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Divers gather strange objects from sunken ship


In the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust collection there is a strange assortment of objects belonging to the ship Montmorency. Included are earthenware ink bottles, a fork, four spoons, fragments of porthole glass, a broken wine bottle top with cork intact, brass door locks, pins, nails and tacks along with copper pipes still with remnants of wood attached. These items were found by divers in the sea off Harding Road, where the wreck of the Montmorency had lain for well over a century.

Built in Quebec in 1855 and registered in Liverpool, the Montmorency weighed in at 668 tons. The ship was remarkably roomy between decks, which made it a favourite for the transportation of immigrants, so much so, that by March 1867 it had carried more passengers between England and Aotearoa than any other vessel. 

On its last ill-fated journey, the Montmorency left Gravesend, London on 11 December 1866 sailing direct for Ahuriri. On board were 33 crew, ably captained by Josiah McKenzie, along with 205 passengers most of whom were immigrants bound for Te Matau-a-Māui. Amongst the group were paying passengers, eight of whom were travelling first class, while the second class passengers were one family and a single woman.

The remainder of the immigrants were consigned to steerage. They had been selected ‘with great care’ by the Misses Rye and Levin who, five years previously had visited Australia and New Zealand to find out where servants, especially female servants, were most required. In consultation with the Hawke’s Bay Provincial Government a select group of immigrants were commissioned in order to provide relief to an improvised labour market.

Amongst the steerage passengers were 30 families (with 70 children), 46 single women and 22 single men. The immigrants were reputedly ‘persons of good character’. The attributes of the single women, many of whom had lost their parents, were described as being ‘virtuous, industrious and respectable’. Within the bounds of steerage, Rye and Levin, the ‘two kindly ladies’, kept a strict eye on segregation – the single women were berthed towards the stern, the married couples and children in the middle, and the single men toward the bow of the ship.

Stacked in the holds was nearly 400 tons of cargo, commissioned by the Napier firms of Stuart and Co., Watt Brothers and Newton Irvine and Co. The goods principally consisted of salt, oil, tar, drapery, spirits, beer and ale, fencing wire, sacks of clover seed, agriculture implements, turpentine, candles, smoking pipes and assorted hardware. Also included were several Lincoln rams from the ‘celebrated flock of Mr Kirkham of Biscathorpe’, selected specifically for Colonel George Stoddart Whitmore’s Rissington Estate.

On the morning of Sunday, 24th March 1867, after a 103 day voyage, the majestic fully-rigged ship, Montmorency sailed into Hawke Bay where it dropped anchor in the Ahuriri roadstead. The following morning the ship was inspected for disease, and the resulting report commented on ‘the cleanliness and comfort of the vessel and the healthy state of the passengers after such a long voyage’. 

To encourage employment opportunities the immigrants were described in the newspaper as ‘a very superior class’ of people, and because each adult was required to repay their passage money of £17 within three years, they could land with a ‘feeling of self-respect as true colonists’.

Early next morning, Captain McKenzie went ashore and formally reported the arrival of the ship to the agents Stuart & Co, and Customs Officer. He then returned to the ship to supervise the landing of the immigrants along with their bedding – most of their possessions were sent ashore on the Wednesday.

During the early hours of Thursday morning (28 March), the sailor on night-watch discovered dense smoke issuing from a hatchway and immediately sent-up rockets to alert those on shore. An attempt was made to dampen the fire by the chief officer, boatswain and sailmaker who ventured tentatively down between decks, pointing a hose into the hold but had to quickly retreat owing to the density of smoke and leaping flames. As the fire became more ravenous the crew had to hurriedly escape in the ship’s four rowing boats.

The distressed ship, totally engulfed in devouring flames, had fortunately been seen by Lieutenant Britten of the 12th Regiment, while on watch at the military barracks on Napier Hill. He immediately saddled a horse and yelling ‘fire’ at intervals, galloped furiously down to the Spit to raise the alarm.

Meanwhile the ‘Hawke’s Bay Times’ staff busy printing the morning newspaper, were interrupted by the incessant and alarming ring of fire bells. Ever-ready to be the first on the scene to report a story, they rushed outside to investigate and were told that the Montmorency was on fire.

Meanwhile those on the beach witnessed the rigging and masts of the vessel catch fire, the flames being spectacularly driven upward by the breeze. The scene was breathtaking, especially when the sails were suddenly unfurled by the force of the flames, scattering showers of burning fragments that fell like golden rain, into the sea. All through the night the vessel burned, and by daylight little remained other than the hull.

It was decided by officials to remove the still smoldering vessel close to shore, away from the Provincial Government’s mooring. The first attempt to tow the Montmorency by the Star of the South, proved unsuccessful owing to the complex entanglement of the still smoldering hull with fallen masts, wire rigging and chains. The second attempt by the Star of the South proved successful and the remains were left stranded close to the beach between the Spit and the Napier bluff. Here, the wreck of this ‘once noble ship’ lay, slowly disintegrating until all that remained was an odd assortment of items, keenly sought by divers searching for sunken treasure.

Published in the Hawke’s Bay Today newspaper on 21 January 2023 and written by Gail Pope, Social History Curator at MTG Hawke’s Bay.

Image: Copper pipe with wood remnants from the Montmorency.

30 January 2023

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