Saturday, August 6, 2011

L'Alcmene - Kaipara 1851

Painting of the wreck of L'Alcmene in the Dargaville Musium
Artist unknown Image taken by Liz

This is the first of a series of posts I'll be doing on Northland Ship Wrecks and casualties. Now and then I may divert and cover other wrecks from around the New Zealand Coast.

The L'Alcemene perhaps is one of the best known of the ships to have wrecked on the Northland west coast. Built in 1834 L'Alcmene was a French Corvette. She was a three masted vessel carrying 36 guns on board. Her Commander was Captain le Compte d'Harcourt. According to a report in the Southern Cross dated 17th June 1851 L'Alcmene was on her passage from Hobart to Hokianga. On June 3rd 1851 the L'Alcmene became becalmed thirty miles from shore. For four days she had drifted nearer and nearer to land. On the fourth day a westerly blew up and despite all efforts, she ended up entangled in the breakers,just off Bayly's Beach south of the notorious Monganui Bluff( itself a noted graveyard for many an unfortunate ship) and north of the equally dangerous Kaipara Harbour entrance.

With no hope to break free of the pounding west coast waves the Captain made a decision to beach her as a last alternative. In the doing twelve lives were lost. This is the account from the Southern Cross 17th June 1851:

As far as we have been able to gather, the particulars of this unfortunate disaster are as follows:-

The Alcmene was on her passage from Hobart Town to Hokianga, and at the beginning of the present month, got becalmed on the West Coast. about thirty miles off shore. She continued drawing helplessly towards the land, then she encountered a heavy gale on the 4th; and as we understand our informant, found it impossible to claw off the lee shore on which she found herself so unhappily and so unexpectedly thrown.

Having become entangled among the breakers, and no hope of saving the ship presenting itself, as a last alternative she was beached. Luckily she took the ground at the top of high water, and had her crew but waited for the ebb, in all probability little or no loss of life would have ensued.

As it was, an immediate attempt to land took place, which although partially successful, still entailed a sacrifice of twelve lives, and caused the wounding of twelve others. The great majority of the crew, including a Hobart Town lady, the wife of one of the officers, walked on shore from the ship which was left embedded in the sand on the fall of the tide.

The spot where the wreck occurred was at Ripiro, near Monganui, about midway between Kaipara and Hokianga Heads. The shipwrecked mariners, having strolled along the beach, encoutered a tribe of Ngatiapa, by whom, and their chief Matin, they were conducted to the village of Okaro, where they experienced every possible kindness and hospitality; and from whence some of the officers and men have crossed to Auckland to make known their misfortunes, and to solicit and all assistance that can be rendered. Little or nothing has been saved, and the ship has become a total wreck.

The Alcmene has been for sometime these seas, and had but just undergone a thorough and expensive refit at Hobart Town, at which port she had been lying for several months.

We understand Mr. Luke Master of H.M Ship Fly, has proceeded to the scene of disaster, to assist in securing whatever materials may be washed ashore, as well as to expediate the passage of the crew of the corvette to Auckland.

Further Reading An account by the Reverend James Buller here

Relics from the L'Alcmene now on display at the Dargaville Museum

Quarter Master's keys from the wreck of L'Alcmene

Photo of a model of the vessel

One of the cannons recovered from the wreck site


  1. I have just scanned some of my old slides and thought you might be interested in the seeing these. I was lucky enough to accompany Kelly when I was in NZ (1978-79).