Monday, January 21, 2013

The tragedy of the "Mystery", 1866

This year being the 150th anniversary of the wreck of HMS Orpheus, attention is focused on that tragedy by many heritage groups around the Manukau Harbour and wider afield. But last night, in a phone conversation, Colin Freland (President of the Onehunga & Fencible Historical Society) brought up another tragedy on the harbour, one involving a civilian craft and the death of ten people; possibly one of the greatest civilian losses of life on the harbour. This happened when the cutter Mystery took on water and capsized in the middle of the harbour, on a regular ferry trip between Awhitu and Onehunga, one day in August 1866.

The half-decked four-ton cutter Mystery was sailed by Henry Mitchell under a contract from the Auckland Provincial Council since late 1865 (nine months before the accident), to connect Awhitu with the northern coastline of the Manukau Harbour, and Auckland. Opinion was expressed later during the inquest that four tons was not a big enough vessel to handle the harbour’s dangers; a larger vessel was apparently used at first, but then this was replaced by the Mystery. Mitchell seems to have also had a reputation for rum drinking, on or off the water (although the survivors attested to his sobriety on the day of the accident). That day he was working the sails with the use of only one hand, the left disabled by a gunshot wound. His assistant was a boy named Thomas Reed, son of a carpenter, who had only had seven weeks sailing experience, and was almost totally deaf (although he said he could hear Mitchell’s commands). He had made ten trips with Mitchell on the Mystery before the accident.

Their passengers on 13 August 1866 were 22-year-old widow Frances Westfold (her late husband George, a sawyer, had died three days before and the family were accompanying his coffin on the ferry for burial in Onehunga) and her three children George (4), Ellen (6) and Francis Edward (six months); William Reynolds, his wife Sarah, and their son Edward William; William Lucas; a Mr Murphy; and Nelson Spaulding, a storekeeper from Onehunga.

Ballasted with pieces of iron, the Mystery set sail from Garland’s Creek at 11 am for the 20 mile journey to Onehunga, going with the tide and a nor-west breeze, but also with strong squalls and a high sea. The mainsail was hoisted with one reef, along with the jib, as the boat travelled down the channel, close to the southern coast of the harbour, for the first three miles. The passengers sat on a seat described as running round the circumference of the boat.

Then, with the tide stating to turn, and the wind blowing in, the sea became heavier, right at the point when Mitchell swung the Mystery onto a direct course across the harbour toward Onehunga. The going for the passengers became increasingly uncomfortable. Water sloshed in now and then, and young Reed was set the task of bailing, leaving the handling of the sails and rigging to the one-handed Mitchell. The sea became rougher as the boat continued, the women reported as being quite seasick, and Mrs Westfold, quite ill, took shelter with her three children beneath the half deck. Seven miles along the course, in the middle of the harbour, a combination of the wind plus the heavy sea capsized the Mystery around 2.30 pm, leaving it floating on its side. The Westfold family, trapped beneath the deck, had no hope of survival.

Mitchell’s last words as the boat went over were recalled as, “Let go the anchor.” He was flung into the water, floated for a while, then sank. Reynolds hung onto the rigging, trying to support his wife who clung in turn to their infant son.

Spaulding held onto to the mast, and made his way along that to the hull of the vessel. Apart from Spaulding and Reed, who had also made it to the hull, all the passengers in the water gradually sank “from sheer exhaustion … the sea washing over them.” Murphy, who had briefly joined Reed and Spaulding on the hull, then asked the others whether it was best to wait to be saved, or try swimming for the bank. Despite their advice to stay put, he slipped into the water to try for land anyway … and drowned.

The capsized Mystery floated for around three hours toward the Papakura bank, grounding there in two feet of water around 5.00pm. There, Spaulding and Reed righted the boat and bailed her out with an old butter box throughout the night. It was then they discovered the bodies of the Westfold family inside.

The following morning, Spaulding made a distress signal by flying a flag from the boat. This was seen by August Olberg on Awhitu, who organised with William Graham and two other men to go across in a boat around 9.00 am. With their assistance, the Mystery was taken to Onehunga, arriving there finally at 11.30 am. On arrival, Spaulding was reported to have had “the flesh chopped off his legs clinging to the wreck.”

Nelson Spaulding served as main witness at the inquest held in Onehunga’s Royal Hotel on 15 August, before the laid out bodies of the Westfold family. At that point, no other remains had been recovered. Spaulding’s story in New Zealand is interesting enough, even before the Mystery incident. Born in the American state of Maine, he followed the mining fever of the California goldrush in 1849, then decided to head for the Victorian goldfields in Australia in 1853. In the spring of that year, however, when the ship he took for the journey across the Pacific stopped off at Auckland on the way – he decided to stay here, and joined the timber firm of Roe, Street and Co. He was later credited with being the first to institute tramways to convey the cut logs instead of the more hazardous and tedious method of floating the timber downstream on a fresh using trip dams, using “his practical knowledge of railroad working.” He was also said to have introduced the American style of sawmill at Huia and Coromandel for the company (a company who also employed Long John McLeod and Cyrus Haskell, later rebuilders of Henderson’s Mill.) Around 1863, Spaulding left the firm and retired to Awhitu.

Spaulding felt that the Mystery’s sails should have been reduced in the rough weather, and that Mitchell should have kept to the safety of the southern coastline of the harbour for a longer distance, before striking out across the water to Onehunga. He raised the issue of Mitchell’s disabled hand, and Reed’s deafness, as possible contributing factors, but also the fact that the Mystery was too small by at least two tons.

The jury found that both Mitchell and Reed were “incompetent for the service in which they were employed,” and that the Provincial Government should provide a safer means of crossing the harbour.

A search for other bodies was started as soon as authorities in Onehunga were notified of the tragedy, inlets and creeks in the vicinity of Puketutu Island, Puponga Point and Awhitu all scoured. George Westfold’s coffin, with his body still inside, was found by fishermen near South Head on 22 August and buried above high water mark on a beach at Awhitu. On 29 August, police at Onehunga were informed that a dead body was seen floating in the harbour. After a search, the body was found “cast upon the beach, near the White Bluff …” It was later identified as being that of Henry Mitchell, and was interred at Onehunga on 30 August. Mitchell’s remains was apparently the only body both recovered and identified from the passengers that had perished in the chill waters two weeks earlier.

The last victim of the Mystery's accident may have been Nelson Spaulding, a little more than 10 years later, when he died “of an affection of the bronchial tubes, and an internal disorder contracted some years ago, on the occasion of the wreck of the Mystery …” He left a widow, but no children.

Report on the accident, NZ Herald 15 August 1866 p. 4
Inquest report, Southern Cross 16 August 1866 p.5
Search for the bodies, NZ Herald, 17 August 1866 p. 3
The coffin found, NZ Herald 27 August 1866, p. 3
Mitchell’s body found, NZ Herald 31 August 1866 p. 5
Spaulding’s obituary, Auckland Star 20 October 1876 p.2


  1. I object to the aspersions laid regarding the captains character due only to his propensity for enjoying a tot of rum or two.

  2. Well, you should have thought of that 147 years ago ...

  3. Thanks for posting this Lisa very very interesting read!