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Sunday, 26 June 2011

The Wreck Of the S.S. "WAIRARAPA" New Zealand

The subsequent Pigeon Post, and The Salvation Army

On Monday, October 29, 1894, the s.s. Wairarapa, with more than 230 passengers aboard, besides the crew, crashed on to rocks at Miner's Head on Great Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand. Captain McIntosh, the master, and 134 passengers and crew perished.

Great Barrier Island (Maori name: Aotea) lies 65 miles N.E. of Auckland, New Zealand. It is 11 miles wide and 110 square miles in area. Most of it is mountainous, but there are many valleys, and small areas of flatland. In the 1890s, there were great expanses of Kauri pine, which yields not only timber, but a resin, widely used in varnish; in addition, reports of copper drew prospectors to the Island. In due course, most of the trees were cut down and used; the copper mine proved to be unsuccessful, and the beach towns of wooden huts eventually reverted to nature. The west coast has a number of harbours, but the east coast (ocean side) is quite wild, with long beaches and stretches of rocks, and some very high cliffs.

S.S Wairarapa
The s.s. Wairarapa was one of the Union Steamship Line's most luxurious vessels, built in 1892, and had a gross weight of 1716 tons. It was employed on the Australia-New Zealand run, across the Tasman Sea, a journey of over 1,250 miles. The vessel left Sydney on October 24, 1894, bound for Auckland, with some 230 passengers and crew on board.

Late on the night of October 29/30, it had passed the North Cape of New Zealand, when it suddenly encountered dense fog. However, Captain John McIntosh was so sure of his bearing that the ship continued at full speed, to pass Great Barrier Island on the final run to Auckland Harbour.

Suddenly, there was a deafening crash as the ship was flung by the heavy swell on to a rocky ledge. For a moment, all was confusion; the passengers rushed from their beds; Captain McIntosh ordered the boats to be lowered, and the tremendous seas pounded the grounded ship. At 2 a.m., its funnel was carried away, then the boat listed to port and the bridge collapsed. The Captain and many others were swept away into darkness. The life-rafts were cut adrift, and saved many people, and the rest fought for their lives.

There were four Salvationists aboard, including Captain Laura Flavell, aged 27, and Staff-Captain Annette Paul. With other Salvationists, they had been to the International Congress in London, and travelled back separately from the main party. When the ship grounded, Captain Flavell told a fellowpassenger "Don't be afraid; God will look after us. We are prepared to die".

On deck, the survivors clung to the ship's rails for twelve hours, and at last a line was taken to shore by a steward, and secured. A thick rope was then hauled to land, and the passengers attempted to get ashore to safety. Captain Flavell was one of the first to attempt to reach land, but heavy seas broke her grip on the rope, and she was swept away and drowned. Staff-Captain Paul then reached the rocks safely.

At this point of the Island, the cliffs were 800 feet high, and it was thirty hours before another vessel saw the wreck, and rescued the survivors. In those thirty hours, the survivors lived on oranges washed ashore from the wreck, and the few local settlers also helped with food and comfort. 135 people lost their lives.

In due course, the s.s. Argyle a small coaster, saw them, and took them to Auckland. It arrived there at 3 a.m. on November 1, and the outside world learned of the tragedy. The Argyle later returned, and after much effort salvaged 109 sacks of mail of the 117 which had been on board. 23,224 pieces of mail were recovered, taken to Auckland on November 3, and dried out. Items were then marked with a handstamp reading "Saved from the wreck of the/'Wairarapa"' (in two lines), in violet or blue ink. Items backstamped "AUCKLAND 3 NO 94" are usually struck in deep violet, but those backstamped on November 5 or 10 are usually in violet-blue, though 1 do possess a copy of November 3 which is almost certainly bright blue. From the beginning, the handstamp had a characteristic warping.

A much rarer handstamp has been seen, far smaller, and in black. It is thought that this was the first one to be used, but was found to be too small and indistinct, and so discarded. A cover with this black handstamp was sold at a New Zealand auction in 197 1.

Envelopes ("covers") from the wreck are scarce and costly. Three are on display today, one of which shows three Australian postmarks and no fewer than nine New Zealand ones, as well as the 'wreck' handstamp.

Also in the display are pages from Brian Peace's book Australasian Disaster Mail, which was published in April 1997, which retails at about £65; and a paper by Robin Gwynn, published in 1993.

A copy of the New Zealand Centenary War Cry is also shown; it features a romantic impression of the disaster. You may be surprised to see that the three S.A. Ladies have their coats and bonnets on immaculate and dry - at a few minutes past midnight! Lightning flashes and white clouds are seen, though no storm has been mentioned in my sources of information; in fact, there was dense fog. The picture is the product of an artist with a vivid imagination, and who had not read the details of the disaster, nor used common-sense.

A "Cabinet" photograph of Captain Laura Flavell was a fortunate purchase of over fifteen years ago. The note on the reverse is very interesting: "Captain Laura Flavell, Salvation Army officer. Drowned 30th October, 1894....showed great courage..."

Great Barrier Island Pigeon Post.

Some long time ago, 1 read that because of the long delay in the news of the wreck reaching those able to help, it was suggested that pigeons should be carried on all boats sailing around dangerous areas of the New Zealand coast, so that they could quickly carry messages in emergency. Sadly, I have no reference to the source of this information and enquiries in recent years have produced no confirmation of this. However, a Great Barrier Island Pigeon Post was set up. This was primarily used by the mining and forestry companies.

The first such message was flown on May 14, 1 1897, and the service was organized by Mr Parkin, a pigeon-fancier of the day. He later estimated that 15 to 20 messages a day were handled; the average time for the 65 miles to Auckland was 65 to 70 minutes, though one of his pigeons did the journey in 50 minutes - quite astonishingly fast.

Initially, the messages, on very flimsy paper, were fastened to the pigeons' legs by cotton or string, but very soon stamps were issued, and the message-sheets were secured with those, which were apparently more comfortable for the birds! These stamps were first used in October, 1898, under the new ownership of Mr. S. Holden Howie, also a successful breeder of homing pigeons. The stamps, of 6d and 1/- values, can occasionally be found on fragments of the flimsies; they are not as expensive as the wreck covers, but are still not at all cheap. The 6d blue and 1/- red shown today are on portions of "flimsies". Both are triangular; the 6d has a black barred cancellation, the shilling has a purple boxed cancellation dated Jun 9, 1904. Both have a perforation gauging 113/4all round.

For years afterwards, groups were organized to go to the Island, and held memorial services at the site of the wreck. Newspaper men flew their "copy" back to their papers by using the pigeon post. Finally, in 1994, an anniversary pigeon post flight was organized, and souvenir sheets of "Anniversary" stamps were issued by an enterprising stamp dealer. These comprised of three triangular stamps at 1/6 and three at $15; the sheet of six retailing at $45; a flown flimsy with one of the Anniversary stamps was around $20.

Acknowledgments: B.R.Peace, Leeds; R.Gwynn, New Zealand; A.P.Berry, Guildford; J.M.A.Gregson, Bristol; T.Maclaren, New Zealand; L.N.Williams, London; "Fight the Good Fight", C.R.Bradwell, 1982; "Great Barrier Island, 1898-99 Pigeon Post Stamps", J.R.Walker, 1968; "History of The Salvation Army", volume 4, Arch.Wiggins, 1964; New Zealand "War Cry", September 17, 1983; "Australasian Disaster Mail", B.R.Peace, 1997.

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