150th Anniversary of the Wreck of the HMS Orpheus

Today marks 150 years since the flagship of the Royal Navy’s Australian squadron sank off the entrance to the Manukau harbour.  It was a beautiful sunny day but there was a hidden danger lurking beneath the waves.  At about 1:30pm the Orpheus hit a submerged sand bar.  Of the 259 crew only 70 would survive, the rest were claimed by the sea.

Illustrated London news (Newspaper). Illustrated London news :The wreck of H. M. S. Orpheus on Manukau Bar, New Zealand. [London, 1863]. Ref: PUBL-0033-1863-437. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Illustrated London news (Newspaper). Illustrated London news :The wreck of H. M. S. Orpheus on Manukau Bar, New Zealand. [London, 1863]. Ref: PUBL-0033-1863-437. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

The sinking of the Orpheus remains New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster.  In fact in terms of lives lost, according to Wikipedia only the 1931 Hawkes Bay Earthquake and 1979 Erebus disaster took a higher toll (this excludes epidemics and acts of war).  There are plenty of fantastic sites to visit to read more about the story of the sinking – check out this site, the Wikipedia page and this dramatic painting.

The 150th anniversary is going to be commemorated in a number of ways, starting today.  Check out the details here, (along with Caroline Fitzgerald’s fascinating personal link to the wreck).

To mark the anniversary I had a look through some of the old newspapers to see if there was an article that might be worth republishing – then I had a thought.  This wasn’t just a New Zealand disaster, sure the ship sank here but it was the flagship of the Australian squadron and surely that makes it an Australian disaster as much as a New Zealand one.  So I changed tack and started looking across the Tasman.

While reading through Australian newspaper reports from the time I stumbled across a poem dedicated to the tragedy.  It seems a fitting tribute to mark the 150th anniversary.


The busy marts of Sydney

Look gloomily to-day ;

A cloud seems brooding on the shore

A shadow o’er the bay ;

And ev’ry brow is darken’d

And pale is ev’ry cheek

As shudd’ring hearers catch the words

Of those who dread to speak.

And well may pulses flutter,

And well may cheeks grow pale ; The whisper’d tidings of the hour

Might bid the sternest quail.

They tell of ripen’d manhood,

Of youth in early bloom

Of pious zeal, and valour’s fire

O’erwhelm’d by sudden doom. Of friends whom late we greeted

But ne’er may greet again —

Of twice fourscore true British hearts

All cold beneath the main !

How gaily speeds the good ship !

Along the sunlit sea !

The wave-swept bar of Manukau

Lies broad upon her lee —

Behind it spreads her haven ;

The matter, chart in hand

Thro’ channels mark’d in other years,

Heads inward for the land.

But woe betide the falsa chart

That told its tale amiss,

And made the truth of other days

The meeking lie of this !

And woe betide the false breeze,

That blew so fresh and light,

Yet urged the long green billows on Before its voice of might —

And woe betide the false sea

That smiled but to betray,

And told not where the fatal bank

Lay ambush’d on the way.

One shock — as when the earthquake

Upheaves a groaning land —

Her stern hangs wavering in the surge,

Her bows are deep in sand.

Back — back the lab’ring engines !

The huge steam-giants fail  

To move her ‘gainst the mighty swell

That rolls before the gale.

Alas ! the gallant Orpheus !

She lies a prostrate wreck :

The surges climb her lofty side

And thund’ring sweep the deck.

But not a British seaman

In that dread moment quail’d, Nor waver’d ancient discipline,

Nor duty’s impulse fail’d.

Each took his post of danger

As prompt as on parade ;

Each signal, tho’ at cost of life, Was fearlessly obey’d.

The boats were manned in silence ;

No voice from high or low

Repined or question’d at the word

That bade them stay or go.  

The launch has fill’d and founder’d

With all her noble crew —

Hurrah ! for those two happier barks

That yet shall save their few. Away they speed for succour ;

Hope gleams, but Fate is nigh ; The few go forth to toil in vain, The many wait — to die.

The weary hours crept onward

The waves broke fierce and fast ;

And fainter waxed the hands, that clung

By slipp’ry shroud or mast. Yet ere the good ship parted  

A ringing, pealing cry,

The voice of souls that knew not fear

Went up from sea to sky.

A shout, as when our foemen

Disheartened in the fray

Before the shock of British steel

Recoil and shrink away.

Then spoke the gallant Burnett —

No meaner voice was heard —

” God’s mercy on our parting souls !”

So rang the latest word.

And he who heard and tells it,

In fancy long shall hear

Dim echoes of that proud farewell,

That thrice-repeated cheer.  

Then came an awful silence,

A hush as of the grave,

Save one deep tone — the ocean’s moan,

Above the dying brave.

Without one shriek or murmur,

As men who ” fall on sleep,”

They gave their spirits up to God,

Their bodies to the deep.

It is not when our squadrons

In furious onset close,

When man to man and foot to foot

They mingle with their foes,

When rolls the deaf’ning volley  

And war-clouds dim the air — It is not then that best is known

What British hearts can dare. For then the lust of combat

That lurks in ev’ry breast,

The tiger-instinct of our kind

Is raging unrepress’d.

And friends are nigh, to cheer us,

And foes to taunt our flight —

He scarce were man, who shrank from Death

Amid the press of fight.

But when the King of Terrors

Comes slowly, stride by stride,

The valiant front the stern advance,

The feeble blench aside.

And they are more than victors

In worse than battle’s strife

Who swerve no step from Duty’s path

Altho’ the bribe be life.

We cannot choose but sorrow,

Tho’ trembling Faith suggest There is a Lord of life and death

And what He wills is best.

We cannot choose but sorrow —

A nation’s tears must flow,

And yearnings deep of kindred love  

Outlast the publio woe.

But Time shall bring to anguish

A sure tho’ slow relief,

And mellow into soft regrets

The bitter wine of grief.

Then many a British mourner

With tearful pride shall tell

Of trophies in an unfought field

Of valour proved too well. The heroes of the Orpheus

Shall have their meed of fame, Wherever floats the British flag,

Or sounds the British name.

I, too, would twine a garland

Of simple, fading flowers,

And lay it humbly on the tomb

Of those whose fame is ours :

Who own’d no selfish murmur,

Who drew no coward breath ;

To Honor, Faith, and Duty true,

Tho’ “face to face with Death.”

This was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 24th February 1863.  Sourced from ‘Trove’, the Australian National Library.

© Lemuel Lyes

6 replies »

  1. Like true oratory prowess, our skills at commemorative poetry have faltered in modern times. To think someone composed this had it published only 2 or so weeks after the event. Was the poet credited?

  2. Good point about the trans-Tasman connection. Definitely the most lethal wreck to occur on our shores. Apropos death tolls (if a little off-topic), I got involved a while back in an interesting issue to do with the 1931 HB quake toll, which is officially 256. But there are 258 names on the memorial. As far as I can tell it was a simple arithmetical mistake in the final official report, possibly adding a Mohaka casualty to both the Wairoa and Napier totals, but it’s not really clear how it happened.

    Even today, one or two historians have tried to question even that toll. One of the big problems was that not all the bodies were ever found despite an incredible effort that even produced shop window dummies. That was coupled with at least two cases of people trying to escape their debts by leaving the district and changing their identities. They were found – an indication of just how thoroughly officials went through the process. But there were still uncertainties. One of the quake slips was still there, un-moved, 40 years later when I was a kid in Napier. It had never been touched because more than one eyewitness insisted they’d seen a car buried there. Finally, after all those decades, it was cleared. No car.

    My take is that the generation who went through that quake had also gone through the First World War. They had endured the horrors of the ‘unknown soldiers’ – of missing men who were never ever found. And they were not going to have that happen in their own back yards. The effort to find and enumerate the toll was simply fantastic, utterly thorough – and unlikely to miss anything. I think the final figure of 258 was very likely to be the one for that reason. But in any event, the difference of a few either way doesn’t reduce the general human impact of the whole disaster, or its historical meaning for New Zealand.

    • Never thought about how the Napier earthquake would’ve impacted on the veterans of the war, but that makes complete sense. And that is a fascinating story about the slip having gone untouched all that time.

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