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FIRE ON THE WATER
The Burning of the immigrant ship Montmorency

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Montmorency

Our thanks to Graham Bould for prompting us to write this story and for his help in gathering information.

At 1am on the morning of Thursday, March 28th, 1867 Lieutenant Britten, patrolling Barrack Hill, noticed flames against the black night sky. He looked towards where he knew the ship Montmorency was moored out in the Roadstead, and realised that he was witnessing a most awful catastrophe.

The 668 ton Black Ball ship Montmorency had arrived at Napier on March 24th 1867 having departed London on November 10th 1866. After anchoring, all of her passengers and most of her crew had come ashore. It had been intended to unload her cargo and the passengers belongings stored in the hold as soon as possible, however, as described by Sir Henry Brett, those ...were leisurely times, and the facilities at the Port were somewhat primitive. Now this noble ship was a sea of flame and little could be done to save her as there was no fire-fighting gear available. Nonetheless, the sentry sounded the alarm and boats were sent out to the burning ship to see what could be done and to ensure the safety of the small crew on board.

The fire itself had been discovered by the man on watch at about a quarter to midnight on the 27th when smoke was seen issuing from the fore hatchway. He immediately raised the alarm and the Chief Officer and crew were on deck within seconds. As the Captain was on shore at the time, the Chief Officer took charge and investigated the scene where he found dense smoke issuing from the hold. He ordered both fire engines (manual pumps) to be rigged and the hose passed down the hatchway. When the hatch of the lower hold was removed the flames could be seen on the port side of the vessel. The Chief Officer, Boatswain and Sailmaker went down between decks and aimed the hose at what seemed to be the seat of the fire. They were very soon forced to give up their efforts because of the density of the smoke and the fact that the deck beneath their feet was becoming very hot. They closed the hatch to contain the fire, albeit temporarily, and ordered the boats prepared should they be needed.

The Chief Officer went aft to signal for help by sending up rockets and burning blue light signals but it seems that there was no one on shore to see this. By this time the flames were gathering strength and threatening to burn through the forehatch to the upper deck. The crew made another attempt to keep the fire at bay by working the engines and directing both hoses through the main hatch. It was found impossible to continue this for long owing to the heat and smoke of the fire. Soon the spare spars and other goods stored on the deck ignited and all hope of saving the ship was lost. Again a number of rockets were sent aloft to sound the alarm and to obtain assistance from the shore but when it was evident that this would not be immediately forthcoming, part of the crew were ordered to gather their personal effects and take to the boats. Very few, however, were able to save anything owing to the ferocity of the fire.

The ships Carpenter was ordered to scuttle the ship as this, if anything, would snuff out the flames. A swell had risen and the ensuing motion of the ship prevented the Carpenter from carrying out the task. By half an hour past midnight the flames had taken such a serious and fatal hold on the vessel that the situation became hopeless. More rockets were fired and again there was no obvious sign of them being seen from shore. The rest of the crew were ordered into the boats and were instructed to row themselves clear of the burning ship. Meanwhile the Chief and Second Officers and the Customhouse Officer, Mr Fordham, remained on board a little longer but a ship containing spirits, oil, turpentine and cloth in her holds would not remain safe for long. Soon the vessel was left to burn herself to the waterline when the Chief Officer and his companions dropped over the stern into the boats.

After the last crew members left the Montmorency, one of the boats was pulled to the bow of the vessel where another unsuccessful attempt was made to scuttle her as again the ocean swell was significantly large. Two attempts were made to unshackle the vessel from her moorings and let her float free. The first proved fruitless and the second was only partially successful as she remained attached to her anchor. The boats lay off the ship until 4:00am. When they left the fire had been roaring out of the sides and bow of the ship and was burning the length of the bowsprit.

When first seen from shore, flames were rushing up through the forward hatch to a height of 30 or 40 feet. There was not a breath of wind to disturb this vertical fiery torrent and the sight must have been spectacular. A horse- man was sent down to the Spit to warn the township and to organise help to be sent out to the remaining sailors. Captain Josiah Hudson McKenzie, master of the Montmorency and only recently on shore, was roused by these alarms and he and almost all the inhabitants of the Spit assembled on the beach to watch the progress of the flames and anxiously await the return of the boats with news of the crew. By this time, too, reporters from the local papers (the Hawkes Bay Times and the Hawkes Bay Herald) were on the scene, so later reports published by them were certain eye witness accounts. The use of a powerful telescope enabled the reporters to see these distant events as if they were mere yards away.

While the fire was initially confined to mid-ships, it was not long before the flames spread upwards into the rigging, spars and sails. First the main mast and then the mizzen (stern) mast caught fire. As the flames burnt through the small rope gaskets holding the sails furled they were released in a series of incandescent showers,  scattering burning fragments into the gentle breeze that had then sprung up. At 2:30am the mizzen mast caved in and fell overboard. At the same time the main-top part of the main mast collapsed and fell to the deck. The flames were soon devouring the ship from one end to the other and it was now well known by those watching on shore that the vessel was doomed.

Shortly after 2:45am a boat was seen making for the shore. Amid loud cheers from those waiting on the beach the news soon spread that some of the remaining members of the crew had been spotted safe and nearly ashore. Every valiant attempt had been made by the First Officer and his men to stem the flow of the fire and to prevent it taking hold. At last they realised the futility of their efforts and took to the ships boat, remaining in proximity to the burning ship until it became obvious that she would not survive. At 4:00am the foremast fell backward onto the deck bringing down the remainder of the mainmast.

On board, the Montmorency there had been nearly 400 tons of cargo consigned to, amongst others, Messrs: Stuart & Co., Watt Brothers, Newton and Irvine & Co. To a country that still depended very much on products imported from overseas the loss was great and in a fledgling community such as Napier whose shopkeepers and merchants relied on selling those products, the loss was devastating. In addition the tragedy caused a huge loss for passengers and crew alike. The Captain's loss was estimated at 200 (everything he owned) and although the Chief Officer managed to save some of his clothes, he lost the remainder and a sum of money. All of the immigrants luggage had been saved but anything that was stored in the hold and consigned as freight was lost to the fire. One passenger, Mr Orr, was arguably the biggest loser of all. On board and uninsured he had a large amount of agricultural equipment and seed. His loss was estimated at 1,000.

In the morning the Montmorency was a smoking hulk. She had burnt nearly to the waterline and floated in the water a charred and blackened wreck. All her masts had been felled and her bowsprit was but a brief remnant of what it had been. Nothing was left of this once proud ship that had challenged the seas for half a world and won. Fire had taken her when she was peacefully resting and destroyed her soul. The complete cargo and all of the luggage brought out by the passengers, including some very valuable items and family heirlooms was also destroyed and the crew, too, lost everything they had. The much respected Captain McKenzie, whose entire earthly belongings had been lost in the fire and were un-insured, was left destitute.

The ship continued to smoulder throughout the following day and was, with difficulty, beached between the Spit and the Bluff by the ship Star of the South. Afterwards a claim for salvage was lodged by Captain Bendall of the Star of the South and a Mr Warnes who assisted in the beaching. The claim was turned down as there was no evidence that the Montmorency had been abandoned. An award of 50.00 was, however, awarded to them for their trouble. The charred hulk was later sold at auction for 110, the residue of her cargo for 105 and the anchors and boats etc were also sold to bring the total recovered to 350 and still, the cause of the fire remained a mystery.

An official inquiry was held at Napier on Saturday March 30th 1867 in the Council Chambers. Presiding were  Edward Catchpool, JP and the Napier Collector of Customs and John Curling the Resident Magistrate. The whole of the crew and Mr Fordham the Customhouse Officer or "Tidewaiter"had been summoned to give evidence.  Commencing with Captain Josiah Hudson McKenzie the story of the last hours of the Montmorency, which only days before had walked the waters like a thing of life, was told. Captain McKenzie told of events in London before the departure of the vessel and in detail of events as he experienced them following her arrival at Napier. He informed the inquiry that he believed the ship was fully insured, even though he had not seen the insurance papers, and that the policy was due to expire 30 days after her arrival in New Zealand. The Chief Officer, Joshua Fawkes, took the stand next and related his experiences and his attempts at saving the ship.

The evidence given by of these two was followed by that of Charles Broberg the Second Mate who merely confirmed the statements given by the Captain and Chief Officer without adding anything new to the evidence. Several more witnesses were examined but they were unable to throw any more light on the reason for the tragedy and the final paragraph printed in the Wellington Independent of Saturday April 6th 1867 read The Court came to the conclusion that there was nothing in the evidence to show how or in what manner the fire occurred. Elsewhere, though, it had been suggested that a liaison between a female passenger and one of the crew who desired to remain in New Zealand with her may have been a possible cause.

References:
White Wings - Sir Henry Brett
Hawkes Bay Times March 28th 1867
Wellington Independent April 4th & 6th 1867

Copyright Denise & Peter 2001, 2002