The Wreck of the SS Tararua

One of New Zealand’s worst shipping
disasters of the 19th Century.
Recorded on this
granite obelisk is the
Alexander Livingston
drowned in the S.S.
Tararua 29 April 1881.
Both these headstones were about the
same event. What happened?
Recorded on this damaged
granite headstone is the
In loving memory
John Oliver Eva
Who was lost in the steamship
At Otara Reef NZ
29th April 1881
Aged 39 years
Livingston Block
2 Plot 16
Alexander Livingston
was a member of the
crew on the Tararua
and John Eva was a
Map of Dunedin’s Northern Cemetery sourced from:
John Eva Bloc
101 Plot3
Recorded on this large
marble headstone is the
Francis George Garrard
Master of the S.S.Tararua
Who perished at the
wreck of his vessel on the
Otara reef
30th April 1881
Aged 29 years.
The headstone
can be seen just
inside the lych
gate of the
Another personal story was recounted about a
young infant, Elizabeth Hill. She was pulled from the
water by the rescue ship, Hawera, and one of the
few survivors of the wreck was asked if he might
identify her. He fell to the deck weeping because he
was looking at his own daughter. Little Elizabeth Hill is
buried in an unmarked grave in the Old Port
Chalmers Cemetery near Dunedin. (Otago Daily Times. (2
May 1881). Wreck and Total Loss of the S.S.Tararua. P2)
There are many
personal tragedies
recounted in the
newspapers of the
times. Captain Garrard
was aged 29 and on his
way to Melbourne to
marry his fiancé when
the accident occurred.
It is reported that his
fiancé was so distressed
at the news she
became quite ill.
Captain Garrard was
ultimately found
accountable for the
The S S Tararua sailed from Port Chalmers at 5pm on April 28,1881
bound for Melbourne via Bluff.
The night was dark but clear and at 4am the vessel was off the
southern most point of the South Island. Before dawn on the 29th April
the vessel struck the Otara reef at Waipapa point about ¾ of a mile
from shore.
The ship began to fill with water. A boat made it to shore and
passenger swam ashore to call for help at a house ½ a mile away. Mr
Charles Gibb then rode 35 miles by horseback to the nearest
telegraph office at Wyndham to raise the alarm. The alarm was also
raised from Bluff when the Tararua had not arrived when expected.
By noon the ship was being washed by heavy seas. Various attempts
were made by passengers and crew to rescue themselves and others.
Strong swimmers attempted to swim to shore. Some survived but many
did not. Ships boats were washed out of their davits.
An attempt was made to land on the reef but again several strong
swimmers and several were drowned.
Map of New Zealand
showing the location of Port
Chalmers, Otara Reef,
Waipapa Point and Fortrose.
Dunedin Port Chalmers
Invercargill Fortrose
Waipapa Point
The distance travelled by the S. S. Tararua
Otara Reef
The second mate had earlier made it to shore. He tried to return the
life- boat to the Tararua but the waves were too strong and he waited
out at sea to intercept any passing vessels coming to aid the Tararua.
The chief officer tried to get a line to shore but the boat capsized.
Anguished onlookers watched, unable to help in the worsening
conditions. Only a few people had made it to shore.
By 2 p.m. the Tararua began to break up. Heavy seas washed
overboard and swept about 20 people to their deaths. The chief cook
reached the shore.
By evening the survivors had only the rigging to cling to and by 2.30am on
the 30th April the last screams were heard from the Tararua. By the time
help arrived by daylight on the 30th only the bowsprit and the mizzen mast
could be seen above water.
Of 151 persons on board, 131 lost their lives. Only 20 men survived, 12
members of the crew and 8 steerage passengers. 105 men, 12 women
and 14 children lost their lives in New Zealand’s second worst shipping
disaster. (Otago Witness. (7 May 1881), Wreck and Total Loss of the S.S. Tararua. Page 9.
Papers Past
Otago Witness
7 May 1881. Papers Past at
Looking towards Waipapa Point from
about where the Taraua was wrecked
Although several of those drowned were
identified and claimed by relatives many
victims could not be identified.
Ground for a cemetery was
allocated behind the sand hills
beyond the beach where the
Tararua came aground.
Below: Approach across the
Above: View of the cemetery
from the sand hills.
Only one individual headstone remains. The
headstone belongs to William Bell…
In Loving remembrance of
William Bell of Auckland
Lost on the S.S.Tararua
29th April 1891
In his 29th year
Above: A cairn was set over
the largest plot in 1967. The
cairn was funded by the
Department of Internal Affairs.
The children of Fortrose and surrounding
district schools raised money for a marble
headstone to commemorate the victims
who were unmarked except for wooden
picket fence grave surrounds.
The memorial inscriptions reads…
by the children of
Fortrose School
Assisted by other district schools In
memory of
those who perished by the wreck
of the S.S.Tararua
29th April 1881
The collections for the headstones must
have gone on for many years. Many older
folk even in the1970s remembered taking
their threepenny contributions to the school.
(MacIntosh, 1970).
The Fortrose cemetery also contains a memorial
placed over the site of a smaller number of
victims, that was paid for by the children of the
school and surrounding districts.
For many years the children assembled on the
anniversary of the wreck and laid flowers on the
graves. The older boys kept the small plot in the
cemetery neat and tidy. One visitor was so
impressed by the boys care that he sent them a
round football.
The inscription is the same as the
memorial at the Tararua Acre.
When the football became shabby Mr Miilard
the headmaster suggested it was time to work
at the cemetery. As long as Mr Millard worked at
the school a new football arrived every year for
the boys. (MacIntosh, 1970)
The lighthouse was erected in 1885
The memorial for the Tararua victims
is not the only shipwreck recorded
at Fortrose.
In a neighbouring
grave is a
headstone for
David Lindsay who
was drowned
when the ‘William
Ackers’ was
wrecked on
Waipapa Point in
1876. The reef was
a well known point
of danger in the
area. A warning
system was
Do you have shipwreck victims memorialised in your local cemetery? If
so record the name and date on the epitaph and investigate.
Who are they? If you have more than one memorial you may like to
create a shipwreck trail in your cemetery. In Dunedin’s Northern
Cemetery there are at least 4 different shipwrecks to be found.
What happened? Find out more about the shipwreck this person or
family was involved in. Look up the papers past website and find out
about any personal tragedies.
It is quite likely if you live near a larger coastal town or city there will be
ship wreck victims recorded in the local cemeteries. Shipwreck was a
quite common tragedy in 19th century New Zealand. Find out why?
What other shipwrecks can you find out about?
To present your findings you can create posters, the front page of a
newspaper, brochures, pamphlets or a PowerPoint.
Belmer R.(1973) Around the Southern Coast. Times printing service. Invercargill
MacIntosh, J. (1970) The wreck of the Tararua. Reed
MacIntosh J. (1975), History of Fortrose Times Printing Service, Invercargill.
MacIntosh, J. (1985) From waste land to wealth : the history of Otara, Southland. Otara Centennial Book Committee
(Further information about the history of the Tararua Acre)
Cemetery pp 125 - 128. Also what remains of the vessel and the status and protection of the wreck pp 128 – 132
• Te Ara – Encyclopedia of New Zealand Also available from this link is
an extract from the Illustrated New Zealand Herald of 16 June 1881, which includes some tragic and interesting
accounts. See also Perils of the sea: 19th Century for some of the reasons
for so many shipwreck memorials in NZ cemeteries.
• Roots web
• Christchurch Library
• KiwiWiki brief background to the tragic
events and photo of the Tararua Acre.
• Wikipedia
• Papers Past: ( Note; Some of the eyewitness accounts of the tragedy are fairly
confused and harrowing. Teachers are advised to review newspaper content before recommending articles.)
• Poem by Francis A Joseph The Loss of the Tararua. Otago Witness, 14 May 1881, Page 24.
And another
by RB
Witness 7Shades
May 1881.
Special• thanks
is extended
to Mr.
Arcade Stamp Centre, Christchurch, for use of the image
of the S.S.Tararua and Captain Garrard. Postcards commemorating ship wrecks were popular in the late 19 th century.
See the postcards available on the Timeframes Website for the Wreck of the S.S.Wairarapa.
The Northern Cemetery map was sourced from Dunedin City Council: Location of Dunedin’s cemeteries

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