HMS Orpheus

Thursday, October 2, 2014
Wreck of  H.M.S. ORPHEUS  On Manukau Bar New Zealand Feb 1863.Richard Beechey 1868. On loan from the Edmiston Trust. On display at New Zealand Maritime Museum

The ORPHEUS disaster is often called ‘New Zealand’s worst sea disaster’. Although the WAHINE disaster would be New Zealand’s most famous shipwreck, the ORPHEUS was the greatest loss of life. Out of the 259 men assumed to be aboard, 189 lost their lives.

It happened on the 7 February 1863 on the Manukau Bar, on the west coast of Auckland.

The HMS ORPHEUS was a Royal Navy vessel that sailed to New Zealand via Halifax, Nova Scotia carrying supplies for New Zealand naval ships.

Commodore Burnett was the senior officer in charge of the ship. He was travelling to New Zealand for the first time, to meet with Governor George Grey. 

Captain Burnett and the HMS ORPHEUS approached the Manukau Bar, one of the most treacherous stretches of water in New Zealand, at about 11.30 am on the 7 February 1863. The ship carried a chart dated 1860, and a set of sailing instructions dated 11 October 1861. It was later revealed that the bar had shifted three-quarters of a mile since the chart had been made. The old chart would have been adequate if used in conjunction with up-to-date sailing instructions, but it was not.

The ship struck the Bar, and within an hour, three-quarters of the crew had drowned. Only 69 men were rescued. 

Only one third of the bodies were found and buried. Bodies were washed up as far north as North Kaipara Head but most were in the general vicinity of the Manukau Bar. Some skeletons were found in 1879.

Wreckage from the ORPHEUS was also found far and wide, mostly north of the harbour entrance.  The mast (now in the Huia Settlers Museum) was found near Helensville on the Kaipara Harbour.

Timber from the wreckage was used by a local resident to build a whole vessel, the steamer HALCYION. And various pieces of wood retrieved from the beach have been used to create a variety of small pieces, including furniture, walking sticks, and small boxes. 

The New Zealand Maritime Museum has several items on display that are believed to have come from ORPHEUS, including the ship’s figurehead, a deck skylight window and a wooden plaque.

Deck skylight window attributed to  HMS ORPHEUS
Ship’s Figurehead This figurehead is believed to be from HMS Orpheus. Sources at the time say that it was washed ashore some months after the shipwreck. On loan from Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira
Wooden Plaque, HMS Orpheus This plaque depicts the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom and would have been part of the decorative workings of a British Royal Navy ship. It is highly likely that this plaque came from HMS ORPHEUS, as it was the only naval ship wrecked near the Manukau Harbour during the Victorian era.On loan from Auckland War Memorial Museum