- Torrington, Reg
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1999 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
“The Daily Southern Cross “, a newspaper in Auckland, New Zealand, published in the issue of Monday, February 9, 1863 on page 3 the following news item:
“Dreadful Calamity Loss of HMSS Orpheus (sic) and 206 Lives”
“At an early hour yesterday (Sunday) morning it became rumoured in town that HMSS Orpheus, 21 guns carrying the broad pennant of Commodore Burnett, C.B. was a total wreck on the Manukau Bar, and that many lives were lost. On taking steps to learn the particulars we found the report was unhappily but too true and the loss of life understated. The Orpheus left Sydney on Saturday week and made the Manukau Bar at about one p.m. on Saturday last. The day was fine with a fresh sea breeze blowing. Steering by Drury’s chart the ship was kept too far to the northward and at half past one she struck on the sandspit. She immediately heeled over and the sea at once made a clean breach over her. The first wave carried the main mast by the board and all who were on it perished. The guns were knocked from the carriages and maimed several, besides killing one man instantly. Those who were in the after-part of the ship were swept off, among whom were Commodore Burnett, C.B., Commander Burton, First Lieut. Mudge and Mr Strong, Master.”
The above are the first two paragraphs of the first newspaper report of New Zealand’s worst sea disaster. Later when a more reliable check was made, the number of lives lost was found to be 189, not 206.
By the middle of the 19th century the Industrial Revolution which had begun at the end of the 18th century in England was spreading throughout the world, changing life everywhere. This was especially true of the Royal Navy; steam propulsion was taking over from sail but the interim ship would use both. Because vessels could not be guaranteed replenishment of coal especially on long voyages, it was always necessary to conserve coal and whenever and wherever possible, to use sail. That is why in this disaster the death toll was so high as Orpheus had literally to carry two crews, one for sail and the other for steam. Ships were also being iron clad leading eventually to all steel hulls. HMS Warrior, now preserved at Portsmouth, U.K., was the first iron clad battleship commissioned on 1st August 1861. Other changes either taking place or in the offing were, guns from muzzle to breech loading, smooth to rifle bore and gun powder being replaced by cordite. With the improvement of ships and weapons came reforms in the conditions of service of both officers and men.
Orpheus, a screw corvette of 21 guns, was launched at Chatham on 23rd June 1860, her keel having been laid two years before. She was commissioned at Portsmouth in October, 1861. Orpheus was flush decked of 1800 tons, 240 feet long, a width of 40 feet and with a top speed by steam of 12 knots. The Commanding Officer was Captain William Farquharson Burnett; Commander R.H. Burton was Commander while W.D. Strong was the sailing master (Navigating Officer). On arrival in Sydney in 1862, Captain Burnett relieved Commodore Frederick B.P. Seymour as Flag Officer, Australia Station, and was appointed Commodore. Commander Burton took command of Orpheus.
Although Orpheus was destined for the Australia Station where she would be considered a new and valuable acquisition, with the first of many qualities on that station, namely the largest fastest finest and first steam sail ship, she was sent to Halifax, Canada in December, 1861 with a valuable cargo of rifle ammunition. This diversion was brought about by tension between Britain and the United States. (At the start of the American Civil War, the USS San Jaconto had stopped and removed from the British mail steamer Trent, two Confederate agents). Orpheus was immediately dispatched to Halifax with these weapons for the defence of Canada. However the matter was resolved and peace established, so Orpheus proceeded to Australia. She set out via Bermuda and the Cape of Good Hope, arriving at Sydney on the 18th July, 1862. The new Commodore made the rounds of his station, including a visit to Hobart in Orpheus and a survey of the East Coast up to Cape York in HMS Pioneer.