Drama at Victory Beach

026Victory Beach, a 3-km long straight beach at Wickliffe Bay on the Otago Peninsula, is one of my favourite places. It’s never crowded – the 2-km walk from the road no doubt puts some people off – and I’ve never seen anybody swimming there. But for those willing and able to make the effort, it’s a beautiful beach to walk along and offers the opportunity to see some of Dunedin’s intriguing wildlife, including yellow-eyed penguins (hoiho) and New Zealand/Hooker’s sea lions (whakahao). If you look closely, you may also spot some interesting clues to its past, for this apparently peaceful spot has a dramatic history.

The smaller of the Pyramids, Te Matai o Okia, February 2016.

The drama started millions of years ago, with the volcanic eruptions which created the landforms of the Otago Peninsula and Dunedin district. The final major eruptive phase of the Dunedin volcano created the lava domes which form many of the prominent peaks around Otago Harbour. The eruptions produced extensive flows of basalt, the most common volcanic rock. As basalt cools and dries out it can crack to form symmetrical patterns, and there is a striking example of this at the mounds known as the Pyramids, adjacent to Victory Beach. On the seawards side of the smaller Pyramid (Te Matai o Okia) you can clearly see the tubes known as columnar jointing. For added intrigue, some of the columns are oriented diagonally from the ground.

Some of the remarkable columnar basalt at Te Matai o Okia, February 2016.

Fortunately, all this volcanic activity took place long before people lived here, but the beach and the swampy flat land adjacent to it, known as Okia, have been walked by Māori for generations. As local kaumātua Edward Ellison explained in the management plan for what is now a reserve, this district was home first to the Waitaha people, later followed by Kāti Māmoe and then Kāi Tahu, who migrated from the north: ‘An old settlement dating back to the earliest times was located at Okia, a place where generations lived, hunted and celebrated life. The hunter gatherer lifestyle was centred around numerous mahika kai resources that were available on the Peninsula and surrounding districts’. Of course, though they later intermarried and made peace, new iwi were not simply welcomed to an already occupied district, and numerous battles were fought. One important tradition concerning Okia, possibly dating from the 18th century, concerned Kāi Tahu warrior Tarewai. Kāi Tahu anthropologist Atholl Anderson details the story in The Welcome of Strangers. Kāti Māmoe lived in some numbers at Papanui Inlet (which drains into the sea at the southern end of Victory Beach), while Kāi Tahu had a pa at Pukekura (at the tip of the Peninsula); some Kāti Māmoe also lived at the pa. A dispute arose between the two groups over the use of Papanui Inlet to launch fishing canoes. Papanui chief Whakatakanewa devised a scheme to extract revenge for the destruction of some canoes. He began constructing a house near the Pyramids, at Kapuketuroto, and asked his Pukekura neighbours for assistance. Several of the Kāi Tahu men who came to assist were killed, and Tarewai only just escaped into the bush. After dark he returned to the Papanui camp and by impersonating a local managed to retrieve his patu (club), then used it to kill two Kāti Māmoe before escaping back into the forest. After hiding out in various places Tarewai returned to Pukekura. Kāti Māmoe were then defeated by Kāi Tahu and fled to Fiordland; Tarewai was among a party that pursued them and he was eventually killed at Matauira Island (Preservation Inlet).

Some sources suggest that a cave at the base of Te Matai o Okia was one of Tarewai’s hiding places. It was certainly a location of some significance to Māori. Another tradition, told to Ellis Sinclair in the 1930s, was that the cave was the site of a massacre of some of the Pukekura Pa residents by Te Wera in the mid-1700s. Sinclair uncovered the cave in 1934 and carried out an archaeological excavation with his brother a few years later. They discovered woven flax matting, the remnants of kaimoana (seafood), and the bones of birds, a pig, and people; Sinclair thought the way the bones were broken and the absence of larger bones suggested cannibalism. John Riddell, a Pākehā farmer whose family had been in the district a long time, informed Sinclair that several human skulls had been found at the cave entrance about 50 years earlier. Sinclair also found in the cave a carved wooden atua (god) figure about 20cm high, which he deposited at the Otago Museum. In 2014 the figure was loaned, together with two Pacific atua from the museum collection, to an acclaimed touring exhibition of the National Gallery of Australia, Atua: sacred gods from Polynesia.

The land at this end of Otago Peninsula was native reserve, retained by Māori at the time of the sale of the Otago block to the New Zealand Company in 1844. Nevertheless, some colonial families settled in the district by leasing land from the Māori owners. They ran stock in the Okia Flat area, as had some of the inhabitants of the earlier Peninsula shore whaling community before them. They named the bay Wickliffe Bay in honour of the migrant vessel John Wickliffe, which brought the first settlers of the official Otago colony from Scotland. The John Wickliffe had anchored in the bay for a couple of days when it first arrived at Otago in March 1848.

Another ship found the bay less welcoming. The SS Victory ran aground here on 3 July 1861 – that’s how the beach got its name. The Victory was a 3-masted single-screw steamship, 145 feet long and 426 tons when first launched at Dumbarton, Scotland, in 1849. In 1860 the ship had a major refit and was lengthened to 215 feet; it was now 501 tons net and had the latest and most luxurious fittings, from rich crimson velvet seats to oil paintings ‘of no mean order’. It was owned by the Inter-colonial Royal Mail Packet Company, which prided itself on punctual mail delivery; it was put on the Melbourne-Canterbury-Otago run, making its first visit to Otago in January 1861. The Victory next arrived at Port Chalmers from Lyttelton on 1 July 1861, bringing a dozen or so passengers. Her mixed cargo included some items clearly destined for the new goldfields (63 camp ovens and covers, 9 bundles shovels), along with tapioca, arrowroot, pimento, glass, cement, fruits, candles, hops, butter, drapery, a horse and ‘sundry pkgs merchandize’. At Otago she loaded up with 4 casks of brandy, 27 bales of wool, a box of stationery and a package of drapery, plus 5 passengers, and departed bound for Melbourne.

The Victory cleared the Otago Heads and set a course designed to take it past Cape Saunders. The captain, James Toogood, headed below for tea, leaving the third mate in charge until George Hand, the chief mate, took over. A few minutes later, at 6pm, in the dark, the ship ran aground at the southern end of Wickliffe Bay, fortunately on the beach rather than the rocks not much further along the coast. Reversing the engines proved no help: the Victory was well and truly stuck and around midnight a boat was lowered and the passengers, baggage and mails safely landed. According to several witnesses, Hand was intoxicated and he had also deserted his post just before the wreck; he was sentenced to 3 months in prison. Though Captain Toogood protested suggestions that he held some responsibility, it seemed unlikely that Hand could have prevented the wreck, for the Victory was clearly on a dangerous course; the compasses were inaccurate and there were also claims of lax discipline on board.

The remaining wreckage of the SS Victory, as seen at low tide, February 2016.

Three weeks later the Victory and her cargo were sold at auction; R.B. Martin bought the vessel, complete with machinery and fuel (300 tons of coal). Though there was no suitable equipment available in New Zealand, there was still confidence that the ship could be salvaged in working order, a company was set up for the purpose and engineer Mr Scott arrived from Sydney the following year to undertake this mission. After months of work, including several almost-successful attempts, he was forced to abandon the task in November 1862 after the re-floated Victory, just preparing to steam away, washed back onto the beach when the anchor broke. This time the vessel was split and filled with water. The wreck was auctioned again – what had sold for £570 a few months earlier was this time knocked down for £200 to Scott. The determined engineer suffered ‘another sad mishap’ the following month when a small schooner taking away some of the Victory‘s parts was also wrecked on the beach. The moveable parts of the vessel and its contents gradually disappeared, but the bones of the ship remained for the surf, the tides and the weather to slowly erode away. Even now, 155 years after the Victory ran aground, her iron flywheel is still visible, coated with barnacles, in the surf at low tide. The boiler ended up at Lower Portobello and some of the timber helped build the byre and stable at John Kerr’s farm, which overlooked the wreck. Kerr, who died in 1930 aged 96, told a story of a lighter broken in two while going to remove cargo from the stranded vessel, leading to the loss of two lives; I haven’t been able to confirm this tale as yet.

The beach remained relatively peaceful in subsequent decades, though there was the odd exception. By the late 1870s the Portobello Rifles, a volunteer company, had a shooting range (‘butts’) at Wickliffe Bay. I can just imagine the conditions in January 1882, when they competed for their district prizes: mist ‘settled down so thickly that the target was scarcely discernible’. I’ve been there when the Otago Peninsula was drenched in bright sunshine, but Victory Beach was covered with a sea mist, creating a distinctly eerie feeling. Some locals later used the beach for exercising racehorses. One of them, James Riddell, who lived nearby, was killed at the beach in 1932 when a stirrup broke and he was thrown from his horse.

Victory Beach entered a new stage of life in 1991, when the Dunedin City Council and Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust purchased the adjacent land to create Okia Reserve, which is jointly managed by the council and trust, together with the Department of Conservation and Te Rūnanga o Ōtākou. With the removal of grazing stock and a little strategic planting, the reserve is slowly reverting to native bush and should one day be covered in coastal forest. It is home to numerous birds, including little blue penguins and the endangered yellow-eyed penguin. Seals and sea lions also visit, and there was much excitement among conservationists and zoologists when a small breeding colony of the endangered sea lion developed here. ‘Mum’ gave birth at Taieri Mouth in 1993 and then brought her pup to Victory Beach – this was the first recorded sea lion birth on the mainland for many decades. The story of sea lions is a fascinating one, but I’ll save that for a later post …

It’s pretty clear that Victory Beach isn’t just a beautiful location: it is also a place with an intriguing past!

A sea lion on the move at Victory Beach, February 2016.



D.G. Bishop and I.M. Turnbull, Geology of the Dunedin Area (Lower Hutt: Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, 1996).

Okia Reserve Management Plan 2009-2019 (Dunedin City Council, 2009).

Atholl Anderson, The Welcome of Strangers: An ethnohistory of southern Maori A.D.1650-1850 (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 1998).

Ellis D. Sinclair, ‘Excavation of cave on Okia Flat, Wickliffe Bay’, Journal of the Polynesian Society, 49, 1 (1940), 137-43. For an edited online version see http://polynesianresourcecenter.com/history/item/excavation-of-cave-on-okia-flat-wickliffe-bay-by-ellis-sinclair-2

John Gibb, ‘Otago Museum artefacts in touring exhibition’, Otago Daily Times, 8 May 2014.

Bruce Collins, Rocks, Reefs and Sandbars: A history of Otago shipwrecks (Dunedin: Otago Heritage Books, 1995).

The Inter-colonial R.M. Steam Packet Company’s ship Victory’, Otago Witness, 1 September 1860.

Shipping news’, Otago Witness, 6 July 1861.

The SS Victory’, Otago Witness, 13 July 1861.

Inquiry into the loss of the S.S. Victory’, Otago Witness, 27 July 1861.

Sale of the wreck of the steam-ship Victory’, Otago Witness, 27 July 1861.

‘Shipping news’, Otago Daily Times, 25 to 29 November 1862; ‘Commercial’, Otago Daily Times, 29 November 1862.

Shipping intelligence‘, Otago Daily Times, 25 December 1862.

‘Obituary: the late Mr John Kerr’, Otago Daily Times, 24 October 1930.

District prize firing’, Otago Witness, 21 January 1882.

‘Fall from a horse: elderly man’s death’, Otago Daily Times, 15 November 1932.


6 thoughts on “Drama at Victory Beach

  1. https://collections.toituosm.com/objects/11954

    The Early Settlers Museum has a watercolour of the Victory shipwreck as it was in 1867, by an unknown artist.

    I wondered about the Intercolonial Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. Seems it was a private company with a contract to carry mail – the ships were required to have an average speed of at least 8 knots – and that the wreck of the Victory was very inconvenient. Made me think about the communication infrastructure of the time!

    Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives of New Zealand 1861

    “The mail service between Lyttleton, Port Chalmers and Melbourne, performed by the Intercolonial Royal Mail Steam Packet Company from the beginning of 1861, under contract with the Provinces of Canterbury and Otago, at a subsidy of £3500 per annum, was brought to a sudden close by the untimely loss of the steamer Victory in July of that year. As the discovery of a richly paying gold field in Otago was announced precisely at this time, and a large population consequently began to pour in from the Colony of Victoria, the demands of commerce alone caused constant steam communication between Port Chalmers and Melbourne. In order to secure the speedy arrival of the monthly European mail, the Provincial Government of Otago, in the month of November 1861, entered into a contract with steamship proprietors in Melbourne for the dispatch of a packet for Port Chalmers about the stated time of arrival of the P & O Company’s contract from Point de Galle. By this means the inward Otago mails have since that time been regularly transmitted.”

    Across the Pacific: Liners from ANZ to North America By Peter Plowman

    In 1857 the Intercolonial Royal Mail steam Packet Company Co was formed in NZ ‘to provide steam communication between Australia and NZ and to promote emigration to those colonies’. The company “commenced operations in November 1858 eventually having 3 vessels on the trade, Lord Ashley, Lord Worsley and Prince Alfred. Over the next few years the NZ government tried to obtain better shipping services from Britain, but when nothing had been achieved by 1863 the government decided to proceed upon their own by inviting tenders for a monthly mail service from NZ to Panama., In December 1863 the contract was awarded to the Intercolonial Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. Soon after the NSW government approached the NZ govt with regard to the service being extended to include Australia and the subsidy would be shared by the two governments … there would be monthly departures from Sydney, with a call at Wellington on the way to Panama. There passengers and mail would be transported across the isthmus on the newly opened railroad, and join a Royal Mail ship at Colon for the voyage across the Atlantic to Southampton. The entire trip was scheduled to take 60 days… as a result the Intercolonial Royal Mail Steam Packet Co was reorganised and a new company registered as the Panama, NZ and Australia Royal Mail Co.”

    Liked by 1 person

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