Wreck of the Queen Bee


The Queen Bee was a wooden barque of between 700 and 800 tons. A fine, roomy ship, she was one of the earliest vessels to bring immigrants to New Zealand and had made eleven passages from England, when disaster struck on the night of Monday 6 August 1877 and she ran aground on Farewell Spit.

Queen Bee lost oilThe Queen Bee lost oil, painting held Nelson Provincial Museum, AC976.
Click image to enlarge

On 15 August 1942, an account of the fateful voyage was recalled by Dr Sidney Gibbs, who was a child on board at the time of the shipwreck. He said of life on board: " This was before the refrigeration age and ranged around the deck were coops of fowls and ducks with sheep and pigs in pens for'ard and beyond that a quantity of deck cargo, dangerous goods, acids and inflammables."

New Zealand landfall was made north of Milford Sound with a wonderful view of Mount Cook and the Southern Alps as the Queen Bee sailed up the West Coast.

Another passenger (‘a youth under 21') wrote to his father, the Rev. J.S. Hilliard, after the shipwreck and described how all the passengers were heartily sick of the Queen Bee after the long voyage from England and were happy to see the bright light at the end of Farewell Spit.

"At midnight, some one and a half hours later, the whole ship was awakened by a severe bump- bad enough to throw some out of their bunks-followed by further bumps and then she stopped," Dr Gibbs said.

Wreck of the Queen BeeWreck of the Queen Bee. As reported in the Nelson Evening Mail,  Aug. 9, 1877
Click image to enlarge

At 4am the second officer and some sailors were sent to get help. They telegraphed for help from Motueka at 8pm that day.

Meanwhile, Captain Davies made the decision to abandon ship, with 15 passengers put on board the lifeboat and 17 passengers on board the Cutter. Dr Gibbs described the escape boats as woefully ill equipped: "They had no instruments, no sails, no mast, no rudders, no water, only three oars apiece and two tins of bully beef in each boat."

At about 9am, the lifeboat and cutter left the wreck, but 15 men, including Master Hilliard, were still on board. After waiting for help until the middle of Tuesday afternoon, the men lashed a raft together to make their escape.

Hilliard wrote to his father: "I went down to the saloon to change my clothes. I put on two dirty flannel shirts, a pair of brown drawers, and the trousers and coat I got at Ealing...and a sheaf knife. I wrote on a big piece of paper my name and address, and the time, and put it inside my shirt so that, in case of drowning, my body could be identified."

The raft did not fare well in the heavy seas and the men on board were transferred to the Captain's gig. This boat capsized when a landing was attempted on D'Urville Island, drowning the carpenter ‘Chips'. The cutter was nearly blown out to sea, but made D'Urville during the night. After 36 hours, the hungry, wet and exhausted passengers of the lifeboat washed up at Awaroa.

By the time the venerable steamer, the Lady Barkly arrived at Farewell Spit, the Queen Bee was completely submerged and not a soul could be found near the wreck. The Captain noted that, had the Queen Bee been about 180 metres further out, she would have cleared the sandspit.

The steamers the Lady Barkly, Lyttleton, Manawatu and the naval boat Aurora searched for the missing people for several days. Dr Gibbs described what happened when the exhausted cutter's passengers came ashore at D'Urville Island :  

 " Suddenly we heard shouting and looking up the bracken-clothed hillside saw a horde of Maoris racing toward us...However our fears were soon put to flight- the worst we had to experience was an energetic rubbing of noses.  Thereafter it was a picnic. The Maoris took us over the hill to their pah, even carrying some of the younger ones, and treated us royally, refusing any remuneration."

All of the survivors of the wreck of the Queen Bee were eventually picked up by the Lady Barkly or the Aurora and made it back to Nelson. The folk from D'Urville Island were greeted by the Bishop, the band and some 4000 citizens who came to meet those given up as lost.

The Court of Inquiry into the loss of the ship found that Captain Davies was guilty of a grave default and should have taken soundings to better ascertain his position.

Written by Joy Stephens and published in Wild Tomato, 2009, with the support of The Nelson Provincial Museum.

Read More... 

  • For a personal account of the Wreck, see the letter written by survivor Charles Gibbs-Beckett, as reported in an English newspaper of the time (supplied by Antony Davis from his wife's family's papers).
  • For a more detailed account of the story, read the account written by Mike Whittal [Wreck of the Queen Bee - PDF]; a shortened version of a four part story first published in The Fishing Paper, 2009. Mike Whittal has also submitted the following poem, produced as a Relief Fund fundraiser to assist the survivors who had lost all their personal and household possessions in the disaster [courtesy of Janes Peter of Jimpy's Antiques]:

Queen Bee Fundraiser

In Nelson we looked for the Queen Bee, for long was the ship on the waters,
We read of her much valued cargo; the long list of sons and of daughters;
The parents and children beloved, leaving homes in the "Country Old"
For new ones out here in the sunshine - this southern land of "Gold"
We peacefully slept in our homesteads, for the Monday's toil was o'er
And we dreamt not then of the QUEEN BEE, though she was near our shore,
But the wires soon flashed the tidings, and our steamers put to sea,
Hastings away to the Sandspit, for there lay the wrecked QUEEN BEE,
All broken was she, and forsaken; a ruined, desolate wreck;
And the big strong waves were sweeping ruthlessly o'er her deck.
But the sought not the wealthy cargo; they looked for the "priceless" freight,
Who had taken the open boats, ah! Who could tell their fate!
So the steamers searched the islets, the nooks and crags around,
Looking, longing, waiting, till some of the lost were found;
But where! Oh, where are the missing! Women and children small.
So Nelson arises to duty; - she "always" obeys the call;
The weak and helpless ever find refuge on her coast
When the "dogs of war" are loosened; and now the "missing boats".
They man their own "Aurora", our Naval Bright Brigade;
Not to meet the Turks or Russians; no, there are lives to save.
The Sappho's crew are searching; good Taylor puts to sea;
Their every aim is "one" aim, - the boats of the QUEEN BEE.
And there were prayers ascending from many a heart and home,
God in his mercy hearing, for He could save alone.
Again the wires are flashing; oh, joy! They bring good cheer,
The missing boats are safe are safe! Their freight will soon be here!
We left our homes and doings, we left the bank and store,
And crowds soon hasten forth to greet them heartily to shore.
An end to all our sorrows, an end to all our fears,
The Nelson Rocks they echoed loud the welcome of our cheers.
We saw the sisters land, and the little new-born child, -
The mother's joy, - God bless them all; ‘twas good to see them smile.
And how we sang the "grand old verse", with hearts and voices too;
Praise, praise to Him who blessed all; for surely praise was due.
Now let us hold a helping hand to those who here may live,
‘Tis not so blessed to "receive", - the blessing is to "give"
And like the wires we'll let it reach across the great wide sea
To the widow of the "only one" lost through the wrecked QUEEN BEE.
And Nelson's children years to come shall know the August night,
When that fine ship became a wreck, so near the Sandspit Light,
And how the City did fulfil her great namesake's command.
And duty did right manfully, with willing heart and hand.

Updated May 7, 2020

Sources used in this story

The information in this article is from resources available at the Nelson Provincial Museum's Isel Park Research Archives, including:  

  • Brown, Margaret Cheston, 1907-2000, Collection, The Nelson Provincial Museum, Ref AG 367 [includes research papers about the Wreck of the Queen Bee].
  • Gibbs, Frederick Giles, 1866-1953, Collection. The Nelson Provincial Museum, Ref AG 85 [includes family papers on the wreck of the Queen Bee]. 

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  • Hi
    In 1861 my great grandmother came from Ireland to Australia on a ship called the "Queen Bee". Would this be the same ship? Ed. I think it was. The ship took immigrants to NZ from 1866; before this she was used by the S. Australian company to ship immigrants to Adelaide, and may have been used on other occasions too.

    Posted by Terry Linsell, ()

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Further sources - Wreck of the Queen Bee




  • Evans, Eyre - Shipboard diary of the Queen Bee (22 June - 4 Nov 1866). Alexander Turnbull Library, MSX-3970  
  • A figurehead from the wreck of the Queen Bee (washed up on Farewell Spit) is displayed at Founders Park (see Nelson Evening Mail, 17 August 1877)

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