Orpheus and the sea

18:50, Feb 06 2013
Orpheus Beaumont in her late 70s in Dunedin.

Today marks the 150th anniversary of New Zealand's worst maritime disaster. It was 1863 when the HMS Orpheus naval ship crashed entering the Manukau Harbour resulting in 189 deaths, reports Monica Tischler .

The Orpheus is more than just the name of a ship for Caroline Fitzgerald.

Her great-grandmother was named after the HMS naval ship that claimed the lives of 189 people in 1863 and spurred a lifelong fascination with the sea.

Orpheus Disaster
OCEAN TIES: Great-granddaughter of Orpheus Beaumont, Caroline Fitzgerald.

Orpheus Beaumont was born in 1863 off the west coast of France after her brother Henry Newman, a passenger on the ship, was presumed drowned. The news devastated his pregnant mother, Mary, who gave birth soon after.

Orpheus suffered drowning fits as a child which encouraged talk among her surperstitious fishing community in Jersey.

"She believed she was possessed by the souls of drowned people and that the sea wanted to take her," Miss Fitzgerald says.


The story came from a Victorian belief that pregnant women would imprint their thoughts and emotions on to the souls of their unborn child. Her mother believed she had done this while grieving for her son.

It was later discovered her son hadn't drowned and was on another ship.

Orpheus' parents took her to Paris to see a hypnotist to try and cure the drowning fits when she was eight years old.

"The hypnotist told her parents, ‘her will is stronger than mine.'," Miss Fitzgerald says.

"I think I have the same strong will and determination to take on a challenge."

Orpheus was 10 when her father died and Mrs Newman moved to Dunedin with her three youngest children.

She later married a ship captain, Norman Beaumont, and they had two children.

Two events impacted Orpheus greatly in 1912.

Her other brother William drowned on a fishing boat off the Dunedin coast and the Titantic sunk. The British Board of Trade put a competition around the Empire to invent a better lifejacket than the cork one.

Orpheus took on the challenge and spent six years creating the Salvus Kapok Lifejacket made from soft wool or cotton and encased in waterproof material like oilskin.

It held up to 37-times its own body weight and the first order came from Britain for 30,000.

Miss Fitzgerald, a student at Otago University, is in West Auckland for today's Orpheus commemorations in Whatipu after finding out her great-grandmother's special connection with the ship.

"I really admire her sheer tenacity and passion to invent a jacket that could save people from the clutches of the sea."

Miss Fitzgerald is completing her masters and along with film student Fiona Grundmann, is making a documentary, The Drowning Season, which focuses on the 150 year international struggle to invent the modern lifejacket, and the human cost behind each major stage of development.

"We start with the shipwreck of the Orpheus, and the huge loss of lives due to the fact they didn't have lifejackets available in the Navy at the time," Miss Fitzgerald says.

Miss Fitzgerald and Miss Grundmann will spend time filming their documentary while in Whatipu.

Glen Eden resident Lady Barbara Harvey, wife of former Waitakere mayor Sir Bob Harvey, is the great-great-granddaughter of Captain Thomas Wing.

Wing's son Edward was signalman the day the Orpheus sank.

Lady Harvey has always known about her connection with the Orpheus and says it's nice to be a link in New Zealand's history.

"I have always had an interest in it, but it was sparked further by Bob's interest in maritime," she says.

Lady Harvey will cast a wreath to Manukau Coastguards, who will later take it to sea on the commemoration day.

Western Leader