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Alexander Low and the SS Matau

The Union Steamship Company, which is said to be responsible for the development of shipping in New Zealand, began in that country in Dunedin in 1875. In this initial year, the Union Steamship Company had 5 coastal ships.

On 1 October 1875 Alexander Low commenced overseeing work in Dunedin on the N.Z. steamer, SS. Matau for Kincaid, McQueen and Company. The Matau, no.61029, was a screw steamer of 147 tons gross and 104.37 tons net register. Her engines were 5Ohp and her depth 7.7feet. The SS Matau was an “iron steamer. 133 ft overall. She was rigged as a three masted schooner and on occasion could spread a comfortable amount of canvas. She was built under Alexander’s inspection and when finished, he was to act as chief engineer.

“The engines were made under the special superintendence of her engineer, Mr Low, who gives his opinion based on 21 years experience, that he never saw better machinery turned out in any part of the world.”

[Note~Ship building was New Zealand’s first industry, commenced in 1819. The first yard was built near Kauriforests which provided excellent ship-building material. (SS Matau had kauri pine decks.) Later, steamships were built. By 1887, 98 New Zealand steamers had been registered. SS Matau had been built in 1875\6, 12 years earlier. Thus, the Matau must have been one of the first steamers built in New Zealand. The Iron Age, bought by Alexander in 1876, would also be one of the first, possibly even older than Matau as it was already in operation in Otago Harbour when the group purchased it.]

It was on January 17 1876 when the SS Matau was launched and added to the steam fleet in Otago. As expected, Alexander Low was made Chief Engineer on the ship. To officially trial the ship, 150 invitations were issued for a short voyage from the Rattray street wharf. The ship went past Port Chalmers, round the immigrant ship, Wellington, and back to Port Chalmers. After a short stay it steamed up to Dunedin. The ship had made an earlier, unofficial trip.

Sadly 9 months later on September 23, the SS Matau was wrecked. On that day the steamer, bound from Wellington to Westport, stranded about 7 miles from the west coast port and became a total wreck. The shipwreck was caused by loose mooring lines being washed overboard and fouling the propeller, making the vessel helpless.

Eleven days later efforts were made by the government steamer, Luna, to tow the Matau off the rocks, but each attempt failed as a result of the tow lines breaking. On the evening of October 5 a heavy sea set in and the steamer broke her back, parting just forward of the boiler. All hands were on board at the time, and they barely had time to scramble ashore before the steamer filled. Great blame was attached to the Wellington Customs Authorities for permitting the Matau to leave port with so many passengers, and hampered by a deck cargo. The court inquiry found the master negligent in remaining in his cabin during a heavy sea, while close in shore. It was commanded by Captain Donald Urquart.

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