SS Penguin Sinking to be Remembered on South Coast

9 February 2009

A special commemoration will be held on a remote part of Wellington's South Coast this Thursday evening in memory of the 72 people who lost their lives when the passenger steamer SS Penguin went down in a storm 100 years ago.

The wreck of the Penguin on 12 February 1909 was New Zealand's worst maritime disaster of the 20th century.

During the ceremony, Mayor Kerry Prendergast will unveil a plaque, which has been mounted on a prominent rock at Tongue Point close to where it is thought the ship carrying 102 people hit rocks and foundered.  Dunedin maritime writer Bruce Collins, who has written a comprehensive history of the shipwreck, will speak at the commemoration.

Mayor Prendergast says the loss of the Penguin was the Wahine or Erebus disaster of its day and a major tragedy in the city's history.

"A half-day holiday was declared to allow people to mourn and bury the dead and the city came to a standstill as crowds lined the streets to watch the funeral processions wend their way through the city, Kelburn and up to Karori Cemetery," she says. "It's another reminder to us all just how treacherous Cook Strait and Wellington's rugged South Coast can be."

The ship was travelling from Nelson to Wellington via Picton when it hit something in the dark and began taking on water. The Penguin had enough lifeboats and rafts to accommodate all aboard but the lifeboats did not fare well in the atrocious conditions.  Twenty-four people reached shore on the ship's two rafts, but only six people who left in lifeboats survived the night.  Only one woman survived the tragedy and all 10 children onboard perished in the rough seas.

Shepherds from Terawhiti sheep station (now Terawhiti Station) were the first on the scene and searchers scoured the coast, recovering bodies from the jagged rocks and surf and often struggling in deep water to carry the dead ashore.  Survivors were carried on horseback across the flooded Karori Stream.

Only keen trampers or four-wheel-drive enthusiasts are likely to see the new plaque at Tongue Point, which is well off the beaten track, but people with an interest in the tragedy might like to visit the Museum of Wellington on Queens Wharf or take the self-guided Penguin Walk at Karori Cemetery where about 40 of the victims are buried. Brochures are available from the office at the cemetery or online under the Maps or Karori Cemetery Walks sections on this website. Another option is to join Deirdre Wogan of the Karori Historical Society for a 90-minute to two-hour guided walk this Sunday 15 February. Meet outside the main cemetery chapel in Rosehaugh Avenue, Karori, at 2.00pm.