Wreck of the 'Penguin'


The worst shipwreck in New Zealand, during the 20th century, happened in Cook Strait and was of the regular passenger ship taking people from Picton to Wellington.  

Penguin passing through French PassSS Penguin passing through French Pass. Image held by Picton Museum
Click image to enlarge

S.S. Penguin had been built in Glasgow as a topsail schooner and was bought by the Union Steamship Company in 1879.  She was renovated three years later to give more speed, and began on the Cook Strait run in 1902.  Her route was Nelson-Picton-Wellington, and people hopped across to the North Island on her, much the way we do with our ferries today. 

On February 12 1909 she set sail from Picton in reasonable weather for an evening crossing, but ran into storm conditions exiting Tory Channel.  Picton residents today know how often the weather is very different in Cook Strait from what we experience in the Sounds (the day of the Wahine disaster was reportedly a beautiful day in Picton), and this was clearly one of those occasions. 

In heavy rain, big seas and a strong south-easterly wind, and without today’s navigation aids, the Captain was uncertain of his exact position.  At 10pm there was a loud grating noise as the ship hit something – what exactly was never known for sure.  Thom’s Rock was one suggestion, another was a timber-carrier which had been recently lost and may have been floating just below the surface. In any case, Penguin quickly began to sink. 

The lifeboats were launched, but most capsized immediately in the heavy seas, trapping some passengers underneath and tipping most into the sea.  The ship sank within forty minutes. Ironically, the men who waited till last, and had only life rafts to save them, fared better than the women and children they’d put into the boats.  

Captain Naylor was last to leave the ship and managed to grab hold of an upturned lifeboat. Seventy-two people were lost.  Survivors and bodies alike were washed up on to the rough shore near Cape Terawhiti, a long distance from help. 

News of the disaster spread quickly, and newspapers bore photos of the wreckage and survival stories, as well as tales of bravery.  The weekly Free Lance put out a special edition the following Saturday, and there were the elaborate funeral processions usual in Edwardian days.  Many of the victims were buried in Karori cemetery, but some were returned to their home towns, including Picton.   

Mrs Ada Louise Hannam survived, but lost her husband Joseph and four children, although she was able to save another boy.  Mrs Hannam was reported in the Marlborough Express describing how her lifeboat plunged head-first into the ocean, later capsizing.  Some of the occupants were able to hang on to ropes and breathe in the air trapped under the boat before being washed on to the shore. 

There were of course the usual full enquiries and Captain Francis Edwin Naylor, who was among the thirty survivors, was exonerated of blame.  Various surviving pieces of ship fittings and memorial plaques are now in the Wellington Museum, and also in Lyttelton Museum.

This story is a shortened version of one that Loreen Brehaut wrote for the Marlborough Express on behalf of the Picton Historical Society  to mark the centennial of the Penguin sinking in February 2009. 

Updated: April 2020

Sources used in this story

  • Collins, B. (2000), The Wreck of the Penguin. Wellington, N.Z. : Steele Roberts
  • Marlborough Express, February 13 1909

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Further sources - Wreck of the 'Penguin'


  • Boyes, W, (1909) In memorium SS Penguin [poetry] [New Zealand : The Author] : Willis Print
  • Collins, B. (2000), The Wreck of the Penguin. Wellington, N.Z. : Steele Roberts
  • The Penguin enquiry : being an account of the wreck of the S.S. Penguin, off Cape Terawhiti, New Zealand, on February 12th, 1909 : together with an official report of the evidence given at the enquiry held at Wellington, on February 22nd, 23rd and 24th, and the judgments of the Court of Enquiry and the Court of Appeal (1909) Wellington, N.Z. : Cracroft Wilson and Roberts
  • Wogan, D. (2005) Penguin self guided walk : Karori Cemetery heritage trail. [Wellington, N.Z.] : Wellington City Council


  • Barton, W. (2001,  February 12) Divers plan to uncover the mystery of Penguin disaster. Dominion, p.9
  • Heroines of the sea (2004) New Zealand Memories,48, p.52-53
  • Wreck of the Penguin (1909, February 13) Marlborough Express


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