On the 26th of January, 1888, the iron barque May Queen rounded the Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour heads, inbound for the port and sailing into a gusting south-westerly. With Master G. Colville at the helm, she’d left London some 91 days earlier on October 26, 1887 with 733 tons of general cargo plus 15 tons of blasting powder, worth a total of £22,000. This was not her first voyage to the Australasian colonies but as the fates would have it, it was to be her last.
Launched in May of 1869, the May Queen was built by A. Hall and Company at the Aberdeen shipyards. Carvel planked on an iron frame and at 781 gross tonnage, this beautiful 3 mast, 2 deck barque was 54.4 m long, with a beam of 9.5 m, and a 5.8 m draught. For almost two decades she’d sailed the trade and passenger routes between Great Britain and her Majesty’s southern colonies, being a frequent visitor to the ports of New Zealand’s South and North Islands.
On this fateful day in question, the paddle tug Lyttelton met the May Queen just outside the heads. Pilot Lewin came on board to guide her into her first port of call, which was to be the explosives anchorage at Te Pohue Camp Bay, before offloading the rest of the cargo at Lyttelton. The tug would usually assist in towage but unfortunately on this day she was also employed in delivering the mail around the peninsula bays, and it was decided she should continue on her way. Battling the south-westerly squalls, pilot Lewin brought the ship in close to shore when the winds suddenly dropped off and she missed her stays, running aground onto the rocks by the Red Rock cliffs just east of Camp Bay, at high tide.
On returning from her mail run the tug Lyttelton attempted to tow the May Queen off the rocks but failed with the falling tide, and the following day she broke her back with the pumps going through the deck. An emergency salvage operation led by stevedores J. J. Kinsey managed to save around 350 tons of cargo plus the ship’s fittings which were then put to auction with the ship going for £275 to Messrs Wood and Sinclair, and the cargo, previously valued at £22,000 sold for £1000 to a stevedore of Port Chalmers, Mr J. Mills. Within the week, the May Queen sank further off the rocks before what was left of the hull finally settled into the harbour waters at about 7 metres deep where she remains to this day.
A Court of Inquiry was called on 1st of February 1888 and found pilot Lewin at fault. However, his tickets were returned to him with the magistrates also sternly rebuking the Lyttelton Harbour Board for its diversion of the tug away from its towage duties, stating: “We consider that as long as the Harbour Board assumes control of tug vessels in the harbour they should be so employed and not diverted from the purpose from which they were intended by engagement as mail carriers.”
The 1888 wreck of the May Queen remains Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour’s only major shipping disaster. Various items from her fittings eventually found their way into Te Ūaka The Lyttelton Museum’s collection. These include a rather flamboyant red velvet settee previously owned by Captain Albert Anderson and then donated to Baden Norris Sr., a mahogany sideboard, as well as the ship’s bell inscribed ‘May Queen 1869 Aberdeen’.
See also Baden Norris 'The Wreck of the May Queen' in Antarctic, vol. 31/2, 2013.