SS Wairarapa

October 29th 1894
The Tragedy of the SS Wairarapa.

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Maritime accidents in and around the coastal waters of New Zealand are far from uncommon. Even in this present age, ships sink and people lose their lives. The sea, in all cases, is unforgiving and can sometimes become down right vicious. Mariners will take on the challenge of their occupation with the knowledge that one day they may fall victim to the sea. Passengers on the other hand view the sea as a means of travel thinking only of their destination and the interim pleasure they may experience on the voyage. It is this innocence that makes the loss of their lives all the more tragic.

One of New Zealands worst (and possibly most famous) maritime tragedies was the sinking of the SS Wairarapa on October 29th 1894. It was not until we began looking into the records surrounding this event that we realised the wrenching impact it had on families from New Zealand, Australia and around the world. In compiling the passenger lists for those who survived and those who did not, we could see families being torn apart, brothers and sisters surviving while others perished, fortunes lost and businesses destroyed. There are stories of bravery in the face of life-threatening dangers and of those who gave their lives so that others might live while some were driven insane by the loss of family members and loved ones. This is the story of that tragedy.

The SS Wairarapa was built in Scotland in 1882 and launched in May of that year. Two months later she was on her way to New Zealand to become one of a small fleet of luxury trans-Tasman steamers, the pride of the Union Steam Ship Company. During her early days Wairarapa was involved in two dangerous incidents at sea. On Wednesday February 20th 1884, she collided with the SS Adelaide while the two were racing each other at 16 knots and on November 1st 1885, while steaming from Napier to Gisborne, she caught fire suffering 6,000 worth of damage. There was no loss of life in either incident and only once in her career had she lost a passenger. This occurred on February 17th 1894 during a journey between Bluff and Hobart.

Following these early incidents Wairarapa settled down to a life of trouble free service and thus it was that she commenced her final voyage at 6:00pm on Wednesday October 24th 1894. Under the command of Captain John McIntosh she left Sydney Harbour bound for Auckland. After an uneventful passage across the Tasman Sea, her first landfall was to be the Three Kings Islands off the northern-most tip off the North Island a point which she reached and passed in the early morning light of Sunday 28th. Just beyond here, at North Cape, she was to turn to the South East and steam down the North Island's east coast towards Auckland. But it was here, too, that the first and probably most fatal mistake was made. A compass bearing, planned to take her just to the east of the Poor Knights Islands from where she would turn due south to Auckland, was not made or was made incorrectly. Instead of steaming on the correct and more southerly course, Wairarapa continued to sail further to the east, on an increasingly divergent course which was to prove disastrously wrong.

Many reasons were given for the apparent error in the compass reading. Some said it was the load of iron she was carrying in her hold while others suggested the compass itself was faulty. Indeed, some evidence from the Court of Enquiry suggested that the compass was not used at all and that the Chief Officer placed the ship on the chart in his cabin "by dead reckoning". Whatever the reason the southerly course change that was made, so the Captain thought, at the Poor Knights Islands was actually made many miles to the east and instead of taking her to Auckland, set her on a collision course with the northern cliffs of Great Barrier Island. Indeed so wrong was the estimation of their true position that, immediately following the collision when asked where he thought they were, Captain McIntosh replied "On the Hen and Chickens". In fact the Wairarapa was many miles to the east.

Two other factors served to compound the problem of being in the wrong place. Thick fog was encountered just prior to the ship rounding North Cape, a fog so thick that they were not to see land again until striking Great Barrier Island. Into this gloom Captain McIntosh drove Wairarapa at her maximum speed of almost 14 knots, blatantly ignoring the safety of passengers and crew and refusing suggestions from his senior officers to slow down.

At eight minutes past midnight on October 29th 1894 SS Wairarapa rammed headlong into a small cave in the cliffs near Miners Head on the northern end of Great Barrier Island. Immediately following the impact, it seems that the engines were put astern,drawing the ship off the rocks at the base of the cliff. This further error of judgement may have put her into deep water where she would have quickly slipped beneath the waves. As it was, Wairarapa remained fast on the rocks pounded by heavy seas. The night was solid black, all was confusion and tumult and above her stood a 700 foot cliff. All of Wairarapa's lifeboats were launched but in the confusion and high seas only two succeeded in making the shore. The rest were swamped or stove in and smashed.

Shortly after the ship had struck and come to a sudden standstill, passengers poured from their cabins onto the deck. In addition to the passengers and crew mingling about getting their bearings, the deck was also crowded with the 16 horses she was carrying in crates on her decks. At this time Wairarapa gave a lurch and canted over to port tossing passengers, crated horses and crew into the surf. Everything moveable on deck was thrown into the sea and all 16 horses and many of those in the sea were drowned. As the lifeboats had been largely ineffective, the life-rafts were cut adrift and this action succeeded in saving the lives of many of those in the sea. Those remaining on deck clambered up the masts and into the rigging where they clung, literally, for dear life. Incessant pounding by the sea and waves high enough to wash right over the ship continued to fling others into the sea. All this, remember, took place in intense and visually impregnable darkness.

Daylight revealed an horrific sight. The ship was fast on the rocks below the cliff, leaning to port in a sea of floating wreckage, portions of the ship, horse crates, dead horses and bodies. Survivors clung to the rigging where they had been all night, weary, wet, cold and frightened. As the seas had calmed somewhat, valiant attempts were made to effect a connection with the shore. Although New Zealand was aware that Wairarapa was somewhat overdue, no one knew that she had been wrecked and absolutely no one knew where she was. Everything that needed to be done needed to be done by those who had survived this terror filled-night. Two of the crew swam ashore with lines and by this means many of those in the rigging were hauled through the water to the safety of dry land. All of the surviving passengers except two succeeded in being saved in this manner. These two let go of their hold on the rope and were drowned.

The majority of those who perished and whose bodies were located either on the shore of the island or in the sea are buried in mass graves on Great Barrier Island. Of 271 men, women and children on board SS Wairarapa that night, almost exactly half (135) perished while one third of the crew (20) of 66 were lost. The full lists of those who survived and those who perished may be found in the hyperlinks below. Passengers are listed alphabetically according to their berth and crew are listed by position and location.

Passenger List Crew List


Copyright: Denise & Peter 1999, 2000, 2001