Earliest Known Photograph of a New Zealand Tornado

This is the true story behind what I suspect might be the earliest known photograph of a waterspout or tornado in New Zealand.  As I’ve stated many times before, every photo, postcard or piece of paper has a story to tell, however this one really will blow you away. Today’s story has everything – an extreme weather event, a windswept far-flung island, a budding pioneer botanist and a cavalry charge at the Battle of Waterloo.

Our story starts on the remote Chatham Islands on November 10th 1912.  A local sheep farmer looks across the bay and spies a peculiar funnel-shaped cloud forming at the base of a menacing bank of clouds.  This sheep farmer has survived a war, travelled the world and called this far-flung island home for nearly half a century but he has never witnessed anything like this.   The water beneath the funnel is whipped into a frenzy and starts reaching up to the heavens, meeting the funnel cloud and forming a violent waterspout.  It is followed by a second waterspout, and then unbelievably a third.

Our spectator fetches his camera and takes a photograph unlike any taken before in New Zealand.  The image he captures will travel the world, be reprinted in academic journals but alas, be all but forgotten for a century…

Triple Waterspouts, photographed off Chatham Islands, New Zealand 1912Lemuel Lyes Collection

Triple Waterspouts, photographed off Chatham Islands, New Zealand 1912
Lemuel Lyes Collection

This is a postcard copy of the photo that sheep-farmer took little over a one hundred years ago.  When I bought this example for my collection I had seen a couple of other copies of it on the marketplace so knew that while it wasn’t exceedingly rare it always fetched a high price – and no surprise really as this card is an absolute beauty!  It is one of my all time favourites.  The back of the image includes a handwritten note from a Chatham Island local.

Reverse side of 1912 Waterspouts PostcardLemuel Lyes Collection

Reverse side of 1912 Waterspouts Postcard
Lemuel Lyes Collection

“This is a photo taken of a water spout, it lasted for about 2 hours.  We can see where it was from our whare”.

Armed only with this postcard I set out to find as much as I possibly could about this extreme weather event and the farmer that took the photo.  Both are remarkable stories.

The photographer was Chatham Island settler and sheep farmer, Felix Arthur Douglas Cox.  This was indeed the first time he had ever seen a waterspout, but he wasn’t a stranger to meteorology.  Cox had a remarkable appetite for the natural world and despite having never seen a waterspout before; he knew exactly what it was.  He had even been running his own weather station in his backyard, meticulously taking records for years.  When he sighted the waterspouts he understood the rarity of the event and did his best to record the experience for the world to see.

To put this into context, the earliest known photograph of a tornado in Australia was only taken a year earlier in 1911.  The first photograph ever of a tornado anywhere in the world was taken in 1884.

With no other obvious contenders I believe this to be the earliest known photograph of a waterspout or tornado in New Zealand.  The fact that it shows three waterspouts makes it especially notable, not just now but also when it was first taken.  In fact, his photograph went viral.

There was of course no Twitter, Facebook or instagram in 1912 (if there had been then I can only imagine the reaction to the sinking of the Titanic).  You had to be much more proactive if you wanted to share your observations with the world – and Cox was exactly that.  He sent away a copy of his photograph and eyewitness account and it was published in the April 1913 issue of Symon’s internationally renowned Monthly Meteorological Magazine.  His photograph and account then went on to be republished in academic meteorological works such as “The Principles of Aerography” by Alexander McAdie in 1917.

Cox's Photograph“The Principles of Aerography” by Alexander McAdie 1917

Cox’s Photograph
“The Principles of Aerography” by Alexander McAdie 1917

The Chatham Islander’s sighting had become famous, and was in the hands of every budding meteorologist in the world.  Here is his account of the sighting as published in “The Principles of Aerography”.

“On November 10, 1912, about 10 A.M….. bright sunshine, when gradually the sky became overcast and there was a dense rain cloud above as shown in the photograph.  Below the bank of clouds to sea level it was quite clear and bright and toward the east heavy rain was evidently falling.  A little after 11, my attention was called to a peculiar funnel-shaped cloud which was beginning to appear on the lower edge of the cloud bank.  I saw at once that something out of the common was beginning and said:  ‘Well, I have never seen a waterspout, but it looks to me as if this was one forming.’  We then carefully watched and it was soon plainly evident that a waterspout was taking place.  We marked how the funnel-shaped excrescence from the cloud bank gradually extended downward to the sea, and from below we could observe another funnel rising which soon joined the one above; the whole appearance had that of a spiral tube evidently formed by a rotary motion; the water on the sea end of the spout was in a perfect foam.  The spout first formed was to the right hand on the eastward side next to where the heavy rain was evidently falling.  Almost immediately after the formation of the first spout another began to make its appearance.  It was much thicker than the first, and as in that case the sea below the cloud was violently agitated, and even from where we stood, which must have been seven or eight miles distant, the form, like columns, was plainly seen.  This was by far the largest of the spouts and continued for nearly half an hour.  Toward the end, before the spout began to subside, the sea had almost the appearance of a geyser, so violently was it agitated.  I think the large one must have been nearer to us than the first, for as the first began to dissolve, it gradually drifted toward the big one, and soon the remains appeared as a sort of appendix hanging from the cloud above.  The spouts disappeared slowly, and the whole phenomenon occupied about three quarters of an hour.”

The description is remarkable and it is easy to see the value to meteorologists – Cox had not only taken a photograph of an extremely rare event but he also provided an excellent account of the entire episode.  I was intrigued – who is this Chatham Islander that was so well-educated and had the initiative to share his observation with the world?  The short answer is that there was a remarkable man behind the camera that took this remarkable photo.

Felix Arthur Douglas Cox was born on 9th May 1837.  He attended boarding school at Rugby, only a couple of decades after William Webb-Ellis is alleged to have infamously picked up a ball and run with it. At the age of twenty, Cox followed a proud family military tradition and joined the 17th Bengal Native Infantry in India.

His father Samuel Cox had been a cavalry officer in the 1st Life Guards at Waterloo.  You can see his name here – listed as being severely wounded.  The Life Guards were part of the Household Brigade, which at a critical point of the battle were ordered to charge.  The world seems small and history seems short when you know that a son of one of those charging cavalrymen would grow up to take a photo of three waterspouts in the Chatham Islands.

Looking down towards La Haye Saint, Waterloo - where the 1st Life Guards charged in June 1815© Lemuel Lyes 2009

Looking down towards La Haye Saint, Waterloo – where the 1st Life Guards charged in June 1815
© Lemuel Lyes 2009

So young Arthur had the honour of a strong family military history riding on him when he joined the 17th Bengal Native Infantry in 1857.  He didn’t have to wait long to prove himself – that same year the Indian Mutiny broke out.  Cox transferred to a British Regiment, the 34th Foot (Cumberland) and was with the force that relieved the besieged city of Lucknow.  He was awarded the Indian Mutiny Medal.

After proving his mettle as a soldier he decided to carve out a new future for himself on the far side of the world.  His brother had immigrated to New Zealand and Arthur followed suit.  He heard reports of settlers on the distant Chatham Islands making a good living from supplying food for whalers and in the mid-late 1860’s he decided to join them.

The Chatham Islands are remote and rugged even by today’s standards, let alone in the 19th century.  I don’t know why he chose such a life for himself but he made the most of his new home on the windswept and unexplored island.

Cox had an insatiable appetite for the world around him.  While starting a sheep farm on one of the most remote islands in the world might be enough of a challenge for your average settler he didn’t stop there.  Instead he set out to meticulously catalogue everything he encountered.  He became an ornithologist, botanist, naturalist, anthropologist and meteorologist.  I’m not kidding – his work in all those fields is still recognised today.

His efforts were acknowledged in ‘A Short Account of the Plant-covering of Chatham Island’, which was read before the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury on 6th November, 1901.

“But during part of that time a most enthusiastic naturalist, Mr. F. A. D. Cox, who resides in Chatham Island, was collecting and studying its plants during his few intervals of leisure, so when the late Mr. T. Kirk sought aid with regard to Chatham Island plants, during the compilation of the “Students’ Flora of New Zealand,” Mr. Cox was very able and very willing to supply him with material, and, better still, with information gathered at first hand from the plants themselves. In consequence of this valuable assistance Mr. Kirk treated the flora of the Chathams in a more searching and thorough manner than had been the case previously.”

When he wasn’t cataloguing plants or assisting visiting botanists Cox was often out bird watching.  In 1909 his account of Chatham Island bird life was published throughout New Zealand.  He reported that sadly many species were on the verge of extinction and in at least once instance he was right – today the Chatham Island bellbird is listed as extinct.

Cox made a habit of communicating his findings with the outside world.  He regularly corresponded with Julius von Haast, one time even sending him a Leopard Seal skull for the Canterbury Museum.

It is incredible that he had any time for sheep farming in-between his botany, bird watching and the running of the home-built weather station that he tended with business partner, brother in-law and lifelong friend, Alexander Shand.

Noel Cox, George Rewai, and Felix Cox, cutting firewood, Chatham Islands. Guest, Ernest Matthias Capewell, 1873/1874-1957 : Photographs of the Chatham Islands. Ref: PAColl-4872-1-19. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Noel Cox, George Rewai, and Felix Cox, cutting firewood, Chatham Islands. Guest, Ernest Matthias Capewell, 1873/1874-1957 : Photographs of the Chatham Islands. Ref:  PAColl-4872-1-19. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Cox rarely left the Chathams, but one such visit in 1910 made headlines throughout New Zealand with the title “Back to Civilisation:  After 45 years of exile.  Marvels of a fresh age”.

“Until last week he never saw a bicycle, an electric tramcar, a taxicab, or even a hansom cab.”  The kinematograph entertainment surprised him more than anything else.  “he saw amongst the moving pictures representations of scenes in the South African War which gave him a good idea of the changes brought about in regard to modern methods of fighting.  He found a great deal of interest in the modern style of uniforms, the accoutrements, and the big gun armaments”.

Two years later he took the photograph of the three waterspouts and as with all of his other observations, he humbly shared it with anyone he thought might be interested.

But was it really the first photograph of a tornado in New Zealand?  Such a claim can’t be made lightly so I’ve checked multiple archives including the Turnbull Library which houses the largest photograph collection in the country.  I’ve also run the question past several notable historians, the Met Service and several museum collections – in all instances no one has been able to name an earlier photograph than the one taken by Cox.  I’ve also checked with two notable collectors of New Zealand postcards and while both knew of other examples of the 1912 Chatham Islands postcard in my collection neither of them were able to name any other tornado or waterspout photographs from this part of the world.

As mentioned before, at the time this was an incredibly rare photograph.   The earliest tornado photograph from Australia was only taken one year earlier and Cox’s image was unique enough to even warrant international publication.

Unless someone makes a discovery in an attic, shoebox or archive then I suspect this is indeed the earliest example of a photograph of a tornado in New Zealand.  With a couple of provisos of course – that is as long as you classify a waterspout as a tornado (it is debatable, as not all waterspouts are tornadic) and as long as all my readers know that the Chatham Islands are some distance from the mainland.

In any event, Cox’s photograph is an absolute stunner and while largely forgotten today it serves as a lasting testament to a bloody impressive settler that displayed an admirable fascination with the island he called home.  He does have one other legacy besides the photograph – on the Chatham Islands there is a shrub that bears his name.  One of the visiting botanists decided that Cox’s enthusiastic efforts in the field should be immortalized.

This article describes it well –  “Unique to the Chathams, Cox’s matipo (Myrsine coxii) is a tough little plant well designed to withstand the weather with small leathery leaves and usually keeping under 2m tall.”

That description seems equally appropriate for both the shrubbery and the man it was named for.  He was certainly well designed to withstand the weather – not to mention photograph it.

© Lemuel Lyes

18 replies »

  1. That is a seriously cool picture – I tried to imagine it when you mentioned you were looking into it, but the triple-spout imagery is simply extraordinary. Even if somebody had taken a pic of a waterspoiut here before, I doubt they’d have captured three. An astonishing picture! Thank you for sharing.

    • Absolutely – at the time it could well have been the only photograph of three waterspouts in existence in the world, which would explain the international interest extending to the inclusion in the 1917 publication.

      One big question remaining for me is if the negative or high quality print has survived. If so then the Chatham Island Museum doesn’t have it, and it doesn’t appear to be in the Canterbury Museum either (although they are going to check another collection for me in April).

      Another possibility is that a decent copy of the photograph ended up in the hands of the Symon’s Meteorological Magazine and perhaps exists to this day in an archive in the UK. Will keep looking!

    • Yes it is fantastic when one things leads to another and then another!

      I had never heard of Cox before researching the story behind the photo and thoroughly enjoyed learning about his personal story, various scientific endeavors and military history. Almost sad to have to move on to a new story!

  2. Waterspouts and the Chatham Islands…. What more could one want!!! What great post, Lem!! Good solid research. I think this will lead to biographical posts on Shand , Cox , Kirk and Haast. The ephemera is here for all of them if you need to use it!!!! 😉

    • Waterspouts, Chatham Islands AND Waterloo! An unlikely trilogy aye.

      I was surprised that so little had been written about Cox, (Shand is in the Dictionary of NZ Biographys). Hopefully there is increased interest in his work as I feel I’ve only scratched the surface.

      Will certainly make use of your ephemera in upcoming posts!

  3. Whilst looking through my late Grandmother’s photos, we happened to stubble across this very photo printed onto a postcard.
    My Grandma was born on the Chathams 9 March 1910.
    Our picture doesn’t have the date on the front like your one pictured, so thinking it may have been an early print run, but it’s definitely the same photo.
    Do you have any idea how many were printed in each run?

    • That is great that you’ve found one of these postcards! And very neat to have a family link.

      Unfortunately I don’t know how many were printed on each run, or how many runs there were. I’m also yet to find out if the original photo survives.

      Examples do show up from time to time on TradeMe and the card is in reasonable demand with collectors.

  4. Great read. I know the islands well and Felix Cox’s former farm of Whangamarino. Aside from Myrsine coxii he has a Chatham grass, Festuca coxii and a genus of carrot Coxella named for him. Coxella is now treated as a synonym of Aciphylla, the sole species of Coxella, C. dieffenbachii is now Aciphylla dieffenbachii. Thought you may like to know.

    • Thank you very much for that, I hadn’t heard of the grass or carrot. I’m envious that you know the islands well – would love to get over there myself one day!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s