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The 1840 Voyage of the Blenheim

August 25th 1840 was a dank and drizzly day when the last of the passengers boarded the full rigged ship Blenheim at Greenock, near Glasgow. The usual state of confusion existed, even though some of the passengers had been on board for some days. At 5:00pm Blenheim slipped her moorings and was towed some 20 miles out into the the Firth of Clyde by a steamboat and at 11:00pm on a beautiful and calm night the steamboat cast off and the voyage of almost 4 months began.

Over the following three or four days Blenheim made her way south through the Irish Sea, often against adverse head-winds, towards Lands End from where she would launch into the seemingly endless passage south towards the Cape of Good Hope. It was not known until later but, at this early stage of the journey, she was within 10 minutes of a disaster. During the night crew had mistaken Wexford light on the south eastern coast of Ireland for a passing steamboat. A question of the Captain, asking him for confirmation of any lighthouse that should be visible in the area, brought him swiftly on deck. Had this not happened the ship and the journey would have ground to a halt on a nearby sandbank.

By September 2nd Blenheim was well into the Bay of Biscay and most of the passengers, being uncommon or new sailors, were suffering from the effects of sea-sickness. The ship was rolling and tossing a good deal but the wind had turned in her favour, pushing her along at a clipping rate. The Bay of Biscay seemed never ending and it would be another 24 hours before they could put this stormy place behind them. At 6:30pm on the following evening, Blenheim cleared Biscay and pushed out into the Atlantic proper where heat, calms, Equator, storms and 'bergs awaited them.

The following day, September 4th much to the delight of the passengers, dawned bright, clear and calm with a favourable wind. Many ships were sighted throughout this and the next day including the Tam-O-Shanter out of Liverpool bound for Port Jackson (Sydney) with a general cargo. A long journey at sea such as those undertaken by New Zealand immigration vessels had the potential to be very boring. One can only only briefly cast an interested eye over so much sea. Passing seabirds, shoals of fish (especially the delightful little flying fish), jellyfish and floating seaweed all served to break the monotony. By far the most interesting of these "events" was the sighting of another ship, especially when these ships were "spoken" to by signals. When one ship "spoke" another, the event was recorded widely and was a means of allowing owners, traders, friends and relations to know that all was well.

Tuesday September 8th and Blenheim was just north of the Canary Islands when the passengers experienced one of most horrific events that could occur on board a small and crowded ship in the middle of the ocean - suspected smallpox. Although the passenger concerned had been on board for almost three weeks, the symptoms had only just appeared on this day. Many on board were thus in great fear of having come into contact with him or with those whom he had been in contact. Ignorance, too, of the conditions surrounding the spread of smallpox caused as much fear such as the belief that their increase was caused, in part, by "moist humours". The patient was isolated in the hospital and "quite separated from all the others". Ultimately the illness  was not to prove anything dreadful. The symptoms disappeared and the patient became well, but not before a very careful and lengthy isolation.

Blenheim entered the tropics and the passengers began to feel distinctly uncomfortable in the hot and relatively still conditions. Solid English clothing would not have been at all suitable in these climates and one can but imagine the various states of undress behind closed cabin doors while Victorian modesty would never have allowed the removal of stays, stockings and chemises in public. Slow southern progress was made over the next 25 days with what little wind there was, and "The Line" was crossed at 2:00pm on Friday October 2nd after which Blenheim's progress improved. The Island of Trinidade off the coast of Brazil was seen and passed on October 15th and by the 18th Blenheim was out of the tropics and well on her way to the Cape of Good Hope which point she passed (300 miles south) at 12:00pm on November 12th.

All indications are that Blenheim bent with a will towards her Easting, driven along by what Captain Gray called "a glorious breeze" and the passengers called "too high a wind for my taste". Racing across the great Southern Ocean, Blenheim was making almost 200 miles per day following almost exactly the 40th Latitude. The Captain, understandably relishing the speed that his ship could obtain, expressed the hope that they would be in New Zealand by Christmas Day. However, as if to deliberately dampen his enthusiasm, on Monday, November 30th the glass fell very low and the gloomy, morose conditions indicated that a gale was on its way.

At 6:00pm the wind increased a great deal and throughout that night and the following day it gusted very strongly. The vessel rolled about a lot and there was a tremendous noise of sea and wind such that the passengers had never heard before. The elements continued to batter the ship until the following day (Thursday December 3rd) when the wind eased to a strong and favourable breeze. On this day Blenheim was three weeks beyond the Cape and had covered 3,800 miles, an average daily distance of 181 miles. The winds continued strong and favourable for the next three or four days driving the ship further eastward and closer to Australia and New Zealand.

Thursday December 10th saw the first indication of land being nearby. On pumping the bilges the ships carpenter noticed sand in the water and "it was easily seen we were drawing near land when the sand was coming into the ship with the water". Four days later the southern shores of Tasmania were spotted 30 miles to the north. The passage between the Cape of Good Hope and Tasmania had been a rather speedy 32 days.

As Blenheim approached Wellington, the weather warmed and the seas became calmer. Cannon were brought up from the hold and prepared for the firing of a salute on dropping anchor at Wellington. Their first sight of New Zealand came at 10:30am on Wednesday December 23rd and was Cape Farewell on the northern tip of the South Island. On entering Cook Strait, Blenheim became subject to the notoriously fickle winds of the area. Head winds, sudden squalls and dead calm all contrived to to prevent the passengers from arriving at their ultimate destination. Indeed they were positioned a mere 60 miles from Wellington at this stage.

For four days these conditions were endured until the wind changed to blow in Blenheim's favour at around 2:00am. However, things were never that easy. Captain Gray was having trouble finding the harbours entrance. No proper chart of the harbour had been published in 1840 and he was not sure which of the bays around Wellingtons southern coast opened into Wellington Harbour. Attempts were made to attract the attention of the Pilot (this would have been James Heberley) by firing five cannon and a boat with six crew was launched to search for the entrance. However, by spotting Somes Island and Ward Island from the masthead, the entrance was soon found and on Sunday December 27th Blenheim anchored opposite the small town of Wellington.

Copyright: Denise & Peter 1999, 2000, 2001