Great Barrier Island and the SS Wairarapa shipwreck

Department of Conservation —  12/11/2015

Beautiful Great Barrier Island Aotea is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream, but in October 1894 it was the site of one of New Zealand’s worst shipwrecks with around 130 lives lost. Jackie Breen from the Heritage Team tells the story.

The SS Wairarapa was a well-known steamer on the Auckland–Sydney route, carrying 65 crew and 170 known passengers plus an unknown number of last minute walk-on passengers.

SS Wairarapa. Photo: W-M | The Green Collection| State of Victoria Library.

SS Wairarapa

Homeward bound for Auckland, the ship was making record time when it encountered dense fog after rounding North Cape, at noon on 28 October. The fog continued into the night, the new moon contributing to near zero visibility.

Good reputation, bad decision

The captain, John S McIntosh, was known as safe and competent so many passengers chose to travel with him. In spite of this, a later court of enquiry would lay blame for the disaster squarely with McIntosh. On the fateful evening, contrary to best practice and misgivings from the crew, McIntosh maintained a fast clip of 14 knots through the dark and foggy night.

Unfortunately, the ship was well eastward of its intended route- a combination of taking the wrong course from the Three Kings Islands, and not adequately adjusting the course for the vagaries of local currents. This, combined with the fast pace through the fog, doomed the vessel.

A few minutes after midnight the Wairarapa slammed into the cliffs near Miners Head, on the northern coast of Great Barrier Island.

The wreck of the SS Wairarapa at Miners Head. Image: Sir George Grey Special Collections | Auckland Libraries.

The wreck of the SS Wairarapa at Miners Head

Chaos in the dark

Water flooded in through a hole in the ship’s side. Many of those on board slid off the listing deck into the sea; others were swept away into the pitch black night by heavy seas. Horses, sheep and cargo were also swept overboard, adding to the confusion and danger.

Only two life-boats were successfully launched, rescuing 50 people. The other boats were smashed or swamped. A lucky few had life jackets and some stronger swimmers made it to the shore.

Some passengers and crew left onboard clung to the rigging or climbed to the bridge. At dawn, an intrepid steward swam ashore with a line tethered to the ship, along which about 50 people were hauled to safety. These survivors huddled on rocks, trapped below vertical cliffs, for more than 30 hours while the third officer and two of the crew set out to seek help from local iwi, Ngāti Rehua, at Katherine Bay.

A painting showing the wreck of the SS Wairarapa. Image: Sir George Grey Special Collections | Auckland Libraries.

A painting showing the wreck of the SS Wairarapa

Islanders assist

Ngāti Rehua’s assistance in rescuing survivors and providing hospitality until they could be transported back to Auckland was crucial, as was their help in recovering bodies  and providing land for a temporary base camp and a burial site at Onepoto. As news spread, European settlers on the island also assisted with billeting of survivors and recovery and identification of bodies. For the purpose of burial two arms, two legs, and a torso constituted an individual.

Survivors and rescuers of the shipwreck.

Survivors and rescuers of the shipwreck.

Police, local volunteers, and fellow survivors worked together to recover, identify and bury those who perished. Those that were unidentified or unrecognisable due injury or shark mauling were buried in mass graves at Onepoto and Tapuwai Point. These are peaceful and picturesque resting places, with a view of the sea and surrounded by a white picket fences.

Many families on the island were presented with tokens of appreciation from the Union Steamship Company acknowledging their assistance and selfless actions.

Auckland alerted

News of the shipwreck took 3 days to reach Auckland (arriving at 3am on 1 November) as the island’s only regular contact with the outside world was via a weekly steamer, the SS Argyle.

The Argyle returned to Great Barrier to help collect bodies, a grim job that lasted 19 days. By 15 November, 81 had been recovered; 60 were buried on Great Barrier and 21 transported to the mainland.

Despite its remote location, news of the wreck gained international attention, dominating newspapers in New Zealand and Australia, and running for two days in the London Times.

Digging graves for unidentified victims of the SS Wairarapa wreck.

Digging graves for unidentified victims

Pigeon post stamps.

Pigeon post stamps

Pigeon post – the world’s first airmail

The 3 days it took for the news of the wreck to reach Auckland highlighted Great Barrier’s isolation, and led to the introduction of Great Barrier’s pigeon post in 1896. This was the world’s first regular airmail service with stamps.

Up to five messages were carried by a pigeon. One named Arie carried the first message on 29 January 1896, flying to Auckland in less than an hour and three-quarters. The fastest pigeon, Velocity, had a record 50 minute flight time, averaging more than 125 km/h.

Things to do

There are several walks and tramps of varying length and difficulty to enjoy on Great Barrier, including two short beach walks to the cemeteries that DOC manages for their heritage values – Onepoto Historic Reserve and Tapuwai Point Historic Reserve. There’s also a mountain bike track, bird watching, fishing and hunting.

If water is more your thing you can swim, kayak, canoe, snorkel and dive – at a depth of 4–15m the wreck site is a popular dive attraction. Or just relax in the hot pools!

View from Hirakimata/Mt Hobson, Great Barrier Island

Great Barrier Island

Further information

If you enjoyed this heritage story, check out Disaster on the Rimutaka Incline

2 responses to Great Barrier Island and the SS Wairarapa shipwreck


    Excellent article thanks! Well researched.

    Kathleen McNamara 12/11/2015 at 2:13 pm

    Two of my Mums uncles were crew on this ship. Both lost their lives.