The Wreck of the Lastingham 1884


Being a country surrounded by the ocean New Zealand has experienced hundreds of shipwrecks claiming tremendous amounts of lives. Cook Strait is no exception to other stretches of our coastal water. Perhaps one of the saddest stories of ship founderings and wrecks to occur in the top of the south is the wreck of the ship Lastingham off Cape Jackson in the Spring of 1884. A ship, laden with cargo and crew, sank beneath the waves after a two hour battering against the steep cliffs of Cape Jackson. Today she lies in just a few metres of water and is a well known dive spot and yet, the ship's tale of death and survival goes relatively unknown to those of Marlborough and Nelson.

The Wreck of the Lastingham 1884

The Lastingham. Image supplied by author

The Lastingham was built as a twin masted iron sailing ship in 1876 at West Hartlepool, located in Durham County, England, by William Gray & Co.. On the 30th November 1876 the Lastingham was launched and bought by J. Lidgett & Sons of London and put to use in the shipping trade. In 1883 the Lastingham was purchased from J. Lidgett & Co. by John Leslie & Partners and was then managed by the Shaw-Savill Company. In 1884 the Lastingham was sailing from England to Wellington, carrying goods and passengers. It was on the 28th day of May 1884 that the ship pulled away from London under the command of veteran captain Alexander Charles Morrison. He was regarded as one of the most, if not the foremost, experienced captains employed by the company and had sailed for the majority of his life. His sailing was largely in relation to Chinese shipping, usually accompanied by his dear wife. Other members of his crew were John Stirley Neale, another notable seafarer in New Zealand's early days.

It was on the ninety-sixth day of the voyage that the lookout first spotted New Zealand. Mt. Taranaki rolled into view at eight o’clock in the morning as the ship headed for Wellington to unload her weary passengers and brig full of goods. Five passengers were making the trip out to the colony aboard the Lastingham. Their names were Lloyd Davies, Russell Lee, Alfred Meakin, Harry McGinn and Frank Naish. It was at the time of the sighting of Mt. Taranaki that the weather turned. The strong whistle from a North-West gale belted against the ship. Capt. Morrison pushed on, although well aware of the dangers of such weather. It was dark when the ship reached Cook Strait, however by this time the weather was thick with rain and blowing such a gale the ship began to struggle.

Neale reported that the weather quickly came upon them so fiercely that land was only visible from less than a mile in the distance. At nine o’clock a cry rang out over the wind that land was on the Port Bow. Captain Morrison called for the sails to be cut away and for the next hour the ship sat uncontrolled in an attempt to wait out the storm. The crew and passengers' concern grew exponentially when the ship struck hard on Jackson's Head and broached to at approximately 10.00:PM on September 1.

The area in which the ship struck was nearly vertical, but men found the opportunity to climb the beakhead and lower themselves on to the rocks before the ship turned broadside on to the sea and began to be broken up on the rocks. This was in the first five minutes when the call “every man for himself” was raised. The crew that did escape via the beak tried to alert the others on board of the way to escape, but the sea was so loud and the wind so fierce that in all the commotion their cries were not heard. Second mate John Barton described the ease of abandoning ship in the first five minutes as “It just seemed as if I was walking off this kerbstone to the road”.

The Wreck of the Lastingham 1884

The location of the wreck of the Lastingham. Image supplied by author

For an hour the ship was forced upon the rocks, allowing for the waves to wash virtually everything overboard. The lifeboats were smashed to pieces and slowly each mast went. Once the final mast fell the ship pulled back out to sea and swung around broadside where she lay for a short while before sinking below the waves. Frank Naish and J. Wilson had both tried to swim to shore with ropes around their waists but they both became exhausted and had to be pulled back. The Captain was last seen in his cabin, clutching his dear wife in their final moments. His years of travel between the great nations had finally drawn to a close. His wife, always accompanying him. When they were last seen the water was already up to their armpits and he was holding his wife around the waves.

The Captain had lost all his life's savings when the Glasgow Bank ‘swept away’ the money after its collapse in 1878, forcing him to go back into employment. The last person to see them was a seaman named Groves who had come below deck to ask what to do. The captain never replied and so he returned to the deck to abandon ship. Two men managed to get to shore after the ship broke up and sank but beyond that, the only survivors were those who had managed to drop off the ship when it first struck the rocks. 

It was the following morning when a head count was made, deducing that fourteen souls had survived the wreck with eighteen unaccounted for and the possibility of more survivors being highly unlikely. Captain John Neale took charge of the crew. The shoreline was searched where two packages of oatmeal and flour were recovered as well as four pounds of pickled pork which was gnawed on by all the crew. The following day the weather was fairer so clothes were put out to dry in the sun which perhaps many feared they’d never feel again. The oatmeal was mixed with fresh water they found and drank to ward off hunger and the survivors rested beneath the sun; the previous night they were huddled together for warmth against the cliff sides and unable to rest.

John (George) Henry Ward, an African-American man, left the group at Cape Jackson in hopes of potentially discovering some civilization. After bush whacking his way over the ridge he discovered the abandoned mining village of Raven’s Cliff and camped there the night before moving on to another hut near Ships Cove in Kemp’s Bay where he managed to find some candles with matches and a piece of suet which he could eat. He was then joined by two others; Francis William Chalmers and C. Alvares with whom he spent the following Wednesday, collecting shellfish to eat. They had followed notes made by Ward which he left on sticks in the ground to show which way he went. He had found some scraps of paper and a pencil at the abandoned mining settlement.

It was Thursday when Chalmers decided to head back to the other survivors and convey them back to the site, where there were better provisions  than those washed up from the wreck. He retracted his long, arduous steps only to find that all of his surviving comrades were gone. In fact they were just a mile away on board the Agnes having finally attracted the attention of a passing ship. Chalmers was overcome with emotion. Many of the survivors had come to believe that they were on an uninhabited island, including Chalmers who saw the vessel sailing into the distance as his lost final chance of rescue. He struggled back to where he had left Ward and Alvares but what greeted him was another sad blow to his morale. He arrived to discover that both men had also taken their leave. Chalmers' isolation and fear were soon calmed when the ship Kentish Lass sailed into view and took him to Picton, where he met his two momentarily missing mates. His two shipmates had managed to wave down a ship known as Maud Graham who kindly escorted them to Picton after spending a night at Turner’s Bay in the care of Mr. Jones.

wreck treasure

Treasures retrieved from the wreck of the Lastingham.

All three were interviewed at Picton with each party given descriptions of their versions of the events. It came out that both Chalmers and Alvares had experienced shipwrecks before with Alvares having survived a sinking off Mauritius by getting to shore on the back of a cow, it being a cattle ship that sank. Ward also gave account that when he saw land and gave the news to the crew they ridiculed him and thought he was joking. The crew aboard the Agnes, captained by Captain. Jensen, who was bound for Kaiapoi with timber from Pelorus/ Hoiere, were taken to Wellington and tended to.  The crew gave high praise to their rescuer and his crew when arriving in Wellington. The citizens of Wellington began a fundraiser for the survivors with £35 provided on the first day for clothing.

After the whole ordeal, salvage crews came to recover as much as they could from the remains of the wreck. The total value of cargo was priced at £16,500. The railway iron was salvaged from the ship and interestingly it was used in the construction of the Hutt Park in Lower Hutt. The whole ordeal was viewed as one of no gallantry or bravery. One newspaper commented on the wreck as “A miserable story it is, from first to last, unredeemed by a single trait of heroism or even manliness”. As for the deceased, it’s unknown if any bodies were recovered after the sinking.

Capt. John Stirley Neale found employment as chief officer on the government ship Hinemoa and went on to become harbour master for Onehunga. Many of the crew obtained passage on board the ship Florida and returned to London while some decided to try their hand in the colony. The following is, possibly an incomplete, list of those who tragically lost their lives during the disaster - W. Crumden, Henry Groves, G. Lambert, J. Lawless Lee, J. Mather, Peter McQuire, Capt. Alexander C. Morrison, Mrs. Morrison, John Murray, J. Pearce, W. Sharp, J. Watson, Lloyd Davies, Russell Lee, Alfred J. Meakin, Harry McGinn, Francis H. Naish and Burrell.

 In 1966, the shipwreck was located in twelve metres of water off Cape Jackson’s Head and many artefacts were recovered such as bottles, china, watches, thimbles and crockery. The site today is a popular dive location.


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