In 1849, Her Majesty’s Paddle Steamer Acheron, with Captain John Lort Stokes at the helm, was the first steam-powered ship to make port in Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour. A barque rigged, paddle wheel sloop with a 170-horsepower engine, displacing 722 tons, she was launched at Sheerness, Kent UK, in 1838. 150 feet (46 m) long with a 33 foot (10 m) beam, the Acheron carried 5 guns and a crew of 100 including 13 marines and 13 firemen. Originally built to run the mail from Marseilles and Malta, she was put to service for the British Admiralty as a surveying ship and dispatched to the Crown’s New Zealand colony to chart the coastline and harbours of its new South Island acquisitions, arriving at Auckland in November 1848.
Captain Stokes had previously served as a Lieutenant on HMS Beagle during its three historic voyages, including the second voyage with the young Charles Darwin, and the third voyage as surveyor of the western and northern Australian coastlines from 1837-43, during which Stokes was promoted to Captain. Trained in the most modern techniques of hydrographic survey, Stokes refined the measurement of longitude and helped set a new standard for mapping accuracy. His subsequent mission to New Zealand waters, with a complement of surveyors, draughtsmen and geological and biological scientists, would significantly add to the scientific knowledge of the colony’s South Island as well as update its old maritime charts that were still largely based on Cook’s surveys.
From Auckland, the Acheron steamed on to Akaroa in February 1849 to survey the Banks Peninsula, calling in at what was then known as Port Cooper (Lyttelton) where Captain Stokes surveyed the harbour and the surrounding bays. While in Whakaraupō, crew members of the Acheron were dispatched inland to establish survey points for the Canterbury Association. With the New Zealand Company’s explorer William James Warburton Hamilton (later a proprietor of the Lyttelton Times and Provincial Council member), Captain Stokes visited Riccarton and then travelled north to Maukatere Mount Grey, where he viewed the wide sweep of the newly acquired Canterbury Plains. He then also assisted the New Zealand Company’s surveyor, Captain Joseph Thomas, in drawing up a map for the proposed Canterbury settlement.
The Acheron would steam on for another two years collecting a wealth of scientific data and completing a hydrographic survey of coasts and harbours from the Cook Strait and Nelson to Otago and the Fouveaux Strait. From there she sailed around to chart the Milford Sound and up along the west coast to a ‘stupendous mountain’ that Stokes himself named Mount Cook (now Aoraki). Following a survey of Queen Charlotte Sound the Acheron left New Zealand waters in March 1851, returning to Britain to be replaced by HMS Pandora under Commander Byron Drury, completing the full survey of the South Island coastline in 1855. The surveys were deposited with the British Admiralty, with the new charts being published from 1856 on. The Acheron/Pandora survey fully modernised travel around and thus communication within Her Majesty’s newest colonial settlements on the South Island, with the survey remaining the basis for all subsequent New Zealand maritime charts for the next century.