Orpheus survivors taken in by Cornwallis pioneer

16:00, Feb 08 2010
WRONG: The plaque on John Kilgour’s grave carries an incorrect date of death.

Tragedy proved to be a Godsend for some of the surviving sailors of the sunken warship Orpheus.

Many had been pressed into service and were keen to escape the clutches of the British navy.

A few took the opportunity to fake their own deaths after their vessel ran aground on the sandbar at the mouth of the Manukau Harbour on February 7, 1863.

And John Kilgour was happy to help.

John, who'd emigrated from Scotland as a 16-year-old with his parents and siblings in 1842, was among the first to hear of the disaster and scoured the shoreline in search of survivors.

Those lucky enough to cross his path were taken back to his home at Cornwallis.


John's wife Ellen helped nurse the men back to health and later claimed she never knew their real names.

Most, she told relatives shortly before her death on August 29, 1935, left the property as "Mr Smiths" - disappearing into the relatively young colony where it was still possible to maintain some form of anonymity.

John covered for them when authorities knocked on his door in search of the dead and injured.

None, he said, had come his way.

It wasn't the first time John had pulled one over on the establishment.

Numerous soldiers deserted during the New Zealand land wars and headed towards Cornwallis and the Waitakere Ranges in search of refuge.

John was among residents of the coastal settlement who gave them food and shelter before directing them to various hideouts stocked with supplies.

His father William did the same at Huia where he lived, and Kilgour goats - with bells attached - were often released to warn runaways when the law came searching for them.

John, a father of 13, died of stomach cancer on May 14, 1896.

Many of those he'd helped over the years returned to Cornwallis for the large funeral and burial next to the grave of three unidentified Orpheus victims.

A stone placed there some years later by one of his sons carries an incorrect date of death, 1897 and is surrounded by a white picket fence - a two-minute walk from a parking bay on Cornwallis Rd.

Western Leader