Shipwrecked in the Furious Fifties

Family stories! They’re great for gatherings at Christmas dinner, but do they ‘hold water’? Most of our family fables that are passed on from one generation to the next have an element of ‘gilding the lily’ – adorn something that is already beautiful or perfect.

In this particular story, the adornment sought to make a tragic event seem even more horrific. The story in question involved our great great uncle who was supposedly ‘eaten by cannibals’. Such an incredible story was quickly dismissed with a smirk by my skeptical brothers and sisters born into a more enlightened 20th century. It was a story used to explain away the disappearance in a world of unfathomable danger and menace. But then, I found the entry in Great Aunt Grace’s birthday book –

“January 15. Thomas Finch (born 1862) left Newcastle Australia for Lyttleton New Zealand, February 10, 1882 in “Min-y-don” and not since heard of”

Great Aunt Grace’s Poetical Birthday Book

Could this mysterious entry be the beginning of our ‘cannibal’ story? Thomas was nine years old in the 1871 census, living together with his parents George and Rosetta Finch, his older siblings Emily and George, as well as his younger siblings, William (our great grandfather), Rosetta, Alfred and Harry (also our great grandfather). In the census of 1871 they were living in Drummond Road, Bermondsey, London.

The Min-y-Don Passenger List

Then I score a hit on a search of passenger lists! Thomas was a nineteen-year old ‘able seaman’ on the sailing ship Min-Y-Don leaving from London and destined for Sydney, Australia – arriving on 8th February 1881. The ship itself was not dissimilar to the well-known Cutty Sark, one of the last surviving Clippers from the era of ‘tall ships’. The Min-y-Don (meaning ‘at the edge of the waves’ in the Welsh language) had a crew of around 30 men, had an iron clad hull and a net tonnage of 1100 (compared to 900 tonnes of the Cutty Sark).

Taeping, a tea clipper built in 1863 similar to the Min-y-Don clipper. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Having made it to Sydney, it then departed from neighbouring Newcastle (Australia) carrying a cargo of coal, destined for Lyttleton, New Zealand. The voyage would involve traversing the ‘Roaring Forties’ in the Tasman Sea: a voyage notorious for its treacherous sailing conditions. It involved a distance of approximately 1,500 nautical miles cutting around the southern cape of New Zealand. The strong westerly winds of the Roaring Forties (occurring between 40° and 50° latitude in the southern hemisphere) would enable fast sailing conditions. The chosen route around the southern cape (instead of the Cook Strait) would have been the fastest but more perilous route, touching on the Furious Fifties (the 50° latitude).

What became of the Min-y-Don and our great great uncle, Thomas Finch – did he make it to Lyttleton? It seems that relatives in our living memory had only a vague understanding of what became of Thomas. The story about ‘cannibals’ was one that ‘filled the void’, perhaps reflecting the paranoia of uncharted travel. Today, with the advent of the Internet we have the answers – but alas, too late for our relatives that died without knowing.

Ships berthed at Lyttleton Harbour – National Museum of New Zealand.

A telegram message

Some of the answers emerge from a telegram (1) sent by the New South Wales Government on 8 April 1882 requesting that a steamer be sent out by the New Zealand Government to search for the missing vessel Min-y-Don. The message reads as follows:

“To Colonial Treasurer, Wellington. — The ship Min-y-don, 1103 tons, sailed from Newcastle with cargo of coals for Lyttelton on the 10th February last, and has not since been heard of. Fears are entertained that the vessel has been lost. When the captain left he expressed his intention of going South about. Will you kindly give directions that captains of steamers be requested to keep a look out for wreckage ; or probably some of the crew may be cast ashore on the mainland or adjacent islands. This Government will be glad if you will take such steps as you can to solve the mystery of the missing vessel. Sydney.”

— (Signed) Colonial Treasurer, 8th April 1882

The communication was misplaced with the statement that “…no such telegram had been received by the Government. The telegram, however, has at last come to hand, having been accidentally delayed.”

Given up for lost

Soon efforts were underway, requesting masters of all vessels leaving neighbouring ports to keep a lookout for the missing vessel and signs of wreckage, particularly steamers trading between Australia and New Zealand. By June 1882 the ships loss had been posted at Lloyds insurers.

“The Min-y-Don is now wholly given up for lost. Possibly the Stella, which is expected on Monday, may have seen some of the wreckage.”

A few days later the Stella arrived in Lyttleton with confirmation of her loss:

“The only trace of the Min-y-Don that could be discovered at the time was a piece of teak rail, seven feet in length, picked up by the Stella in the vicinity of Puysegur Point. This plank was identified by Capt. McClatchie, the stevedore who stowed the ship in Lyttleton, and also by the pilot of that port as belonging to the Min-y-Don. Our visitors now informed us that a teak companion (probably describing a writing desk or cupboard) had recently been found on the beach some distance off, and had been shown to them…. The conclusion is strengthened by the fact that all the Min-y-Don’s fittings were of teak, and that very few, if any, Colonial vessels that would have been on this part of the coast have teak fittings.”

Route from Newcastle Australia to Lyttleton, New Zealand via the southern cape (Google Maps).
Location of debris near Solander Island. (Google maps)

An eyewitness account

Captain Culmer’s, aboard his vessel the Edith May, recalled seeing the Min-y-Don in trouble as it pursued its Southerly course and put forward his conclusions:

“Concerning the missing ship Min-y-Don, Captain Culmer of the barquentine Edith May, which arrived at Sydney recently reports that on February 18th, in latitude 48° 41 minutes., he sighted a full rigged ship running for Torrence Straits. He believes the ship was the Min-y-Don, from Newcastle. At 4 PM the ship was pulled up to the southward of Stewart Island.”

Southland Times  20 April 1882

The missing crew

There we saw the name Thomas Finch, our great great uncle listed amongst the lost .

“The Min’-y-don, commanded by Captain T. M. Leslie, and the following members of his crew left here on board for Newcastle, therefore it is only reasonable to suppose that they were on the ship at the time of her probable loss. Their names are:

Matthew L. Maiale, first mate; William Bradley, second mate; W. M. Gourlay, carpenter; Alfred Browne, Steward; James Daviage, sailmaker

with the following able seamen: William Page, Walter Page, Thomas Finch, William Seuth, Arthur Lewis, Charles Dean, Edward Hanson, David M’Kinnon, William Grant, Robert Wilson, H. Williams, and N. M’Auly.”

A reflection

It seems that we had all been kept in the dark. The perils of the sea rather than the menace of a cannibal had seen the end to Thomas Finch and the rest of the Min-y-Don crew. In the words of the English science-fiction writer, James Ballard:

“Memories have huge staying power, but like dreams, they thrive in the dark, surviving for decades in the deep waters of our minds like shipwrecks on the sea bed.”

J G Ballard


  • (1) New Zealand’s first overseas telegraph cable was laid by the Eastern Extension Telegraph Co. in collaboration with the Australian and New Zealand Governments between La Perouse (Sydney) and Wakapuaka (Nelson). It was opened for business on 21 February 1876. For several years before this, telegrams for many parts of the world could be telegraphed to a New Zealand port mailing to Melbourne or Sydney for onward dispatch by cable. The cable rate to Great Britain from Sydney was £9 9s. 6d. for 20 words.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s