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'Opawa'  London to Lyttelton 1878. Voyage account.

The "Opawa"

Passengers for Timaru | Passengers for Lyttelton | Diary by Maria Wells | Memos

To view  larger image of the Opawa, click here

The original oil painting of the Opawa is in the P&O Lines board room in Wellington.

Evening Post 17 January 1877
The Opawa 1,150 tons, a new iron ship for the New Zealand Shipping Company, was launched on 14th November, and is named after a river in New Zealand, on whose banks are the residences of the chairman, the vice chairman and other prominent members of the company, including Mr Richardson, M.P., Minister of Public Works, whose wife is represented by the figurehead of the ship.

The voyage from Plymouth to Lyttelton was not without excitement. There was the usual sea sickness, births, contagious diseases, a man overboard, rough weather and seas.  The Opawa was to have berthed at Timaru but was unable to get in to the port due to gale force winds. The Opawa dropped anchor in Diamond Harbour at 10 am on 7 December 1878 and after an Immigration and Health inspection was docked at the Gladstone Pier with the assistance of the Steam Tug Titan.

The Lyttelton Times 9 December 1878 

Dec 7- Opawa, ship, 1075 tonnes, Friston, from London and Plymouth. N.Z. Shipping Co, agents. Passengers, saloon: Misses Brown (2), Mr. Dobson and 290 immigrants.

A full account of the voyage was reported in The Lyttelton Times. The report is reproduced below:

The N.Z. Shipping Co. ship Opawa, Captain Friston, arrived from London via Plymouth on Saturday morning with immigrants. The Health and Immigration Officers accompanied by the representatives of the N.Z. Shipping Co., left the wharf for the ship in the government launch at 11.00 am.  It was found that the passage had been a fine weather one., but from the time of passing Cape Leeuwin the ship meet nothing but unfavourable winds. The equator was crossed 28 days out, the meridian of Greenwich 21 days, later, and that of Cape Leeuwin 72 days after leaving Plymouth. A week of the time has been spent working up the coast, most unfavourable weather having been experienced, as was plainly evidenced on reference on the chart, where the track marked off showed anything but favourable progress. The passage has occupied 91 days from Plymouth, or 84 from there to making the land, and had anything like favourable weather been met with the Opawa would have given a very good account of herself. The whole of the immigrants appear to be a very good and useful lot, and have certainly conducted themselves well on board. They all expressed themselves most thoroughly satisfied with the treatment they had received while on board the ship, and with the unvarying kindness and attention shown them by Captain Friston, the Surgeon Superintendent, and the officers generally the Opawa has arrived in excellent order everywhere.  Each of the divisions occupied by the immigrants was found to be in a very high state of cleanliness and neatness, while the essential matters of ventilation and light had been well considered. We are glad to state that no death occurred during the passage and what sickness there was most successfully combated by the superintendent, Doctor R. Bowen Hogg, who without doubt has won the good opinion of all on board by the kind manner in which he has attended all cases where his medical skill has been called into use, and the mild but yet firm manner in which he has maintained the evident good discipline that prevailed through out the voyage. We congratulate him on the success that has attended this his first voyage to the colony with immigrants, as the Opawa would certainly compare very favourable with any immigrant ship that has come out here. There are altogether 236 soles on board, equal to 237� adults.   Three births occurred on the passage.  The officers are:- Chief, Mr. Cruickshank, who was in the ship last voyage; Second, Mr. Solaby, and Third Mr. Bond who occupied the same post when the Opawa was last here. There were several amusements organised on board to wile away the tedium of the passage, and a newspaper was instituted by two saloon passengers, which afforded a considerable amount of interest to all.   Fire and boat drill were regularly practised, and while the commissioners were aboard the fire alarm was sounded, and in two minutes water was through the hose, while the boats were all manned and ready for lowering at the same time.  On looking through the several divisions of the ship, we found the single women under the charge of Mrs. Triggs, the matron, and Mrs. Parkiss, sub-matron. The matron gives all the girls and excellent character, and all seemed to be extremely comfortable and contented. 105 out of the total number of immigrants are for Timaru. The girls speak of the kindness shown by their matron, and have evidently done all they could to lighten her labours. The married peoples compartment contained 36 families. There are 65 children in all, and that there were no serious sicknesses among so many speaks volumes for Dr. Hogg's care and watchfulness. All in this compartment appeared quite happy and they must certainly be complimented upon the excellent condition in which it was found.  The single men's division quartered 97 strapping fellows who look thoroughly fitted for a colony life.   Here good order and decorum was very noticeable.  Through out the ship not a complaint was heard and the food was abundant and of excellent quality, such being the testimony of all who were interrogated on this subject. The whole 3 compartments were found in a excellent of cleanliness and order, and the commissioners appeared to be thoroughly satisfied with the appearance of the 'tween decks generally.  One casualty happened on the voyage, which was the loss of a seaman named Charles Johnson, who fell from the lee mizen rigging on October 3 and was drowned.  Every possible effort was made to save him, but being unable to swim he was lost,  though a life buoy was thrown within a few feet of him.  Dr. Hogg in his report states that the ship left Plymouth with 36 married people, 51 children, 8 infants (which number was increased by 3), 39 single women, and 97 single men, in all 290 soles equal to 287 adults. He goes on to state on the whole, and more especially in a medical aspect, the voyage has been a successful one, in as much as there has been no death among the immigrants, whilst the number has increased by their having 3 births.  Unfortunately whooping cough manifested itself 4 days after embarkation; both child and mother were insulated, and every means taken to prevent infection; the malady however fully developed itself among the little ones. After being at sea 12 or 13 days, a case of measles broke out, when the child was at once isolated with her mother until she fully recovered and the infection was prevented from extending.  The highest thermometrical reading in the "tween decks in the main hatch was 81 deg. on Sept. 27, and 43 deg. on Nov. 7.  In conclusion, Dr. Hogg remarks, his best thanks a due to Captain Friston and his officers and the ships company generally, for the prompt and willing assistance they always rendered in the furtherance of every object that was in any way conducive to the comfort and well being of the immigrants.  We may add that Dr. Hogg recommends that the government should see that the immigrants are better provided with clothing and bedding for the cold weather.  He mentioned several incidences in which some of them were badly supplied., and as a matter of course felt the change in the temperature very much.   He also mentioned the want for more holystones and thought that there should be nearly twice as many put on board immigrants ships than is the case, as there could be no possible excuse for not having the decks etc. fully cleaned. In addition to the immigrants the Opawa brought 3 saloon passengers.  There are 103 immigrants among the number for Timaru. The single girls for that place were landed on Saturday; and the whole of the remainder will come ashore today.  The following is the report of the passage, furnished by Captain Friston:-

The ship Opawa was towed out of Plymouth on Saturday, September 7. The tug cast off, and the pilot left her at 2pm when clear of the Eddystone lighthouse.   Had calms for 2 days.  On Sept 12, in 44 north, 11.59 west, we got light north east wind with fine weather, which was carried to 14.30 north, 26.4 west, where, on Sept 26, overhauled the N.Z. S Companies ship Waipa, and continued in her company for 3 days; experiencing light baffling airs.  The south east trades were picked up on Oct 1 in 3 north, 22.30 west. On Oct. 3, noon, Charles Johnson, while working in the lee mizen rigging, fell overboard and was drowned.  A life buoy was thrown within a few feet of him, but he could not swim, and was therefore unable to reach it.  In the meantime after yards were backed, starboard life boat was launched, and both ship and boat cruised over the spot where Johnson had fallen for a hour and three quarters; picked up both life buoys and the heaven with which he had been working.  Men were at each mast head but saw nothing of him after he went down, whilst apparently struggling towards the life buoy. The ship was going from 8� to 9 knots per hour at the time.  At 2 p.m. all hopes of finding the body were given up and the ship was kept on her course.  A. Swanson, A.B., who had been a ship mate of Johnson for 5 years, said deceased could not swim.   Crossed the Equator on Oct. 5 in 28.3 west; sighted the island of Trinadad and lost the south east trades on October 12; experienced light and variable winds to 38 south, which was reached on October 22, where the ship picked up the first of the westerlies; sighted Gough's Island next day; Oct. 24. encountered heavy gale from the eastward, and the royals were taken in for the first time; past the meridian of Greenwich on October 26 in 41 south; the meridian of the cape on Oct. 31 in 44 south; of Prince Edward's Island in 44 south on Nov. 4 in a dense fog; the Crozets in the same latitude on Nov. 7 and Kerguelen's Island on Nov. 9 in 45 south. During a heavy gale from the westward on Nov. 9 sprung the main and mizen royal masts and the sea washed away the fixings of the main hatch.  The winds held good until the meridian of the Leeuwin was crossed on November 18 in 45.3 south, and then went round ahead, and continued light and baffling until November 22; strong westerlies prevailed to Nov. 25 and then veered round to south east, and blew a high gale with high sea; barometer 28.70. Friday, Nov. 29 expecting to sight snares, when the wind suddenly fell calm. Saturday made 38 miles and sighted Snares at 7 p.m. the wind then came dead ahead, and continued so with fog and rain.  Tuesday, December 3, stood in under easy sail during dense fog, and sighted White Island at 6.30 a.m.  Wednesday, Dec. 4, fog cleared, and was followed by light baffling airs and calms, ship scarcely steering. Thursday, wind light and baffling, from north, north-east to north, north-west; 4.30 p.m., whilst standing in towards Timaru suddenly fell calm, which was immediately succeeded by strong gale for south, south-east; hauled ship out at once, deeming in unsafe to put her upon a lee shore; 10 p.m.  Wind suddenly fell light baffling airs and calms.  Friday, 6 a.m., off Akaroa, light baffling airs and calms all day; 9.30 p.m., sighted Godley Head light Saturday, 4.00 am, got Pilot 8 miles from Heads.  Took steam tug Titan when off Camp Bay, and dropped anchor at 10.00 a.m. off Diamond Harbour.  Saw no ice during the voyage, and only encountered 2 squalls of hail and sleet, but after passing Gough's Island on Oct. 23 an unusual quantity of mist and wet weather was experienced, which was carried more or less right up to Banks Peninsula.  The 3 best rounds were made on Nov. 9 and the 2 following days, viz., 320, 307, and 291 knots.

Ships spoken during the passage:- September 10, Paramatta, Plymouth to Sydney 5 days out; September 26, N.Z. Shipping Companies Waipa for Dunedin, left Downs September 2; October 3, French steamer K.T.P.D., bound for Rio, October 17; Martin Scott, of Greenock , 15 days out from Liverpool to Calcutta.
Captain Friston desires to thank his saloon passengers for their kindness in maintaining a weekly paper for the amusement of the immigrants.

Port of Final Departure

Date of Final Departure

Date of Arrival

No. of Souls Aboard

No. of Births on voyage

No. of Deaths
Adults Children

Total No. of Souls Landed


Sep 7th 1878

Dec 7th 1878






List of Births on Board

Mothers Name

Date of Birth

Sex of child

Mary Langford
Rose Hendron
Mary Meara

Oct 11th
Nov 12th
Dec 4th

The Lyttelton Times
9 December 1878 Page 4

On New Years Day, 1879, William Bowman became the second, of what would grow to become five sailors, to be absent without leave from the Opawa.  The first to desert the ship was Joseph Smith who was absent on 16 December 1878, only ten days after the ships arrival. The third and fourth deserters, Alfred Johnson and John Christian (from Finland and Norway respectively), deserted on the 4th of January 1879. The fifth and final sailor taking his leave E.R.Stock deserted on 17 January 1879.  As well as these deserters left in the port of Lyttelton there were ten others who left with "mutual consent".  These included the ships surgeon Dr R Bowen Hogg.  An entry in the Agreement and Account of Crew shows William’s desertion and his subsequential loss of pay.  The only pay he would have received was the advance he received on signing aboard the ship.  Also mentioned in the Agreement and Account of Crew are the particulars of the personal effects of the unfortunate sailor who was drowned during the voyage.  I have transcribed the entry here as it gives an insight to the worldly possessions of these sailors:-

1 camphor wood chest; 2 pr of socks; several clay pipes; 2 pr of mitts; razors and box; 1 old black cap; 1 pr of braces, 1 silk handkerchief, 1 tobacco box containing: a purse, a fish hook, a bit of line, 2 sail needles; 1 pipe & case; 1 New Testament; 1 pocket knife; 4 flannels; 1 neck tie; 2 singlets; 2 pr of cotton drawers; 2 old letters; 4 white shirts; 1 skein of silk; 1 cotton singlet; 1 old watch case; 1 pr of drawers; 1 empty bottle; 1 pr cloth trousers; 1 ditty bag1; 1 waist coat; 1 canvass bag containing a suit of oilskins 2 pr sea boots; 1 great coat; 1 cap; 1 pr socks; 1 pr of bluchers2; 1 pr of old; 1 looking glass, trousers/blanket, a few playing cards, 1 pr drawers; 2 flannel shirts; 1 dungaree jumper3; 1 cotton shirt; 1 pr of trousers; 1 pr moleskin trousers; 1 pr serge trousers; 1 scarf; 1 cotton singlet; 1 counterpane4 & 1 pillow; The bed of old straw was thrown over board.

1 a sailor’s or fisherman’s receptacle for odds and ends [19th century]
2 strong leather half boots or high shoes
3 a loose outer jacket made from canvass, etc., worn by sailors
4 bedspread

To the Commissioners of Immigration,
Immigration Office,
19 December 1878

The ship belongs to the New Zealand Shipping Co is almost a new vessel strongly built of good speed and well adapted for carrying emigrants.  The children made fair progress.  At the end of the voyage the Immigration Officer awarded the prizes to those who had obtained the highest marks - The schoolmaster Reuben Newbury was assisted by his wife who held a first class government certificate as a school mistress.  The distilling apparatus on board was "Winehawkins" improved patent and condensed from 300-350 gallons of good water daily. There was not patent ventilating apparatus on board.  The highest thermometrical reading in main hatchway 84 degrees Sept 27th and the lowest 45.F Nov 7th.  Many of the single men and women were scantily clad and therefore unprovided with suitable clothing for the cold weather.   I would also suggest that twice as many Holystones (is a piece of soft sandstone used for scrubbing decks) than are usually put on board should be sent if the decks are to be kept clean.  This is my first voyage with emigrants.

I remain gentlemen
     your obedient servant
          (signed) R Bowen Hogg
          Surgeon Superintendent

The Sailing Ships of the New Zealand Shipping Company 1873-1900

Opawa was the first of three sister ships to be built for the company by Stephen’s of Glasgow, being registered with Lloyd’s in November 1876; the others were Piako and Wanganui.  These three were the last sailing ships to be built specially for the company.  She was an iron sailing ship of 1131 gross tons and her dimensions were 215 feet by 34 feet by 20 feet. Opawa had the reputation of being a good pacemaker and out of a total of more than 20 voyages to New Zealand she accomplished seven in less than 90 days. Her best voyage was in 1880 when she reached Lyttelton in 81 days with 197 passengers aboard. The Lyttelton Times of 27 October patronisingly describes them as ‘an exceptionally respectable body of people’. The appearance of the ship herself also received praise - ‘the accommodation [being] scrupulously neat and clean’. The voyage outwards had been a remarkable one, for in the Channel the passengers had seen ‘an unusual and grand sight’ - 11 English war ships. The Master, Captain Triston, had at first been alarmed, having obtained no sights for two days and, ‘seeing only the tops of their top-gallant masts above the water thought that they were trees on an island, as the weather was not very clear.  The Opawa stood across the bows of the fleet, affording her passengers a splendid view of the very rare and grand sight.  The decks of the men of war ... were crowded with blue jackets, all anxious to have a look at the number of fair passengers [Opawa] had aboard.

The outward voyage to Wellington of 1884-85 was notable for the tragedy which befell Opawa’s Master, Captain Mathers.  One evening, after having complained of an ailment for some days, he walked towards the forecastle and attempted to jump overboard, but was prevented.  Shortly after, he leapt over the starboard side, and although the ship was hove-to and the body recovered within ten minutes, Captain Mathers was dead. The Evening Post tells us ‘no reason can be assigned for his jumping overboard, but it is believed that the illness had deranged his mind’.   The ship was brought on by Mr. Banks, the chief officer, ‘a gentleman long and favourably known in Wellington.

The Star October 4 1898 page 2
The barque Opawa is to be striped of her refrigeration machinery. A start was made at the work yesterday. 
Three members of the crew of the barque Opawa having made a written statement to the Marine Department that in their opinion certain portions of the rigging of the vessel were unsafe, the Department ordered a survey. Yesterday the Collector of Customs arranged with Captain Marciel and Mr R. Anderson, the latter being a practical rigger, to hold a survey. They were accompanied by Captain S.H. Willis, who represented the New Zealand Shipping Company. The men were called upon to point out the defective gear. They pointed out two shrouds in the main rigging, one topmast backstay and three shrouds in the fore rigging as being in their opinion unsafe. The ship is rigged with wire, and the service was stripped, and in the presence of the complainants an examination was made of the shrouds, There were all to be found sound, as was also the backstay, and upon inspection the men admitted that this was the case. They also had no other complaint to make.

Opawa was sold in 1899 to S. O. Stray and took Norwegian registration, being renamed Aquila. She survived under her new name until she was torpedoed in the North Sea on 14 March 1917.

The Lyttelton Times 9 December 1878 
Memos (ship's papers) relating to the Opawa sailing held at the National Archives, Wellington (Reference: Im 5/4/31 366)
Diary by kept by Mr Smith's great grandmother, Maria Wells, with account of the voyage to NZ
Agreement and Account of Crew - Opawa voyage to NZ returning to UK 1879 held by the Maritime History Archive, University of St John Newfoundland.

Credit goes to Mr Bill Smith for the research and supplying the information. Thank you. Please contact Mr Smith if you have any further information on the "Opawa".  Mr Smith's interest in the vessel is that it brought out his great grandfather, who was a sailor and deserted the ship at Lyttelton and later married his great grandmother, an assisted emigrant on the Opawa. 

1998-2000 W. J. Smith. This page may be freely linked to but not duplicated in any fashion, wholly or in part, without consent from W.J. Smith except for private study.

The Christchurch City Libraries, New Zealand Collection. (New Zealand material located on the second floor. Reference only and must be used in the New Zealand Collection).

Lewis family pioneers, 1833-1933 / Janette Grace Lewis. Published Christchurch, N.Z. : J.G. Lewis, 1997. 68 p Includes William Lewis's diary of the journey from Plymouth to Timaru aboard the Opawa in 1877-1878 Includes bibliographical references (p. 63) and index. J.G. Lewis, 16 Rossall Street, Merivale, Christchurch, N.Z. ISBN: 0473044730 (pbk.)  New Zealand Collection

Opawa     (Lyttelton) 16 April 1877  Maiden trip, 84 days Good voyage, health good.  12 Saloon, 24 steerage and third class passengers (named) and 4 gov. immigrants
Opawa      (Lyttelton) 7 December 1878 91 day voyage. Fine weather except N.Z. coast. Lost 1 seaman overboard. Whooping cough (infants) 3 births. 105 immigrants for Timaru (290 on vessel)  36 families, 59 females, 97 single men (ag labs mainly.) Nationalities: 184 English, 98 Irish, 8 Scotch.
Opawa     (Lyttelton) 25 October 1880   

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