The voyage of the SS Lyttelton


London to Wellington in 462 days

The Nelson waterfront is now the domain of the chardonnay set, but from the deck of the recreational fishing berth you'll see an old boiler, near the Aotearoa mural, that shows itself at low tide.

The rusty relic is a link with a voyage from London to Wellington that was possibly the longest ever - at 462 days. The voyage involved a skipper with five daughters, a crew that included two black stokers who came aboard at Fernando Po, and a Christmas turkey dinner eaten in the Doldrums.  

SS LytteltonSS Lyttelton at Blenheim Wharf. The Nelson Provincial Museum, Copy Collection: C2152
Click image to enlarge

The Paddle Steamer Lyttelton was built in a London shipyard in 1859. The plan was to dismantle the 48 tonner and ship it in parts to New Zealand, but later the owners decided it would be safe and cheaper to fit her for sea and sail her out. A captain was hired, and he quickly arranged to quarter his wife and five daughters on board the tiny vessel, to work his passage while emigrating his family. The four sailors, two cabin boys and the cook also planned to stay in the new colony and were signed on at the nominal wage of a shilling a month.  

The story of the voyage was related in the Nelson Evening Mail in 1916 by 'Chanticleer',  the pen name of Alexander Brown. Brown was the ship's engineer, on a free passage with half pay, then £20 a month for a year in New Zealand as ship's engineer. Brown says he ‘arose with the alacrity of a thrifty and adventurous Scot to this bait'.  Almost a month later, after stops to replenish ‘medical comforts',  the vessel was only off the Cove of Cork and Brown was thinking this ‘yachting cruise was likely to prove too long'.  But the little ship caught the breeze, crossed the Bay of Biscay and anchored at St Jago where it took on fresh food, fruit, water and live geese and turkeys - welcome additions to salt pork and beef, ships' biscuit and coffee, eaten at meals that were heralded by the mate (when he felt merry) with this ditty:

God bless the good ship Lyttelton
This handy craft o'fifty ton
Bless pork and duff and that

And save us Lord, from getting fat

For we're bound for the Cannibal Islands.

But hopes of a speedy voyage from St Jago were dashed as the Lyttelton languished for days in the doldrums. Christmas was spent under ‘very trying conditions. cheered with dinner featuring the last of the St Jago turkeys. Eventually the Lyttelton inched out of the doldrums with improvised paddles manned by the crew, and headed for Cape Coast Castle on the Gold Coast (now Ghana). This port proved unwelcoming, so they sailed on to Fernando Po (now Bioko Island) off the coast of Cameroon, where they got the ship's paddles out of the hold, fitted them, took on a load of coal and two locals as stokers - the intention was to speed the trip up by using the ship's 25 tonne boiler and to stick close to the coast so that stores and coal could be replenished as they headed down to the Cape.  

Brown relates: " the aid of wind and steam we fetched to within about 250 miles of the Cape, when our coal gave out. ..we kept her going by burning the very last of the sweepings of coal, along with all the old spars, dunnage, flooring and combustible material we could find".  

Mortgaging the ship to buy fuel, the ‘two Negro boys' were paid off, and they set off again at the end of July. Sailing further south than they intended, the anniversary of departure was marked on August 18th 1860 in a heavy gale that blew the bulwarks over the side, leaving them hanging by a few bolts and the rigging. Heading for Cape Leeuwin the ship made its best ever day's progress - 104 miles. Ironically this was by drifting, stern to, in a westerly - a measure taken as the Lyttelton didn't steer well under sail in a following wind.

At last the winds blew in the ship's favour, so she didn't make port at Swan River as intended, but carried on with fresh provisions begged from a schooner sighted just through Bass Strait. Three weeks later Farewell Spit was in view and the Lyttelton berthed in Wellington on the 23rd of November 1860, only to find she was unexpected and unwanted. She had been given up for lost, the insurance paid and the owners in liquidation. Sold to private owners at her namesake port, the Lyttelton worked the run to Sumner and Heathcote, later working Dunedin to Taieri in the Otago goldrush, before being bought by Nathaniel Edwards & Co of Nelson - later known as the Anchor Shipping and Foundry Company. Nathaniel Edwards, incidentally, was also owner of Warwick House, often referred to as The Castle, in Brougham St..

The Lyttelton was lengthened, converted from paddle to screw and her boiler replaced. It is the rusting remains of the original that can still be seen off the Nelson waterfront. 

She made her first voyage with a full cargo and passengers from Nelson to Blenheim on 14th November 1862 and caused a great stir in Blenheim, as it was the first steamship to negotiate the Opawa River and berth at the town wharf. The vessel continued to trade from Nelson to all the ports formed or unformed around Tasman and Golden Bay / Mohua with occasional trips to Wellington and Blenheim. She eventually ran aground in 1886 at French Pass on a trip from Collingwood to Wellington.  

This article was first published in Port Nelson Unlimited Report, October 2004.

Updated May 25, 2020.  

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  • I would like to find out the specification,s for this ship as my Great Grandfather&Mother came from Nelson to Blenheim on it and ran aground on the wairau bar and they continued on in a whale boat to Blenheim why I would like to know this as I would like to build a model of it . Ed. 78 tons gross, 74 feet long, 18 feet wide, 7.5 feet from keep to deckline - later altered to carry passengers.

    Posted by David Len Gibson, 11/07/2015 11:48am (6 years ago)

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Further sources - The voyage of the SS Lyttelton




  • First voyage of the SS Lyttelton, chanticleer (1976, March 4) Nelson Evening Mail.

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