White Wings Vol II. Founding Of The Provinces And Old-Time Shipping. Passenger Ships From 1840 To 1885
Wellingtonians received a surprise when the famous ship Northfleet, 896 tons, dropped anchor off the township in 1853, as she was not expected. The "Wellington Independent," referring to her arrival, stated: "The Northfleet arrived after an unprecedented passage of 87 days, port to port, being the quickest run that has been made by any vessel entering this port. She sailed from London on the 17th September, and had a rather tedious passage of 32 days to the equator, where she was becalmed for a week. On the 18th October she crossed the Line, sighted Stewart Island on the 8th December, and made this port on the 14th at daybreak, the time occupied in running the distance from the Line being only 56 days. As a proof of her sailing qualities, it may be mentioned that she passed the Wooloomooloo, a crack ship, and in four hours left her hull down. The greatest distancepage 151 run by the Northfleet in 24 hours was 288 miles. The Fifth Mate fell overboard, and although brought on board in seven minutes, all efforts to resuscitate him were unavailing. The ship brought 300 passengers, 100 for Wellington, and an equal number for Canterbury and Auckland."
The Northfleet was under the command of Captain Pentreath, and was the largest merchantman to enter Wellington to that date. After discharging passengers and cargo, she sailed for Lyttelton, arriving there on the 13th January, 1853. Later she proceeded to Auckland, arriving on February 2nd, 1854.
The Northfleet was built on the Thames in 1852, and was a famous clipper for some years in the China trade. Referring to some of the passages made by this ship, Mr. Basil Lubbock, in "The China Clippers," says: "The Northfleet was one of Duncan Dunbar's superb frigate-built ships, and must have been an extraordinary fast vessel of her type. In the years 1857 and 1858 she made two splendid passages out to Hong Kong, from Woolwich of 88 days, and 88 days 7 hours, and the 'Shipping Gazette' gives her time for a passage home in 1857, which, if correct, constitutes a wonderful record. She left Hong Kong on the 8th August, passed Anjer on the 7th September, and arrived at Plymouth on the 29th October, 82 days out."
The Northfleet's end was one of the most tragic in the annals of marine disasters. She was lying at anchor off Dungeness, outward bound, in 1873, with immigrants for Tasmania. Suddenly, at 10.30 p.m., when most of her passengers and crew were asleep below, she was cut down to the water's edge by the Spanish steamer Murillo, which backed out and left the Northfleet to her fate. As she began to sink, there was a most terrible panic amongst the passengers, who were mostly railway labourers, without any knowledge of ships or the sea. These men rushed the boats in spite of the revolvers of Captain Knowles and his officers, with the result that 293 souls out of 350, including many women, perished. The ship took half-an-hour to go down, and but for the panic all hands might have been saved. Captain Knowles, having done his best to save the women and children, went down at his post. His wife was rescued, and was given a pension from the Civil List in recognition of her husband's bravery.
At the inquiry into the conduct of the captain of the Murillo, he escaped punishment on the assertion that he had no idea that his ship had done any damage.