Thursday, October 16, 2008

HMS Orpheus

(Image from a photocopy of photograph, West Auckland Historical Society, 13 October 2008)

The above is said to be a photograph of the HMS Orpheus, with the following inscribed on the back (along with the curious little drawing above, and the intials "JNB"):
"HMS Orpheus, off Admiralty House, Kiribilli Point. Garden Island in background. Sydney Harbour 1863. 189 people died."
If this truly is a photograph of the HMS Orpeus, it is an amazing and extremely rare image. West Auckland Historical Society, I understand, are intending to lodge the original with the Huia Museum. "JNB" and the little drawing, are attributef to John Neale Bethell (1856-1943). He died at his Avondale home along Great North Road, close to the Whau Bridge, and is buried at St Ninian's Cemetery on St George's Road.

Further information on the Orpheus disaster from the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre:
The Wreck of H.M.S. “Orpheus”

H.M.S. “Orpheus,” a 21-gun steam-corvette, manned by a crew of 256 officers and men, was totally wrecked on the Manukau bar on the 7th February, 1863, when bound to Onehunga from Sydney to take up duty on the New Zealand Station.

The pilot-station at the heads showed the signal to take the bar, and the “Orpheus” came in under steam and sail before a good westerly breeze. The ship was carrying all plain sail, and her starboard foretopmast studding. sail was set. She was drawing 21 feet. She struck heavily on the western end of the middle bank, which afterwards was proved to have shifted three-quarters of a mile from where it was laid down on Drury's chart; the navigation officers of the “Orpheus,” however, had also the “Niger” navigator's sailing-directions. The pilot-station watcher, seeing the ship running into danger, semaphored to her to stand more out to sea, but the warning signal was observed too late.

The ship struck twice, and the engines were ordered full speed astern, but the screw did not work; the way the ship had on sent her firmly into the sand.

The topsails were lowered, and the other sails were clewed up. Great seas were now breaking over the ship, and, after one boat had with difficulty got clear, the crew all took to the yards and rigging. The steamer “Wonga Wonga,” bound south from Onehunga, went to the rescue, and approached the wreck as closely as she could. Some of the bluejackets, sliding down the foretopmast-stay, jumped into the sea and were picked up; others who attempted it were drowned.

The one boat which got clear took the news to the pilot-station, but it was night before the tragic story reached H.M.S. “Harrier,” lying at Onehunga, twenty miles away, and by that time all was over.

The rollers breaking on the bar burst continually over the hull and lower masts. The yards and shrouds were thick with sailors despairingly looking for rescue. About 6 o'clock in the evening Commodore Burnett, who was in the mizzen-rigging, hailed the men, asked them to pray to God, and said he would be the last to leave the ship.

The mainmast was the first to go over the side. As it was falling the men clinging to the yards and rigging gave three heart-rending farewell cheers, which were answered by the men on the other masts, and next moment the gallant sailors were vainly struggling for their lives. The foremast soon followed, and then the mizzenmast gave way and crashed into the surf. The mizzentop fell on Commodore Burnett and partly stunned him, and he was drowned.

Out of the crew of 256 all told, only sixty-nine (including eight officers) were saved.

The bar which proved fatal to the beautiful corvette “Orpheus” and the greater number of her crew is called by the Maoris “Te Kupenga o Tara-mai-nuku” (“Tara's Fishing-net”), a reference to an ancestral chief whose name is associated with several places on the Auckland coast. Another native name for it is “Te Whare o te Atua” (“The Dwelling of the God”). The sandbanks are the northern remnant of a strip of low-lying land called Paorae, which anciently extended outside the present coast-line from the Manukau southward to Waikato Heads.


  1. Since I can't get into much I went into blogger and got somewhere. This is a very cool photo. Once my connections decide to work properly I'll check the emails. Looks like the ship. Awesome!!!!!!!!!

  2. Cheers, Storm. Looking forward to your verdict via the emails.