|Ref: AWNS-19020925-5-4, Mokohinau lighthouse, Sir George Grey Special Collections|
HMS Orpheus was arriving from Sydney in conditions that were mild. The ship was commanded by Captain Robert Burton, with Commodore William Burnett, Senior Officer of HM Ships and Vessels on the Australian and New Zealand Stations, also on board. Edward Wing recalled that as the ship came in to view, there was no reason to suspect there would be any drama. From his position at the signal station on Paratutae, he made out plenty of water laying across the bar – perfectly safe for the Orpheus to take. He signaled accordingly. But the ship did not follow his instructions. Instead it continued further south, putting it in danger of striking the shallows and the sandbanks.
It struck around 1.15 pm, February 7th 1863. Although not in immediate danger, Wing knew conditions would deteriorate, the tide would flood in, and the wind would strengthen – tragically, given his isolation and lack of communication, there was nothing he could do.
|Ref: 661-64, illustration of ship believed to be HMS Orpheus, Sir George Grey Special Collections|
Around one third of the bodies were recovered and buried mostly in unmarked graves. The Royal New Zealand Navy erected a plaque by the graves of three sailors in 1974. You can take the short Orpheus Graves Walk (off Cornwallis Road) to visit the plaque. Shipwreck remains have also been found. A section of the main mast plus other Orpheus memorabilia can be seen at the Huia Settlers Museum. Whilst a wooden plaque depicting the Royal Coat of Arms believed to be from the ship is at Voyager NZ Maritime Museum.
There is a display in the Central Auckland Research Centre, in the Central City Library, to commemorate this tragedy. There are a number of books in the heritage collections on this topic including a fascinating book containing Signal Edward Wing’s first hand account is 'New Zealand’s Worst Sea Disaster: the Loss of the HMS Orpheus by Roy M. Hetherington. The classic book is Thayer Fairburn’s 'The Orpheus Disaster', which is currently undergoing a reprint. Tied in with this, we also have 'The Pandora Survey' by Brian Byrne at the research centre, which discusses the surveys of coastlines and rivers by the HMS Pandora from 1848-1856 to chart the coast lines.
Author: Joanne Graves, Central Auckland Research Centre