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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 1, 1987

A Relic of Nelson's Maritime History

A Relic of Nelson's Maritime History

page 34

Considerable public interest has been taken, recently, in the section of Nelson's waterfront opposite the former Anchor Foundry in Wakefield Quay, and many Nelsonians have taken advantate of the opportunity of admiring the view of the harbour across to the Boulder Bank. At the southern end of this section of foreshore, close to the basement of the former powerhouse building, lies the rusting remains of a ship's boiler.

Many years ago the late Mr E. B. Jackson, who was an ardent historian of Nelson's maritime history, did some research on the origin of this boiler and it is mainly from his notes that the following article is compiled. He ascertained that the rusting relic was the original boiler of the steamer Lyttelton, which had achieved something of a record in taking no fewer than 462 days to sail on her delivery voyage from England to New Zealand.

In 1859, at Scott Russell's shipbuilding yard, at Millwall, England, alongside the Eastern Steam Navigation Company's mammoth liner Great Eastern, a small, ketch-rigged paddle steamer of 48 tons was being constructed. This was the Lyttelton. The vessel was 75 feet in length and was fitted with engines of 23 horsepower. It was intended that the Lyttelton should be taken to pieces, packed up and forwarded to New Zealand by a larger vessel. However, in order to save cost, it was finally decided that the Lyttelton should proceed to New Zealand under sail.

Accordingly her funnel and paddle wheels were stowed away in the forehold, with about 30 tons of patent fuel, to act as ballast. The crew consisted of a captain, a mate, four sailors, two boys and a cook, together with a young engineer from Scott Russell's yard named Alexander Brown, who later became the Anchor Company's superintending engineer. Brown had been invited to accompany the vessel on the voyage and to fit her out as a paddle steamer on arrival at a salary of twenty pounds per month. He was then to remain with the vessel for another year as engineer at forty pounds per month.

The captain had with him his wife and five daughters, who were accommodated in the afterhold. The engineer and mate had a cabin further aft, while the crew were housed forward in the foc's'le. The engines and boiler remained in their original position, this space also being used for the galley. The ship was provisioned for six months.

August 18, 1859 marked the commencement of the voyage. The Lyttelton cast off from her tug at the Nore and proceeded under sail to Cork Harbour, in the south of Ireland, which was to be the point of departure for New Zealand. Owing to adverse weather conditions, calls were made at Ramsgate and Folkestone, before Cork was reached, 37 days after departure. Weather conditions were now improving, so the captain got under way and succeeded in making a very calm crossing of the Bay of Biscay.

After six weeks' sailing, Teneriffe was sighted. A little later, the opportunity was taken to put in at the Cape Verde Islands, where a stock of food, fruit, water and live poultry was taken aboard. The wind held fair and a good run was made to the Equator but, unfortunately, the ship's good luck again deserted her. For several weeks, the flat calms and torrid conditions of the doldrums were experienced to the full.

Eventually the wind blew free again and a course was set for Cape Coast Castle, a point on the Gold Coast (now Ghana) which was duly reached. The captain was forced to sell part of his patent fuel ballast in obtaining supplies to enable him to carry on. These supplies proved sufficient to reach Fernando Po, where the ship was beached and cleaned and the paddle wheels fitted in their proper positions. Twentyfive tons of coal were also procured to feed the boiler. The expenses were met by means of a "bottomry bond", a type of maritime mortgage, whereby the captain borrowed money to complete the page 35voyage and pledged the ship as security. Two negroes were also engaged, to stoke the ship as far as Capetown.

A fortnight's delay was incurred when most of the crew contracted a tropical fever but, eventually, the Lyttelton was again under way and steaming at four knots. St Paolo de Laonda was reached after fifteen days. Here another bond was effected by which stores were replenished, more coal secured and the voyage proceeded with as far as Walfisch Bay.

After a short stay, the ship was again under way, under sail and steam. 250 miles from the Cape of Good Hope, the coal gave out again and the wind proved unfavourable. Everything burnable aboard had to be used to feed the furnace but, fortunately, a barque was sighted lying inshore, in the process of loading from lighters. The Lyttelton managed to struggle to a good anchorage near the lighters, where she rode out a three day gale. The captain then had the good fortune to secure eight tons of coal from the lighters attending the barque, which enabled the ship to reach Saldanka Bay.

A schooner lying at anchor proved to have a small supply of coal aboard, intended for the shore, so an arrangement was made that, in return for towing the schooner to a good offing, the Lyttelton would receive the much needed coal. A supply of wood was obtained from the shore and, after having performed her part of the bargain in regard to the towing, the Lyttelton was at last enabled to reach Capetown, where she cast anchor on April 27, 1860, eight months after leaving Britain.

A serious situation now arose, for the Lyttelton's agent at Capetown refused to hold himself responsible for the furthering of the voyage, without reference to London. After a delay of some months, instructions finally came from London, to the effect that the "bottomry bonds" were to be cleared up. The ship was to proceed to her destination under sail, presumably to avoid the chance of further fuelling debts. The crew, by this time, had had enough of the voyage and would not go with the vessel. A new crew was signed on, with the exception of the captain, the mate and Alexander Brown, the engineer, who had stood by the ship. At the end of July 1860, the Lyttelton was cleared for New Zealand.

During the run for Australia "and exactly a year after the commencement of the voyage, a very heavy sea was shipped that nearly brought tragedy. Rolling and pitching to a big sea, raised by a series of heavy westerly gales, the Lyttelton gradually approached Cape Leeuwin, on the south west coast of Australia. Passing through Bass Strait she headed for Cape Farewell and, with a fair wind, she proceeded through Cook Strait as far as Cape Campbell, evidently making for a southern port. The wind proved unfavourable, so the captain put down his helm and headed for Wellington, reaching there on November 23, 1860,462 days after casting off from the Nore.

All trouble for the little craft should now, reasonably, have ended, but it was not so. Instead of receiving the welcome that might have naturally been expected, it seemed that nobody wanted the Lyttelton. In fact she had been given up for lost. The crowning misfortune was the discovery that the company for which she had been built, W. Bowler Son and Company for the Canterbury Steam Navigation Company, had gone into liquidation in June 1860.

William Bowler Jnr, of Lyttelton, negotiated with the liquidators for an interest in the vessel. She traded between Lyttelton, Sumner and Heathcote for some months and then from Dunedin to Taieri, during the early days of the Otago gold rush. In October 1862 Nathaniel Edwards and Company of Nelson, predecessors to the Anchor Shipping Company, negotiated with Bowler for the Lyttelton's purchase. On November 7, 1862 she arrived in Nelson, where a new registration was gazetted. Alexander Brown, the engineer, had remained with the ship and, with the appointment of Captain T. W. Whitwell as the new master, they became the "foundation officers" of the company.

page 36
S.S. Lyttelton at Blenheim. Tyree Collection NPM.

S.S. Lyttelton at Blenheim. Tyree Collection NPM.

The Lyttelton had the distinction of being the first steamship to negotiate the Opawa River. On November 14, 1862 she left Nelson carrying a full cargo and several passengers and berthed at the Blenheim town wharf. She was accorded a rousing reception and, later in the day, the captain and officers were entertained at a dinner, presided over by the Superintendent of the Province.

Her owners carried out considerable alterations to the Lyttelton, lenthening her and providing accommodation for both saloon and steerage passengers. She was converted from a paddle steamer to a screw steamer and her original boiler was replaced. It is the rusting remains of that original boiler which attracts our interest now.

The Lyttelton was later sold by Nathaniel Edwards and Company, but she continued to trade around New Zealand coastal ports. On a voyage between Collingwood and Wellington, on the night of September 30, 1886, she struck a reef by the Beef Barrels, at the southern extremity of D'Urville Island and foundered in deep water, fortunately without loss of life.


Allan, R. M. The History of Port Nelson. Whitcombe and Tombs. 1954.

Chattenon, E. K. Seamen All.

Kirk, A. A. Anchor Ships and Anchor Men. Reed, 1967.

Nelson Evening Mail. 11 Dec. 1926. Article by J. H. Cock and A. Brown. Undated article by E. B. Jackson .