The Adamant and the Cospatrick


The arrival of the first sailing ships, Arrow, Will Watch and Whitby, into Nelson Haven on Sunday 31 October marked the beginning of a remarkable period of history which brought many hundred sailing ships to Nelson, some specialising in a cargo of new settlers, others carrying mostly trade goods. At first most of these ships were of timber construction, but as the age of steel developed more and more steel hulled sailing ships took over, being safer from the perils of fire, and less prone to leaking. By 1870 timber was in such short supply that very few wooden sailing ships were built.

The Adamant, 1874. The Nelson Provincial Museum, Miscellaneous Collection: 6x8-2
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On the same day in 1874, two sailing ships left within an hour or so of each other from the Blackwell Dock in London. The first to leave was the wooden hulled Cospatrick with 429 immigrants bound for Auckland, followed by the smaller steel hulled Adamant with 340 government assisted immigrants bound for Nelson. Those on board lined the rails to wave farewell to each other and to wish each ‘bon voyage' for ahead of each was a voyage of 3-4 months duration, as well as all that the sea could throw at them, the risk of disease on board, and the uncertainty of what their new homeland would be like.

The Adamant

Under Captain Grant the Adamant made a speedy passage, a record 91 days, arriving in Nelson on August 6 1874. The qualities of the ship, captain, doctor and crew received much praise from the passengers, the only real problem being the outbreaks of bronchitis, diarrhea and measles causing much sickness and the death of twelve children. There was much relief and celebration as they tied up at the Nelson wharf, and a formal photograph was taken of the surviving women and children, assembled at the stern rail of the ship with the captain and officers, recording the moment. As those on board prepared to disembark they wondered about the wellbeing of those on the Cospatrick. As they stepped ashore it did not take long for news via telegraph to spread amongst the immigrants.

The Cospatrick

The Cospatrick was one sailing ship that didn't make it, becoming one of the sea's most hideous tragedies. On board were 429 emigrants, mostly farm labourers from the Oxfordshire area, joining the crew of 44. Among the passengers were seventeen from the small village of Shipton-under-Wychwood. The cargo comprised railway irons, cement powder, oils, varnishes, turpentine, rum, brandy, wine, beer and assorted other goods, along with the personal belongings of the many passengers. Although it was against shipping regulations to carry such flammable cargo on a passenger ship, authorities let it pass as long as strict fire restrictions were followed - no smoking, galley cooking fires doused by 7 pm, no unauthorised lamps or candles, and regular night patrols carried out by volunteer passengers throughout each night.

The Cospatrick The Graphic 9 Jan 1875. WikiMedia

The Cospatrick - The Graphic 9 Jan. 1875. WikiMedia

All went well until about half way through the voyage. Just after midnight on 17 November while several hundred miles from land south of the Cape of Good Hope a fire broke out. As most of the passengers and crew were asleep it took some time for firefighting to get organised. The fire was deep in the forward hold and quickly escalated as the wind swept the flames the length of the ship. Some managed to take to lifeboats, but a large number were trapped aboard as other lifeboats were burnt or destroyed when the three masts crashed onto the decks below, killing many as they did so. The first lifeboat holding about 80, mostly women, capsized as it hit the water and all soon drowned. Only 62 people in two other lifeboats managed to clear the burning ship. Those remaining on board, including the 17 from Shipton-under Wychwood were either killed by falling masts and spars or burnt alive as they retreated as far aft as possible until they could no longer escape the flames. Captain Elmslie stayed with his ship as long as possible, but when all hope was lost he threw his wife overboard then followed her. At the same time the ship's doctor, Dr Cardle, also jumped with the captain's little boy in his arms. All were drowned.

The burnt out ship drifted for two days before sinking, while the two lifeboats drifted nearby, picking up the odd survivor from the water before being separated by deteriorating weather. There were about 30 people in each. One boat was never seen again, while the others suffered terrible hardship through hunger and thirst. When the remaining lifeboat boat was found, by chance, ten days after the fire, there were only five people still alive, two of whom died shortly after. Cannibalism is thought to have been a factor in their survival. The three survivors were later able to provide most of the evidence for the maritime inquiry. The cause of fire was put down to someone trying to raid the kegs of spirits in the boatswain's store, although another possibility was spontaneous combustion from a combination of oils, paints, rags and coal dust deep in the hold.

Arrival in Nelson

The 340 passengers of the Adamant who did arrive in Nelson, were all government assisted immigrants, lured by the prospect of employment in the rapidly growing colony. Within a fortnight of arrival nearly all had found work, some as labourers building the Rai Valley road, others took up job offers building railways in Westport, while fourteen families became the first pioneers of the new Karamea settlement which had to be carved out of the bush.

Others went on to Greymouth and Hokitika. One such family was William and Mary Ann Jacobs with their four children, William's trade being listed as ‘woodsman'. He worked for many years on railway construction jobs and bought land at Kaiata (where Kaiata School is now) in the lower Grey Valley where they lived for 62 years. Mary Ann was a small fragile person and her parents doubted that she would survive the long arduous voyage to Nelson. She did, and later went on to live to 100 years of age. One of their children, Polly Jacobs also lived a long life, for many years at Kumara. Many of her memories written when she was 95 years of age, including the voyage on Adamant, are recorded in the booklet ‘Women of Westland' compiled by the Greymouth branch of the National Council of Women, 1959.

The Adamant sails on

The Adamant went on to complete nine successful voyages from London to New Zealand. Her third trip heading for Bluff under Captain Burch in 1875 was a troubled one, the captain very keen on drink. It took them three weeks to clear the coast of Brazil but not before running aground on a sand bank. The chief officer took control of the ship with Burch confined to his cabin and his grog. He died about six weeks before reaching Bluff and was buried at sea. This troubled voyage took 144 days, with provisions all but exhausted. In 1878, heading for Nelson on her fifth trip, she nearly came to grief when running down the southern ocean. In the middle of the night the deck watch spotted a huge iceberg dead ahead, and a collision was just narrowly averted. Her final voyage to New Zealand was in 1882, again to Bluff, this time taking only 118 days under a new and sober Captain Tonkin. On her return to London she was sold to C. Jorgenson of Hamburg, Germany.

2010. Updated May 2023

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  • Tena Koutou. I have recently read your articles online about the Cospatrick. It may be of interest for you know that some of my early family survived the horror of the Cospatrick by a small twist of fate.
    Ed. we have added the 2 images which accompanied this comment below, under further sources-other

    Posted by Grenville Christie, 17/05/2023 12:22am (7 months ago)

  • There is a book about the Cospatrick:

    Women and children last: The burning of the emigrant ship Cospatrick by Charles Clark (2006) (174 pages). Please add this item to your list of sources. Thank you. Ed - we will do

    Posted by Torben Retboll, 23/01/2016 5:41pm (8 years ago)

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