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White Wings Vol II. Founding Of The Provinces And Old-Time Shipping. Passenger Ships From 1840 To 1885

Burning Of The Montmorency

Burning Of The Montmorency.

One of the earliest and most vivid of Napier's shipping memories is the burning of the ship Montmorency in the roadstead on March 28, 1867. It was the most notable event of the kind that has happened in New Zealand waters. The burning of the shippage 103 Cospatrick with the loss of hundreds of lives, when bound from London to Auckland, was more appalling, but the disaster that overtook the Montmorency was the worst that ever happened on the New Zealand coast. True, there was no loss of life, but the passengers lost heavily as so much of their luggage was destroyed. The Montmorency, a ship of 668 tons, had sailed from London on December 7, 1866, having on board a number of assisted emigrants. She arrived at Napier on March 24, and the passengers went ashore the following day. Those were leisurely times, and the facilities at the port were somewhat primitive, so all the luggage was not got out with the passengers. This was unfortunate, as there was still a large quantity of valuable stuff aboard when the disaster occurred.

At about one o'clock on the morning of the 28th the sentry at the Barracks noticed that the ship was afire, gave the alarm ashore, and the harbour authorities were roused, but as they had no fire-fighting gear they were helpless. Boats went out to the burning ship and found that her crew had already taken to their own boats and were safe.

It was a splendid spectacle, says a contemporary record. The night was calm, and the flames and huge clouds of smoke mounted steadily skyward, licking up the ropes and spars as they ascended. When the gaskets (the short ropes that are used to make fast the furled sails to the yards) were burned through, the sails fell from the yards, and as the flames caught the dry canvas the sky seemed to be full of sheets of lurid fire. By daybreak every mast and spar had fallen, and the ship was a black mass from which issued dense volumes of thick smoke.

The Hawke's Bay "Herald," referring to the disaster, said: "The ship was discovered to be on fire shortly before midnight, Captain MacKenzie being ashore at the time. Smoke was seen coming from the fore hatchway. The hatches were closed and hoses turned on the fire, but all efforts to quell the flames failed. Several unsuccessful attempts to scuttle the vessel were made by the carpenter. When the spare spars, etc., on the deck ignited, the task of saving the ship became impossible, and the crew left the vessel, losing nearly all their personal effects. By daybreak the following morning the masts had gone over the sides. The ship smouldered throughout the following day, and was later with difficulty beached between the Spit and the Bluff. The charred hull was sold by auction and fetched £110. The cause of the fire remained a mystery."

The Montmorency had previously completed one voyage to New Zealand. In 1857 she sailed from London on December 13 and arrived at Wellington on April 11, 1858, making the passage in 119 days. After landing 52 passengers and cargo the ship sailed for Lyttelton, arriving there on May 11, 1858. Captain Kiddie was then in command.