Volume 1. Number 10.

SS Wonga Wonga:

Reminiscences on a life at sea 

recounted in

5 Chapters

Chapter I:

‘Gaze on the Wonga Wonga, anxiously’  

The SS Wonga Wonga: when I met her first she was in 1857; a most curious and beguiling little ship.  She settled in my mind, compelling me to follow her about her ocean haunts.  Enchanted, I was carried entirely away by sentimental visions of the life of a coastal steamship.[1]  

I could taste the anticipation in a settlement appearing on the horizon after days at sea, the pleasure of taking passengers on a voyage to town, or into the wilderness. Entrusted with the treasures and trade goods of the colony – all, and who and what she might have seen – letters from far away places, old newspapers and new dresses, all sitting amongst wool bales, and casks of rum and Kauri gum. What adulation she must have received; arriving in port with an unexpected friend, or with a whole camp full of soldiers on board!

I was anxious too, for as far as I followed her she was just a dream to me.  No painting or picture had appeared, and from today, far from a world of barques and clippers and steamers, I realised I had no idea what she looked like. What if she was plain, or squalid or stupid?

Still, she led me on and onward to a fateful day, 7 February 1863.  When I got there I finally felt the thrilling pleasure of recognition, knowing her at her greatest hour, aid and witness to the wreck of the British man-of-war HMS Orpheus.  She drifts there upon the wild, wide sea of Richard Brydges Beechey’s[2] painting of the wreck, gazing anxiously upon the stricken ship [Fig 1].  Her curious combination of masts and funnels upon a sleek, low hull; smoke lingering in the air, ensign fluttering atop – she was everything I had hoped for.  I could feel her impotency in the face of such horror and I could imagine her life, in better days, on the beautiful but treacherous seas and harbours of New Zealand’s coast.

Chapter II.

Our fairy-like little steamer. 

Let us go back to her beginning – 1854 – the year the Wonga Wonga was built on the busy shipyards of the Clyde in Glasgow, Scotland.[3] She was styled an SS (screw-steamer), so that we might know her apart from a PS (paddle-steamer).  Intended from the start for the Antipodean market she was named for an Australian woodpigeon.

In 1855 the Wonga Wonga arrived in Melbourne under sail. She was soon purchased by the Auckland Local Steam Navigation Company.  The ALSNC, one of the speculative share-holder enterprises the New Zealand colonialist so delighted in establishing, was intent on a scheme to open the channels of commerce into Auckland’s hinterland via water-carriage.  Steam was the way of the future, and the Wonga Wonga, they agreed, after an exhaustive hunt across the Tasman, was just the ship for the task.  And so it was the little Scottish steamship arrived in Auckland. Her job, to ensure no land was left to waste its fertility in the aggrandisement of a grasping squatocracy, but [be] placed within the reach of the industrious cultivator.[4]

Interest in this new asset ran high; reports of her earliest expeditions abound with effusive adjectives.   In her first trial the Wonga Wonga was proclaimed a beautiful little steamer … [who] gave great satisfaction to the practical gentlemen who accompanied her. [5] On her first public outing later that week – an excursion from Queen Street Wharf for Howick, then onto the Bay of Islands – a ‘new settler’ wrote to the paper overflowing with admiration:

‘After a few hours excellent steaming, we entered the Mahurangi river … if your readers will fancy our fairy like little steamer, placidly reposing on the water, with a rich and undulating country stretching away till the prospect is bounded by the distant ranges of the Oma … I cannot but congratulate the colonies of this Province, more especially of this City, on the possession of so excellent a steamer as the Wonga Wonga …I do not think I ever trod the decks of a boat so well adapted in many respects for developing the resources of this colony.  Let us then look upon this steamer as our own. Let us vigorously use her as a lever with which to raise our adopted country to the position to which the native energy of her colonists and her own intrinsic resources entitle her.’[6]

James Bowden[7], the first Captain of the Wonga Wonga, was by all accounts a popular and jovial commander, and so the two made a promising start. Together, they travelled the Auckland coastal routes, one week they would run from Auckland to Russell, Whangaroa and Mangonui and Mahurangi, the next they would go to Whangarei, calling at Bay of Islands and Kawau and make a second visit to Coromandel.  A floating road of this sort was much cheaper than a terrestrial one, and as such the Auckland Provincial Council subsidised the running of the Wonga Wonga at £2000 per annum.[8]

Despite this subsidy and the popularity of the ship, the route was not a commercial success.  Settlement in the outer-lying parts of the province was not yet well enough established to support her and the Council was unwilling to prop her up until that time came. Proving too much of a burden on shareholders she was sold in 1857 to the Wellington Steam Navigation Company.  The WSNC intended her for a new regular trade route between Wellington and the fast growing settlements of Ahuriri and Taranaki on either coast of the lower North Island.


Chapter III. 

The Auckland Argonautic Expedition to Ahuriri.

This is where I first encountered her, on the occasion of her maiden voyage south, stopping by Ahuriri as she made for her new home port of Wellington.  Napier had been declared a port of entry just two years earlier. By 1857 about half a dozen ships, trading from Wellington, Auckland, Wairoa and Poverty Bay were calling each year.  The Wonga Wonga, which arrived on 24 May 1857 was the first steamer to call.[9]

While most adult Ahuririans would likely have seen a steamship before, the very smoke on the horizon – such a symbol of progress and potential arriving at their own particular colonial outpost – must have made for an occasion of intense excitement.  Of no less interest on this visit were the worthy passengers,[10] including one Edward Stafford, then Colonial Secretary, who disembarked intent on taking stock of the new town.

The accounts of this ‘Argonautic Expedition’ to Ahuriri, as it was dubbed by its passengers, are a delight, just one tale of a hundred such journeys made by the Wonga Wonga, and deserve recounting at length:

‘The District of Ahuriri having, for a length of time, been favourably before the public eye, and having, indeed, begun to assume no mean importance in relation to the other settlements of the Colony, the opportunity occurring through the Wonga Wonga was not to be lost by those who, either in connection with business or in pursuit of pleasure, were desirous of visiting a locality said to be so highly favoured.

Till within half-an-hour or so of starting, hardly one of the party knew that he should have a companion beyond the charterer and the twenty-five Merino lambs, the offspring of Mr. Rich’s celebrated ram “Shakespeare,” which Mr Bain was taking down for certain Ahuririans. Seeing that a large number of Ahuriri wethers had been bespoken for the return voyage a classical passenger of the Lempriere dictionary school, was pleased to call the trip ” the Auckland Argonautic Expedition to Ahuriri.

Wednesday, May 20 The Wonga Wonga with a full cargo of merchandise in the hold and 40 rams on deck, sailed at 5pm. Capt Bowden, with his “shining morning face,” having assumed his position on the bridge.

Sunday, May 24. 6 a.m. entered Hawke’s Bay — we could discern numerous dwellings extending along the coast in the neighbourhood of the town; also that portion of the latter which is built on the eastern side of Scinde Island. On rounding the Bluff … the port opened to view, and the pilot came on board. It was dead low water, but, in a few minutes, we found ourselves guided through the narrow entrance of the harbour, and, after touching for a few minutes, safely anchored in a snug little basin rejoicing in the name of the “Iron Pot.”

When inside, a vessel may set the elements as completely at defiance as if in the London Dock — the harbour being, in fact, a dock of natures own construction. It is sheltered from the sea by a pebbly bank thrown up by the surf, presenting an impenetrable barrier to the angry billows, and leaving but a narrow outlet — that by which vessels enter. This bank is termed the Spit, and numbers a good many buildings, principally of a business character.

Two or three years ago there were very few inhabitants in Scinde Island—now in the town and port there are about 60 houses, some of which are very neat structures, that belonging to Mr Tiffen of the land office particularly so, and the population is over 150.

Wednesday, May 27. — At 5 p.m. the steamer -was warped out of her snug quarters into the stream. The Wonga went out at full speed amidst the reiterated hip, hip hurrahs of the large body of settlers who watched her departure. We need not add that the cheers were lustily returned.”[11]

The introduction of the Wonga Wonga to the Napier route was not without controversy.  Much of the local population was agitating loudly for political independence from Wellington and the instigation of this particular service was, while a potential economic boon to her inhabitants, also construed as an attempt to bring the outer edges of the province under her thumb by the subversive means of a regular mail run. Savvy Aucklanders seized on the squabbles and set themselves up as friend and ally to Hawke’s Bay – banking on the economic opportunities that might arise. As one Aucklander said of their arrival aboard the Wonga Wonga:

It was, in fact, in one sense, an invading force—an army representing common sense, and good faith, and sound legislation asking advantage of the opportunity-furnished by the spirit of commercial enterprise, and setting off to the relief of a young but thriving pastoral community from ‘the thraldrom in which-it has up to this time been held by the aforesaid fussy knot of politicians, who instead of being called ” the three F’s,” have been recently christened by some of their less ardent admirers ” the three Buzz-flies of the Beach.

And the result of the expedition shows that in more than in one respect the ‘ Greeks” of the North are likely to succeed in bringing off the “Golden Fleece” of this fine district from the loud-talking and loud promising but little doing “Trojans” of the Empire State.[12]

While we might recognise the already reassuringly well entrenched prejudices of an Aucklander to a Wellingtonian in such a quote, their prediction was right.  Whatever pressure the passengers brought to bear on Stafford aboard the Wonga Wonga, and whatever heated discussion, scheming and threats were evoked by the first men of Napier in Munn’s hotel – where they had laid on a slap up meal on the night of the ships arrival for the visitors – worked.  Stafford succeeded in passing the ‘New Provinces Act’ just one year later in 1858, an act to which Hawke’s Bay was the first to avail itself.

It wasn’t all trade for the Wonga Wonga in her new Wellington posting.[13]  There were pleasure trips too.  On New Year’s Day in 1859 it was the Wonga Wonga that took passengers to the inauguration of New Zealand’s first lighthouse at Pencarrow Head near Wellington. As she anchored off the head the 65 settlers crammed on board danced to a Hanoverian Band, and as dusk drew near the light was lit, amid cheers, by Wellington’s provincial superintendent, Isaac Featherston.[14] In May 1860, on one of her voyages up the West Coast the Wonga Wonga struck on the bar at Wanganui and was stopped for repair for six months.  Soon after she was contracted by military authorities to use as a troop conveyance during the Taranaki Wars, and it is military business we find her engaged in, on February 1863, returning from her regular run up to Manukau.


Chapter IV.

The still sleep of death.


The 7 February 1863 was a fine and sunny day.  Early that afternoon there were two ships in the harbour of the Manukau.  One was leaving: the Wonga Wonga, captained by William Renner, starting her return voyage to Taranaki, carrying military dispatches.  The other, HMS Orpheus, a 21gun Jason-class corvette was arriving with reinforcements and supplies for the relief of the naval sloops HMS Miranda and HMS Harrier.

The Orpheus, following an out of date chart, entered the harbour and attempted to cross its shifting sand bar in just the wrong place.  The signalman on duty, 21-year old Edward Wing (son of the Harbour Master, Captain Thomas Wing who was at that time returning from guiding the Wonga Wonga out of the harbour) signalled the ship to change course.  On board the Orpheus, quartermaster Frederick Butler, who had entered the harbour once before also realised the navigation error and rushed to alert senior officers of the improper cast.   Their efforts to avert disaster were too late.  Despite a last minute attempt to try and correct the course of the ship, the bow of the Orpheus struck sand at 1.30pm.  Her engines seized, she heeled over exposing the portside to waves, and soon started filling with water.

Captain Wing, some distance away, saw the ship roll unnaturally toward land and thought she must be aground.  Captain Renner too, saw the vessel labouring heavily and getting no reply to his signals offering assistance, returned to investigate.  As they separately made their way toward the ship, they came upon the pinnace and the cutter from the Orpheus, which had been launched (along with the ship’s papers and money) to go for assistance.[15]  Captain Wing boarded the Wonga Wonga, the corvette’s boats were taken in tow and they proceeded on together to the ship. They finally reached the Orpheus at 6pm, picking up five men from the sea along the way.

The Orpheus was by then almost buried in the water, seas breaking clear over her and half-way up the rigging.  The only chance to save anyone still aboard the wreck was from the bowspit and jib-boom, which still overhung deep water.  The boats came as close as they dared in order to pick up all who ventured to jump and swim for the boats, and could escape the eddies and undercurrents swirling around the ship. By 8pm the masts began to break, the deck soon after, throwing most of the remaining crew on board into the sea and to their deaths.

As night fell the Wonga Wonga steamed to nearly a mile distant, anchoring in a safe place outside the breakers.  She remained there overnight burning blue lights, blowing her steam whistle and ringing her bell, looking for the survivors by the light of the moon.  Passengers on the Wonga Wonga would never forget this most heart-rending and dreadful scene:

‘The men died like brave men, but there was nothing brave in this final scene of the acted drama of their lives. The surviving men, who clung to the fore and mizen rigging echoed the death cry of their companions, and in a few minutes most of them slept, with their fellows, the still sleep of death.’[16]

The long night continued on.  Fragments of spars and large masses of wreck could be seen drifting inshore with the tide, clinging to which were a number of sailors, who were picked up, in the last stages of exhaustion. By daylight the wind had subsided and the sea was perfectly calm. At first light the Wonga Wonga steamed close to the wreck, nothing was visible but the stump of one mast and a few bare ribs.

The tragedy – New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster – cost the lives of 189 sailors and marines, out of a total 259 hands.  Most who died that day were very young, boys between 12 and 18 years old. The survivors (eight officers and 62 men) were taken onboard HMS Miranda, with all of the officers eventually being sent to Portsmouth to appear before a court martial. Three enquiries were held after the wreck, but the Royal Navy was unwilling to admit the culpability of its officers and much of the blame was laid on Edward Wing for not guiding the ship into the harbour.  There were some initial grumblings that Wonga Wonga had not returned to the wreck fast enough, and could have done more to save survivors, but all eyewitnesses agreed that Captain Renner acted as best he could in aiding the men of the Orpheus.

Chapter V.

On the unfortunate loss of your steamer. 

Just three years later, the Wonga Wonga was to meet a similar fate to the Orpheus.  On the 2 May 1866, at 1.30 in the afternoon she approached the bar at the mouth of the notoriously difficult Grey River on the West Coast.  Conditions were good, it was a fine, calm day and the Wonga Wonga at first appeared to have crossed the sandbar safely.  But, all of a sudden on meeting the freshet in the river, she ran into a hollow in the sea, took the ground and lost her helm.[17]

There was to be no loss of life, only the small tragedy of a maimed and crumpled little steamship.  Then Captain, George Mundle was named blameless in the unfortunate incident.  Tenders were called for the Wonga Wonga’s re-launch but finally deemed impracticable, it was just her most valuable undamaged parts – the hull machinery and lower masts – that were in the end salvaged and sold.  Popular to the last, the merchants and tradesmen of Greymouth addressed their sympathies to Mundle in a public letter:

‘Dear Sir, – We avail ourselves of the occasion of your leaving here, after the unfortunate loss of your steamer, the Wonga Wonga, to express the sympathy we entertain for you on the occurrence of that disaster… The loss to the trading and general community of this place of the services of a vessel so well suited to their wants is much to be regretted.’ [18]


So, it was to be a short life and an inglorious ending for the Wonga Wonga.  Still, I couldn’t have imagined such a tale as hers on the occasion of our first encounter across the archives. She travelled alone across the worlds widest oceans; moving restlessly about New Zealand, pulled by forces of commerce and politics, and war and pleasure.  Across the country, from Whangarei to Greymouth all would have recognised her, awaited her and appreciated her.  Through her each place and each person was connected: the enterprise, the creativity, the words of other men, could all be got and given, if one was patient, and so the Wonga Wonga made the world small.

It was a legacy all the more remarkable for its fragility, each voyage denying the ever present threat of disaster, until that last. In the spirit of the very best romantic protagonist, the sea took her young, her remains wash under the waters that surround us – just another New Zealand shipwreck, one of thousands lost about the coastline – ravaged by the sea, plundered and dispersed upon the banks of a muddy river under the cold summer sun of the south, ten thousand miles from Scotland.

Eloise Taylor


English Silver Lustreware Teapots

of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Lusterware is one of those materials desirable for its ability to deceive. The entire point of silver lusterware was to allow earthenware to simulate old English pewter or plate. Thus an earthenware body carrying fluted or beaded design with a coat of silver lustre might transform a brown earthenware teapot – suitable only for the kitchen – into an object worthy of the drawing room.

The method of judging a work of early nineteenth century luster therefore becomes it nearness to the silverware it tries to imitate. The best examples of these teapots being those that appear to be silver until a visitor picks them up.

In his seminal work Chats on English China (1904) Arthur Hayden attributes the manufacture of such pieces to –

“Brislington by R. Frank about 1770: at Eturia, by Wedgewood, in 1780: and by Wilson in Staffordshire, in 1785, also by Moore & Co. and Dixon & co at Sunderland, about 1820.”

Yet it was almost certainly Wedgewood who popularized the plainer lustreware designs that came about in the earlier part of the Nineteenth century. To these Hayden attributes a deep colour that simply could not be achieved in silver itself – ‘the lustre is of a deeper and richer quality.’

In such works it was not silver that was used, but an oxide of platinum. The first coat made up of platinum dissolved in nitric acid and treated with a spirit obtained from tar. This was then painted with a large brush over the earthenware and fired. The oldest silver lustre is on a black or brown body. Later on it was made on a creamy body, but one gets the extreme brilliance of the silver lustre only on the brown or brownish-black body.

These pieces were intended for an evolving middle class to whom silver plated items had not yet come down sufficiently in price. Yet there were two essential problems with the material. If your ‘wondrous lustre tea pot slips to the ground, it lies in a heap of brown earthenware fragments.’ Secondly the silver manufacturers were keen to capture the same market and were soon designing silver plate for the same market. Thus silver plate tea services meant lustre fell from fashion and a high degree of breakage made it rare and collectable.

One last word from Arthur Hayden – ‘to collectors of this ware – do not wash your specimens any more than you can help, as warm water has a deleterious effect on the lusted and tends to make it less brilliant; we recommend our readers to polish their luster ware with a soft cloth, and we wish them absolute and entire freedom from all mishaps.


Opening of the Clifton Suspension Bridge

(as reported in The Atheneum September 10 1836)

This took place at an early hour: the accident to the iron bar previously drawn across the river, having with great exertion, having been successfully remedied. A procession proceeded to Clifton under the direction of Lieut. Claxton, R.N., with the usual insignia and decorations; and the concourse of spectators was immense; the gaiety of the spectacle being brightened by the picturesque nature of the scene and the beauty of the weather.  Among the gentlemen present were Lord Sandon, Sir T. D. Acland, and Mr. Brunel, sen., the engineer of this magnificent work. The Marquis of Northampton laid the first stone, after the customary ceremonies, which he followed with a short and pertinent address.  After this the principle guests adjourned to a public breakfast. The whole proceedings went off with great spirit.


[1] Excerpt from poem Wreck of the Orpheus by a College Boy, Nelson, April 1863. Otago Witness May 2 1863 p 8

[2] Richard Brydges Beechey (1808 – 1895) Anglo-Irish painter and Admiral in the Royal Navy, son of the painter Sir William Beechey.

[3] The Wonga Wonga was built by JG Lawrie & Company of Whiteinch Glasgow. With a gross tonnage of 152, her 2-cylinder steam engine was capable of 30 horse power. 105 feet in length, she could accommodate 27 passengers.

[4] Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Dec 1854

[5] Daily Southern Cross, Volume XII, Issue 802, 6 March 1855, Page 3

[6] Daily Southern Cross, Volume XII, Issue 805, 16 March 1855, Page 3

[7] Captain James Bowden (1820 – 1863) had a high reputation in Australian and New Zealand waters as a master mariner.  His final command in the New Zealand trade was that of the ill-fated Lord Worsley, which was wrecked off the coast of Taranaki in 1862.   After the wreck he went to Australia to command a steam collier ‘Pluto’, in June 1863 the vessel and crew disappeared without a trace.

[8] Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, Volume XVI, Issue 5, 14 April 1855, Page 3

[9] Brett, H. White Wings vol 2, The Brett Printing Company Limited, Auckland, 1928, page 95

[10] Passengers aboard the Wonga Wonga for the voyage included Mr Stafford, Colonial Secretary, Mr Bain of Bain, Grahame and Co, Rev D Bruce of the Scotch Church, Mr J Alexander Smith, Secretary of the Auckland Museum, a representative of each of the Auckland journals

[11] Daily Southern Cross, Volume XIV, Issue 1036, 2 June 1857, Page 3

[12] Wellington Independent, Volume X, Issue 12012, 20 June 1857, Page 3

[13] Inward Manifest, Museum of Wellington City and Sea Collection

[14] New Zealand History Online

[15] The Daily Southern Cross Monday February 9 1863

[16] The Daily Southern Cross Monday February 9 1863

[17] Wellington Independent, Volume XXI, Issue 2361, 15 May 1866, Page 4

[18] Wellington Independent, Volume XXI, Issue 2361, 15 May 1866, Page 4


One Comment on “Volume 1. Number 10.”

  1. Ian St George says:

    Nice piece on the Wonga Wonga. Colenso was rather fond of her too, comparing her to a carthorse and a politician: “A strong cart horse in a stable eating oats, and outside drawing a heavy load, is in very different positions; so also is our little steamer the Wonga Wonga, when inactive in harbour, and when going against wind and tide: working for the good of the community, both are admired and both useful. Just so it is with your Representatives whom you have chosen and sent into the Provincial Council.” (Tracts for the times No. 12, Hawke’s Bay Herald 30 April 1859).

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