New Zealand’s worst sea disaster’. Although the WAHINE disaster would be New Zealand’s most famous shipwreck, the ORPHEUS was the greatest loss of life. Out of the 259 men assumed to be aboard, 189 lost their lives.

It happened on the 7 February 1863 on the Manukau Bar, on the west coast of Auckland.
Deck skylight window attributed to

The HMS ORPHEUS was a Royal Navy vessel that sailed to New Zealand via Halifax, Nova Scotia carrying supplies for New Zealand naval ships.

Commodore Burnett was the senior officer in charge of the ship. He was travelling to New Zealand for the first time, to meet with Governor George Grey.

Captain Burnett and the HMS ORPHEUS approached the Manukau Bar, one of the most treacherous stretches of water in New Zealand, at about 11.30 am on the 7 February 1863. The ship carried a chart dated 1860, and a set of sailing instructions dated 11 October 1861. It was later revealed that the bar had shifted three-quarters of a mile since the chart had been made. The old chart would have been adequate if used in conjunction with up-to-date sailing instructions, but it was not.
Ship’s Figurehead
This figurehead is believed to be from HMS
Orpheus. Sources at the time say that it was washed
ashore some months after the shipwreck.
On loan from Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira

The ship struck the Bar, and within an hour, three-quarters of the crew had drowned. Only 69 men were rescued.

Only one third of the bodies were found and buried. Bodies were washed up as far north as North Kaipara Head but most were in the general vicinity of the Manukau Bar. Some skeletons were found in 1879.

Wreckage from the ORPHEUS was also found far and wide, mostly north of the harbour entrance.  The mast (now in the Huia Settlers Museum) was found near Helensville on the Kaipara Harbour.

Timber from the wreckage was used by a local resident to build a whole vessel, the steamer HALCYION. And various pieces of wood retrieved from the beach have been used to create a variety of small pieces, including furniture, walking sticks, and small boxes.

The New Zealand Maritime Museum has several items on display that are believed to have come from ORPHEUS, including the ship’s figurehead, a deck skylight window and a wooden plaque.

Wooden Plaque, HMS Orpheus
This plaque depicts the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom and would have been part of the decorative workings of a British Royal Navy ship. It is highly likely that this plaque came from HMS ORPHEUS, as it was the only naval ship wrecked near the Manukau Harbour during the Victorian era.On loan from Auckland War Memorial Museum


05 September 2014

The Merchant Navy


On Wednesday 3 September we remembered the bravery and sacrifices of the civilian seamen known as the Merchant Navy. They were not a military force; they were the men who sailed the civilian ships requisitioned by the New Zealand and British Governments for war service. Thousands of New Zealanders served with the Merchant Navy during World War Two, working on the vessels that carried troops, military equipment, fuel, food and raw materials to Britain, America and the battlefields of Europe.

The work of the Merchant Navy during wartime was vital for the continuation of the Allied war effort. Britain relied heavily on the supplies shipped through treacherous waters; the sailors were in constant danger of attack by enemy vessels. During World War Two more than 130 New Zealand Merchant Navy sailors and officers died and around 140 were taken as prisoners of war. There is no other group of New Zealand civilians who faced such danger during wartime.

To commemorate the bravery and sacrifice of the Merchant Navy, we would like to share some of the treasures from the Museum's reserve collection.

Medals awarded to George Henry Davis (1999.21.17), part of the NZ Maritime Museum reserve collection. During World War One Davis served as a soldier in the New Zealand Machine Gun Corps; the first two medals of this set represent his service during this conflict. George Davis also served in World War Two as a marine engineer in the Merchant Navy, for his service he was awarded The 1939 - 1945 Star, The Pacific Star, The War Medal 1939-45 and the New Zealand War Service Medal.  The last medal of this set is The Coronation Medal 1953.

Miniature medal set, George Henry Davis (1999.21.19), NZ Maritime Museum reserve collection.

29 August 2014

100 years since New Zealand joined WW1


Friday 29 August marks one hundred years since what is considered New Zealand’s first military action in World War I.

German Samoa was a strategic operational base in the Pacific for Germany, with a radio transmitter in Apia able to send Morse code signals to Berlin. Britain wanted the German presence in the area removed and the leaders of New Zealand were happy to oblige, particularly because of the aim to colonise other parts of the South Pacific.

The passenger liners MONOWAI and MOERAKI were requisitioned from the Union Steam Ship Company to transport the New Zealand expeditionary force to Samoa. They departed King's Wharf, Wellington on 15 August and landed at Apia on 29 August 1914.

With little resistance from the Germans, the force took over German Samoa and administered the country until 1920. New Zealand then governed the islands from 1920, in a checkered history of repressive rules and unprovoked violence, until Samoa finally gained independence on 1 January 1962.

Find out more about the occupation of Samoa.

Union Steam Ship Company steamship MOERAKI, oil painting attributed
 to Frank Barnes (1859-1941). Fraser Collection,  NZ Maritime Museum (8673)
The passenger steamship was built for the company in 1902, and was employed in the trans-Tasman service. 

MONOWAI, hand-coloured photograph by David Alexander
DeMaus (1847-1925). NZ Maritime Museum (2002.23.2)
The passenger and cargo liner was built in 1890 by the Union Steam Ship Company for the trans-Tasman service.

22 August 2014

Poetry from war-torn seas

During the early hours of 26 November 1940, RMS RANGITANE was travelling from Auckland to London when she was attacked and sunk by German raiders. Of the 300 people on board, 13 were killed during the attack.

As part of National Poetry Day, we’d like to share a poem about the RANGITANE disaster from the Museum’s reserve collection. This poem was written by one of the female survivors and our copy is part of the personal collection of Mr William Edward Collison. Mr Collison was a steward on RANGITANE at the time.

Through the grey quiet of a November dawn,
The Rangitane sails, upon her homeward way,
When, suddenly, a shadow deep appears
And takes its shape in the uprising day.

A foreign ship! – The bridge springs in to life,
The Captain wakens from his well-earned sleep

A second ship has now appeared in view,
Is it an enemy upon the ocean deep?

As soon as born, our fears turn certainties.
The wireless message which we try to send
Wakens the guns upon the savage foe

And, with shrill cries, the shells wild voices blend.

The cruel shells, piercing the ship’s stout frame,
Have daunted not the men’s determined mind
To send that message – though it should cost their life –

To save all men and the ships who sail behind.

The ship manoeuvres to protect her guns,
Relentlessly the shells still pierce her side,
Below, the passengers, with quiet calm,
In darkness, amidst roaring tumult glide.

At last, from fire, blast and flood and smoke,
Respite is gained.  There falls a sudden hush.
The guns are silent.  Strangest sounds are heard; -

Men’s voices calling; water’s sudden rush;

The gurgling breathing of a dying girl
The joke upon the lips of one who lies,
Grievously wounded, even unto death,

And yet has light and laughter in her eyes.

At last the order “Take to the boats” rings out,
Obediently, with perfect calm, each one
Goes to his place.  The boats swing out and down.
The ship now floats, afire, her duty done.

n her, our friends and loved ones find a grave
For England’s love and England’s life they died.
We left them there – and prayed the mighty sea
Would welcome them, - their earthly bodies hide.

We love them still – but cannot hold regret;
They would have chosen to make that sacrifice
If they had known that their death could save
Others, freely they would have given their life.

For some it was death, others were prisoners taken,
Each, in his way, has served his country’s ends, -
Again will do so, as long as England needs
Ships and the sea.  On these her life depends.

A typewritten copy of the original poem, written
 by a female survivor of the tragedy [16044e ],
part of the reserve collection of the
 Maritime Museum
Ticket to the Rangitane Ball [16044g],
 part of the reserve collection of
the Maritime Museum.
Postcard of RMS RANGITANE [2636c], part of the reserve
collection of the Maritime Museum.  RANGITANE was a
passenger liner owned by the New Zealand Shipping Company.