Historic Place Category 2
The wreck site is located 1.6 kilometres northeast of the end of Puke Aruhe Road and to the south of the Puke Aruhe reef. The bow is on the spring low water mark adjacent to a small stream. Grid reference NZGD E2642500 N6256580; NZTM E1732400 N5694860. Note: The correct traditional spelling of Puke Aruhe is used in this report, however the NZ Geographic Board has not yet considered endorsing this spelling. The current official spelling of the placename is 'Pukearuhe'.
Extent of Registration
Extent includes the seabed within a 50 metre radius of the stated grid reference and any shipwreck material contained within that area (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information).
New Plymouth District
The remains of the colonial steam transport SS Alexandra lie in 8-10 metres of water at Puke Aruhe, north Taranaki. The Alexandra wrecked on 8 August 1865 and was rediscovered by divers from the New Plymouth Underwater Club in 1972.
Despite the relatively brief career of the Alexandra the vessel played an important role in the New Zealand Wars assisting with the transport of Government troops and supplies during the Waikato, Tauranga, and later Taranaki campaigns. The remains of vessels associated with the New Zealand Wars can be considered nationally rare, and as such the wreck site comprises a significant relic of the New Zealand Wars fleet. Many of the vessels that saw active service in the New Zealand Wars ended their careers overseas, and many have not been relocated since their initial loss.
It is also a reminder of the hazards of the small ports of the Taranaki coastline. The wreck site is known to divers, and despite its broken up and scattered condition the site is still likely to retain significant archaeological values.
The Alexandra Wreck Site is of archaeological and historical significance. Relocated nineteenth century shipwrecks are nationally rare in New Zealand and in-situ remains of New Zealand Wars vessels are rarer still. During the New Zealand Wars, the Alexandra played a significant supporting role transporting troops and supplies from Auckland to the frontlines at Raglan, Tauranga, and Wanganui, contributing to the colonial government's capacity to extend its offensive in the final stages of the Waikato campaign. In this way it is an important reminder of a major series of events in New Zealand history: the resistance of Maori to the enforced alienation of their lands by the Crown and the Crown's hostile response to those challenges. In addition to its role in the New Zealand Wars, it is also a representative example of a commonly used form of coastal transport in the mid-nineteenth century.
The Alexandra is of outstanding historical significance for its association with the New Zealand Wars. It played an important background role providing the coastal supply link between Onehunga and Raglan during the Waikato campaign of 1863, between Auckland and Tauranga during the Tauranga campaign in 1863, and between Onehunga and Wanganui during the South Taranaki campaigns of 1865. The wreck site of the Alexandra was also the scene of skirmishing between the Ngati Maniapoto and defenders of the outpost at Puke Aruhe.
Archaeological Significance or Value
The wreck site meets the definition of an archaeological site contained in the Historic Places Act 1993, and is one of the few shipwrecks to have been recorded archaeologically in New Zealand. It is therefore of special archaeological significance. Shipwrecks of New Zealand Wars period vessels are nationally rare and of those that remained in New Zealand, few have been relocated. The material components of the vessel's construction can be investigated archaeologically, and while it is likely that easily removable artefacts will have been taken by divers, it is possible that additional material lies buried beneath the sand. The cargo was mostly salvaged in the months following the wreck, but artefacts belonging to the passengers or crew might still be contained within the site. The Alexandra can therefore potentially provide significant archaeological evidence relating to the construction and subsequent repair of the vessel and its machinery, the material culture of the passengers and crew, and the 1865 wreck event. Details of the vessel's form and appearance are also limited and the wreck site can provide additional information for this purpose.
Technological Significance or Value
The design of the Alexandra is representative of a mid nineteenth century iron hulled steamer.
Social Significance or Value
The site is known to, but not frequently visited by local divers. Shipwreck sites are generally valued by divers for recreation purposes although the conditions are frequently not ideal as the site lies in relatively shallow water, on an exposed surf coast and visibility is often poor.
Summary of Assessed Criteria
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history
The Alexandra was employed in the coastal service of the Colonial government between 1863 and 1865. It can be considered a representative example of mid-nineteenth century coastal steamers which provided regular service for passengers and cargo between many of the country's small ports prior to the wide-spread development of roads and rail.
The wreck site is also a vivid reminder of the hazards of a roadstead landing, common along the west coast of the North Island.
(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history
The Alexandra is closely associated with the New Zealand Wars and was one of the first vessels to be purchased by the New Zealand colonial government. It was primarily a supply vessel, but played an important role in the Waikato, Tauranga, and South Taranaki campaigns of the New Zealand Wars. In this way it is an important reminder of a major series of events in New Zealand history: the resistance of Maori to the enforced alienation of their lands by the Crown and the Crown's hostile response to those challenges.
While in the service of the New Zealand government it was commanded by Captain Williams who does not appear to have been otherwise distinguished, but was used by both General Duncan Cameron and Governor George Grey.
(c) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of New Zealand history
The physical fabric has potential to provide information about the types of vessels that served the colonial government in the New Zealand Wars. As it has not been possible to thus far obtain construction plans the archaeological remains provide one of the few sources of information that can verify details of the vessel form and machinery on board. Study of the physical remains can sometimes provide details of repair and alterations not otherwise documented in the historical record. It is also possible that the site may contain items which can inform questions relating to life on board vessels during the mid-nineteenth century.
(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place
There has been a strong interest in historic shipwrecks in Taranaki through divers associated with the New Plymouth Underwater Club. There is also considerable public interest generally in New Zealand Wars and shipwreck history.
(f) The potential of the place for public education
The site is likely to be of considerable interest to people researching the New Zealand Wars, or people with ancestors who served as crew on the vessel or served in those regiments associated with the vessel. New Zealand Wars period history can potentially be divisive, but was nevertheless important in the shaping of New Zealand's modern cultural identity. The place is comparatively remote but it already features in local historical tours and is interpreted at the St Peters by the Sea church in Mokau. There is also potential for remote interpretation through Puke Ariki Museum in New Ply-mouth.
(i) The importance of identifying historic places known to date from early periods of New Zealand settlement
The Alexandra is significant in the early history of the European settlement at Puke Aruhe (Clifton) and features prominently in local history.
(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places
The site is nationally rare and unique as a New Zealand Wars colonial government vessel of which only a small number of known, and reliably documented archaeological shipwreck sites exist.
(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape
Along with the remains of early ports and coastal infrastructure, shipwrecks form an important component of New Zealand's maritime historical landscape. The site of the Alexandra wreck is comparatively remote, but Puke Aruhe was the site of the nearby redoubt which along with the memorial to John Whitely is protected in a Historic Reserve. The location is also significant for its position on the Maori trails between Waikato and Taranaki.
Construction and arrival in New Zealand (1863)
The Alexandra was built in Renfrew, Scotland at the shipyards of Henderson & Co as a barque-rigged iron screw steamer in 1863. It was given the official number No. 47294. The iron hulled screw steamer was 349 tons gross, 273 tons net, registered with dimensions: length 162ft., beam 24.3ft., depth 12.2ft. It had two 90 horsepower engines. It is likely that the name of the vessel was chosen in honour of the Princess Alexandra of Denmark, who became consort to Edward Prince of Wales on 10 March 1863. The vessel arrived in Auckland from Sydney and Melbourne on 6 December 1863.
The Daily Southern Cross reprinted a description from the Argus shortly after its arrival (although the measurements appear to be confused with another vessel):
'Early yesterday morning this fine addition to our colonial fleet anchored in Hobson's Bay. The 'Alexandra' is a remarkably handsome vessel, and combines swiftness with great carrying capacity on a light draught of water. The Alexandra is a screw steamer of 750 tons builders measurement, 220 feet long (over all) by twenty seven feet beam, with sixteen feet depth of hold. She is propelled by two engines of 150-horse-power (nominal), working up to 350; and judging from her beautiful lines, will no doubt prove one of the fastest vessels that have ever entered these waters. The steerage accommodation for passengers of whom she can carry 120, is most commodious. Taken altogether she is one of the best finished vessels that ever visited this port; in appearance she much resembles the 'City of Launceston'.'
New Zealand Wars transport, Waikato campaign (Dec 1863 - Apr 1864)
For the next two weeks the Alexandra remained at Auckland and was advertised as being for charter or sale by agents A Woolley & Co. The steamer was eventually purchased by the Colonial government for £13 000, and departed the Waitemata for the Manukau on 23 December under the command of Captain Williams. The voyage around the North Cape took a total of 56 hours and the steamer maintained a satisfactory average speed of 8½ knots.
The Alexandra would then play a part in what is now known as the New Zealand Wars, waged between the Crown and Maori in response to Maori uprising against the enforced alienation of their land. The first commission of the Alexandra was the transport of Government troops to the Waikato for the advance up the Waipa River valley. The Waikato campaign was the Crown's hostile response to the Maori Kingitanga movement which united Waikato iwi in an attempt to 'preserve their rangatiratanga and their economic and cultural integrity...in the face of increasing settler challenges'. Hostilities in Taranaki during the 1860s were a result of tension over colonisation that had been brewing since 1841. Fighting across large areas of the North Island caused widespread deprivation, suffering and loss of life and land for iwi, resulting in the heavy confiscation of tribal land taken by the Crown under the Land Settlement Act of 1863. The devastating effects of these actions has since been acknowledged by the Crown through formal apologies and efforts of redress by settlement agreements.
One of the difficulties faced during the later stages of the Waikato campaign was maintenance of a lengthy supply chain into the interior of the Waikato. General Duncan Cameron would later be dubbed 'the lame seagull' by his critics and opponents on account of his slow progress and inability to extend beyond the coast into the interior of the North Island. The Waikato campaign had thus far been fought along the Waikato River, and following the siege and capture of the Kingite defensive line at Rangiriri, supplies had been able to be transported by road as far as Meremere, then further up river by the steamers Pioneer and Avon.
The establishment of camps at Raglan Harbour and along the Waipa River at Whatawhata, Tuhikaramea, Ngahinepouri and Te Rore allowed for troops to be shipped directly from Onehunga to Raglan, significantly shortening the supply chain which had previously been along the Great South Road to Meremere and up the Waikato River. Between 26 December and 05 January, SS Alexandra and SS Kangaroo transported 700 men of the 50th regiment to augment General Cameron's troops at Raglan. These troops were to comprise approximately a third of the force that advanced overland from Te Rore past the heavily defended Kingite position at Paterangi to attack the village of Rangiohuia, and then go on to engage the Kingite forces at Orakau, in the decisive final battle of the Waikato campaign.
Later in January Alexandra was tasked with delivering four barges from Onehunga to Port Waikato. These were to be used as gun platforms and for the conveyance of troops and supplies on the river trains on the Waikato River. Only three of the original four arrived at their intended destination, with one of the barges becoming separated and lost while crossing the Manukau bar, and two others sustaining significant water damage on account of being swamped.
In early February the Alexandra delivered Governor Grey and Minister of Colonial Defence T Russell to Port Waikato to inspect the newly completed Koheroa, the first of the two paddle steamers to be assembled at Port Waikato. The addition of Koheroa improved the efficiency of the inland supply route along the Waikato and Waipa Rivers as far as Te Rore, but was not without mishaps. Koheroa encountered problems on its maiden voyage and the Avon grounded and sank in February 1863, but was later refloated. The coastal supply route between Onehunga and Raglan appears to have been less problematic. Satisfied with the service of the Alexandra, by this time the government has also announced its intention to purchase another steamer to assist with the transport of troops and supplies, and a month later had added the steamers Prince Alfred and Sturt to the colonial fleet. For the next two months Alexandra remained on the west coast extending as far south as New Plymouth.
The Alexandra was a popular vessel on the west coast, as reported in the Daily Southern Cross:
‘Captain Williams and his officers are great favourites on the coast, and it is quite astonishing by what faculty of the mind he has picked up such an accurate knowledge, with the precarious bar harbours of the Western Coast line.'
New Zealand Wars transport, Tauranga campaign (April 1864 - July 1864)
Between April and July 1864 the Alexandra was transferred onto the Auckland-Tauranga route. Alexandra played a fairly minor support role in this campaign, with other colonial vessels including HMS Harrier, Curacoa, Esk, Miranda and Sandfly more prominent.
Following the unsuccessful British siege of Gate pa on 29 April 1864, Alexandra was used to transport the wounded soldiers back to Auckland arriving on 1 May and 5 May. Fresh soldiers, officers and commissariat supplies were delivered to the front.
On one excursion Alexandra ventured as far east as Napier, departing Auckland on 28 May with commissariat stores and 195 troops from the 14th regiment and returning in ballast.
During the lead up to the fighting at Te Ranga, Alexandra transported 300 men of the 1st Waikato militia to Tauranga. The battle took place on 21 June and a week later Alexandra again assisted with the transport of the British wounded, and this time Maori prisoners who were captured when the pa was taken.
On returning to Auckland, Alexandra was briefly laid up for repairs in Mechanics Bay for repairs before returning to the West Coast on 31 July.
New Zealand Wars transport, South Taranaki campaign (July 1864 - May 1865)
Between July and September 1864, Alexandra provided the coastal supply link between Onehunga and the settlements at Port Waikato, and New Plymouth. Soldiers from the 43rd and 70th regiments were transported to New Plymouth onboard Alexandra departing from Onehunga on the 10 October and 22 November.
On 29 December 1864 Alexandra departed Onehunga with a body of 210 troops from the 50th regiment, and arrived at Wanganui along with HMS Falcon, Eclipse, Prince Alfred and Sandfly. The combined force comprised 719 men, along with a contingent from the Royal artillery and two six pound field guns. During January Alexandra returned with two shipments of horses and men from the Land Transport Corps. The first of these on 8 January had to be unloaded at Wellington due to poor conditions on the Wanganui bar. The forces transported on the Alexandra comprised a significant portion of Cameron's force which advanced north from Wanganui towards the Waitotara River on 24 January 1865.
Subsequent to the fighting at Nukumaru the Alexandra further augmented Cameron's forces with 300 men from the 18th regiment on 30 January, and an additional 250 men from the 70 regiment were shipped aboard Alexandra from New Plymouth on 2 February. Being too deep of draught, men and supplies were trans-shipped from the Alexandra to the smaller paddle steamers Sandfly and Gundagai for landings at Wanganui.
Before departing for Sydney for repairs on 17 March, Alexandra made at least four more voyages from Onehunga to Wanganui with fresh troops and horses for the South Taranaki campaign.
New Zealand Wars transport, Taranaki (June 1865 - August 1865)
Between mid-March and June 1865 Alexandra made two trans-Tasman voyages, the first to Sydney and the second to Melbourne returning to Onehunga with the international mail on 7 June 1865. With the conclusion of Cameron's campaign in South Taranaki the demand for government steamers slackened. Prince Alfred was sold and replaced on the Taranaki run with Sturt.
Loss (8 August 1865)
Alexandra continued to call at Onehunga, Port Waikato, New Plymouth and Wanganui until August 1865. On 7 August Alexandra departed New Plymouth for the recently established outpost at Puke Aruhe. The outpost at Puke Aruhe had been established in April at the point where the Maori trail between the Waikato and Taranaki diverted inland at the White Cliffs. It was fortified from 1865-69 in order to prevent the Waikato tribes from sending reinforcements for the fighting in Taranaki.
The Alexandra arrived off Puke Aruhe in the evening and anchored off the shore waiting for daylight before attempting to land. When coming into shore the vessel touched lightly on the bottom, so the pilot ordered the engines into reverse so as make a second attempt. While reversing the Alexandra struck a sunken rock about a mile from the shore, first with the stern and then a second time amidships. On assessing the damage it was found that the vessel had taken on board 6 ft of water, and Captain Williams made the decision to run the vessel ashore. However, Alexandra sank just before reaching the shore. The passengers and crew made it safely ashore, but there was no time to save the cargo.
The Taranaki Herald reported the loss:
‘Yesterday, about noon, news arrived in town of the wreck of the s s Alexandra, at the White Cliffs. From the Information to hand it appears that the steamer in question arrived at the White Cliffs on Tuesday morning, having left this place the previous night with a detachment of the 70th and 43rd, and some gentlemen connected with the Survey Department. The occurrence as reported is, that the Alexandra, in clear daylight, ran upon a rock, surrounded with 20 fathoms water - that the bilge was so great as to allow her to take water at the rate of six feet in two minutes. Captain Williams, under the circumstances, beached her as rapidly as her engines would allow.'
While there appears to have been no official enquiry into the cause of the wreck the blame appears to have been attached to the pilot.
‘She is said to have been in the hands of the pilot at the time of the disaster, and in consequence of her having hugged the land too closely she struck on a sunken reef and had to be quickly abandoned. Her passengers were saved, but the casualty appears to have been too sudden and complete to have allowed of even their baggage being saved.'
‘It is stated that the person put on board as pilot, at New Plymouth, was not in a fit state to take charge of a vessel.'
Salvage and skirmishing around the wreck
The rescue of the crew and attempts to salvage materials intended for the construction of the blockhouse not only deprived the outpost of necessary supplies, but created additional duties for those stationed at the redoubt:
‘The wreck of the Alexandra put a stop to all further works of improvement; everyone had to labor on the salvage of the cargo and bear their burden of toil in transporting the goods saved for at least a mile along the beach before the road was reached, the materials out of which the new blockhouse has been constructed, formed no inconsiderable part of the things recovered. Then came too, other duties when the Maoris menaced this position, and strove for pos-session of the wreck; there were night watches, such as picquets in the gully opposite the place where the ill-fated steamer - followed by days of incessant toil - interspersed with such interruptions as the frequent appearance of the enemy and much desultory firing produced.'
‘Our only means of supplying the post was by sea and we were fortunately not molested by natives until sometime after when the imperial Gov SS Alexandra was wrecked on the beach about a mile from the post - she was engaged to bring timber for the blockhouse & supplies for the post & ran on a reef, she had a large hole knocked in her bottom & being an iron ship would have sunk in deep water if Captain Williams had not headed for the beach at once. As it was she filled and sank just as her bows touched the sand, the natives came down from Mokau to endeavour to plunder & constant skirmishes took place.'
Ultimately however, most of the cargo for the redoubt that hadn't been destroyed fell into the hands of the Ngati Maniapoto forces that occupied the wooded gully opposite the redoubt adjacent to the wreck site. Parties from the redoubt that attempted to reach the Alexandra found themselves under fire from the Maori position and were forced to retreat.
Among the items recovered by the Ngati Maniapoto was the ship's bell, which remained in the possession of a local family until being gifted to the St Peters by the Sea church at Mokau.
By 15 August the Alexandra had being written off as a total wreck. Salvage was attempted shortly after the wreck, with the Superintendent, Mr Vivian, engineer and blacksmiths arriving from New Plymouth. On the 30th Sturt departed for Pukearhue with 50 men of Captain Page's Taranaki Military Settlers Company. The only confrontation was long range sniping, and after a brief outburst on the 2nd September the Ngati Maniapoto returned north without assaulting the redoubt.
In the years immediately following there were further attempts to salvage materials from the wreck site. An account of salvage efforts by a sailor called Goff were documented by Arthur Messenger (the son of Captain Messenger), writing of his childhood experiences at Puke Aruhe later in life. Goff had obtained papers authorising salvage, and set up a hut built from salvaged timber on the beach opposite the wreck site. While there he attracted periodic interest from both Captain Messenger and Maori, but both remained largely indifferent considering that any valuable cargo or materials had been long since removed.
- Original Construction: 1863 (circa)
- Other: 1865 (circa)
- Other: 1866 (circa)
Iron hulled, barque-rigged screw steamer.
- J. Cowan, The New Zealand Wars and the Pioneering Period, Volume 1,
(Government Printer, Wellington: 1922)
- M. De Jardine, Shipwrecks on and off the Taranaki Coast. De Jardine, New Plymouth, 1984
- C Ingram, New Zealand shipwrecks: over 200 years of disasters at sea. [8th edition rev. and updated by Diggle, L, Diggle E. and K. Gordon 2007] Hachette Livre, Auckland, 2007 
- S. Locker-Lampson and I. Francis. The Wreck Book. Rediscovered New Zealand Shipwrecks. Halycon Press, Auckland, 1994.
- N. Prickett, Landscapes of Conflict - A Field Guide to the New Zealand Wars, Random House New Zealand, 2002
- Waitangi Tribunal Report, www.waitangi-tribunal.govt.nz,The Taranaki Report: Kaupapa Tuatahi, accessed 25 May 2009.
A fully referenced registration report is available from the NZHPT Central Region Office.
Report Written By
this page is correct to the best of the Trust's knowledge. If you have any additional
information you would like to share with the Trust, please
contact the Registrar.
You may wish to contact the Trust to view our paper records.