On Monday, October 29, 1894, the S.S. Wairarapa, with more than 230 passengers aboard, besides the crew, crashed on to rocks at Miner's Head on Great Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand. Captain McIntosh, the master, and initially134 passengers and crew were quoted as having perished (later figures were higher). The covers rescued from the wreck are rated as rare, and the numbers in existence are probably unknown. Here are 3 examples, and the best example is shown first.
It is addressed to the Post Master, Geneal Post Office, Auckland, New Zealand, the stamp (as always) is washed off. It had been canceled with the duplex SYDNEY/ OC 23/ 11-A M/ 94/ 36 with the 3-ringed oval ‘N.S.W’. There is a very fine blue 2-line handstamp ‘Saved from wreck of the/ "WAIRARAPA" (Figure 1).
The reverse shows a fine N.Z./ AUCKLAND/ 3 NO 94/ 14 as well as another illegible postmark (Figure 2).
The second cover was posted with a duplex BRISBANE/ 27/ OC ( )/ 9(4) and is addressed to Customs Auckland N.Z., and readdressed in red to a company. The identical blue 2-line handstamp has been applied (Figure 3).
The third cover was also sent from Brisbane with a partial duplex cancel and it is addressed to a solicitor in Blenheim, N.Z. and it has the blue 2-line handstamp (Figure 4).
The reverse has a transit N.Z./ AUCKLAND/ 10 NO 94/ 1 as well as the arrival N.Z./ BLENHEIM/ 14 NO 94/ 1 postmark (Figure 5).
The wreck of the ship on the rocks some days after the accident, as well as articles salvaged from the ship, are seen in Figures 6 and 7.
The S.S. Wairarapa was one of the Union Steamship Line's most luxurious vessels, built in 1892, and had a gross weight of 1716 tons. It was employed on the Australia-New Zealand run, across the Tasman Sea, a journey of over 1,250 miles. The vessel left Sydney on October 24, 1894, bound for Auckland, with some 230 passengers and crew on board.
Late on the night of October 29/30 (12.08 a.m.), it had passed the North Cape of New Zealand, when it suddenly encountered dense fog. However, Captain John McIntosh was so sure of his bearing that the ship continued at full speed, to pass Great Barrier Island on the final run to Auckland Harbour.
Suddenly, there was a deafening crash as the ship was flung by the heavy swell on to a rocky ledge. For a moment, all was confusion; the passengers rushed from their beds; Captain McIntosh ordered the boats to be lowered, and the tremendous seas pounded the grounded ship. At 2 a.m., its funnel was carried away, then the boat listed to port and the bridge collapsed. The Captain and many others were swept away into darkness. The life-rafts were cut adrift, and saved many people, and the rest fought for their lives.
On deck, the survivors clung to the ship's rails for twelve hours, and at last a line was taken to shore by a steward, and secured. A thick rope was then hauled to land, and the passengers attempted to get ashore to safety.
At this point of the Island, the cliffs were 800 feet high, and it was thirty hours before another vessel saw the wreck, and rescued the survivors. In those thirty hours, the survivors lived on oranges washed ashore from the wreck, and the few local settlers also helped with food and comfort. In due course, the S.S. Argyle a small coaster, saw them, and took them to Auckland. It arrived there at 3 a.m. on November 1, and the outside world learned of the tragedy.
There were 117 sacks of mail on board of which 109 sacks were salvaged (another source quoted 98 bags as saved) and 23,224 pieces of mail were recovered, taken to Auckland on November 3, and dried out. Items were then marked with a handstamp reading "Saved from the wreck of the Wairarapa" (in two lines), in violet or blue ink. Items backstamped "AUCKLAND 3 NO 94" are usually struck in deep violet, but those backstamped on November 5 or 10 are usually in violet-blue. From the beginning, the handstamp had a characteristic warping. A much rarer handstamp has been seen, far smaller, and in black. It is thought that this was the first one to be used, but was found to be too small and indistinct, and so discarded. A cover with this black handstamp was sold at a New Zealand auction in 1971.
The Government of New Zealand has a document on line entitled "S.S. Wairarapa Graves Heritage Assessment 1984, pages 21-25" with a well documented history of the ship from its being built in 1882 by the company of William Denny and Bros., Dumbarton, Scotland until the centenary of the shipwreck in 1984.