On Tuesday 11 September 1877, the sailing ship Avalanche bound for Wellington, New Zealand when off Portland, Dorset, England was struck amidships by the Nova Scotian ship Forest and sank within three minutes.

All 59 passengers were drowned. Of the 34 seamen, 3 were saved. Of the 21 crew of the Forest, 9 were saved. Of the 59 passengers, 1/3 of them were from, or had connections to Wanganui, New Zealand.

The following were the list of passengers as reported in the Wanganui Herald newspaper, plus from the letter from James WATT (see below).

BOBIN G Wanganui
BOBIN Son of G Wanganui
CHAMBERLAIN Eliza Mrs Wanganui
CHAMBERLAIN George Wanganui
CHAMBERLAIN John Jnr Wanganui
CHAMBERLAIN John Snr Wanganui
COOPER J C Wellington
COOPER Miss Wellington
COOPER Mrs Wellington
FOOTE Miss Wanganui
LEES Family -
MONTGOMERY Archibald Wanganui
PEARCE Neil Wellington
RICHARDS Joseph M Wanganui
SHIELD Louise Campbell Mrs Wanganui
TAYLOR Ann Jane (Annie) Miss Wanganui
WALKER C E Wanganui
WALYER Cecil Wellington
WATT Margaret Miss Wanganui
WILKINS Albert Wanganui
WILKINS Alfred Wanganui
WILKINS Emilt Wanganui
WILKINS Henry Wanganui
WILKINS Mary Miss Wanganui
WILKINS Mary Mrs Wanganui
WILKINS Sarah Miss Wanganui
WILKINS William Wanganui
WYCHODIL (WYCODIL) Marie Mrs Wanganui

This web site carries a List of Passengers of the Avalanche and the crews of the Avalanche and the Forest. Unfortunately no source is given for the information.

From the Whanganui Historical Society Journal of November 1977: -

On Sunday 11 September 1977 the Avalanche Memorial Service was held in St Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Wanganui with over 300 people attending. The service was conducted by Rev E H Z CHAPMAN, Minister of the Church, assisted by Archdeacon R B SOMERVILLE of Christ Church Anglican Parish and Rev W FORD of Trinity Methodist Church. The lessons were read by Mr T D O’LEARY, Deputy High Commissioner of the United Kingdom and Mr R G RUSSELL, Mayor of Wanganui. A feature of the service was the attendance of many of the relatives of Margaret WATT, Annie TAYLOR and Louisa SHIELD who lost their lives in the tragedy.

The following address was given by (the late) Athol L KIRK, Immediate Past President of the Whanganui Historical Society:

"Many of us are asking ourselves why we are here this afternoon. Indeed many will be asking the question why services are being held here and in Portland, England to commemorate a disaster in which 104 people lost their lives 100 years ago.

To get things in perspective it is necessary to recall the details of that dreadful night of 11 September 1877. The sailing ship Avalanche, belonging to the Shaw Savill Line, was heading down the English Channel with 59 passengers aboard and a crew of 34, bound for New Zealand. One third of those passengers was returning to Wanganui or had connections here. The Avalanche was practically a new ship and was on her fourth voyage. Her captain had a good reputation and had made some fast passages. After stopping at Tilbury to repair damage caused by a collision in the Thames, the Avalanche finally got away on the Saturday evening.

During her run down the Channel during the next two days the weather deteriorated and a South West Gale developed. By the Tuesday evening it was a full gale and the Avalanche was doing about 7 knots. At about 9pm the Nova Scotian vessel Forest was sighted also proceeding down the Channel but on the opposite tack doing about three knots. Without getting too technical regarding the rules of the road at sea both masters expected the other to give way.

When this did not happen both took what they thought was avoiding action but instead turned into each other. The Forest was a wooden ship and she struck the Avalanche amidships and continued to ram as the two ships passed. The force of the collision caused the Avalanche to heel over and the sea poured in through the open ports and hatchways. Within two minutes of the collision the Avalanche was sinking. Some of the crew on deck clambered on to the Forest. The Forest had suffered such severe damage that in a matter of minutes she started to sink. The Crew launched her three boats and accompanied by the few from the Avalanche they set out for shore. For the remainder of the story we are indebted to Rev Michael FIDGIN of the Avalanche Memorial Church, Portland, Dorset, England. As he states there have been many famous wrecks along the coast at Portland but the Avalanche has a special pride of place simply because of the part played by the Portland fishermen.

On the morning after the collision fishermen went down to the Chesil Beach to see what the storm had driven ashore. They were greeted by the sight of two upturned boats in the surf and bodies of the deaf on the beach. Further out to sea could be seen another ship’s boat. Knowing the danger if the boat attempted to land they waved it off.

Chesil Beach is some 16 miles long, composed of shingle piled high to form a great barrier. There is no beach as such, just a precipitous bank. One step off the dry ground and you are out of your depth. The steep slope makes it practically impossible to launch a boat. To overcome these difficulties the local fishermen use a special type of boat called a lerret. Pointed at both ends it is similar to a racing skiff with the exception that it can be rowed ahead or astern without having to turn broadside to the sea. They are manned by a crew of seven, six on the oars and the captain in the stern who by word of command to the rowers steers the lerret. To launch the lerret the crew take their places while it is on the shingle beach. A gang of men grasp each side of the boat and on the word of command as a big wave breaks they give it an almighty push into the sea. As soon as the lerret is afloat the crew row furiously to get beyond the breakers. To land the crew keep the lerret head on to the waves whilst the seventh man throws a rope ashore. This is grabbed by the shore gang who pull the lerret ashore. No ordinary boat would get through the breakers.

So on this fateful morning the local fishermen seeing the lifeboat launched two lerrets. Despite the heavy breakers and the rough sea the first lerret reached the boat. It proved to be that of the captain of the Forest and contained besides the captain eight of his crew and three from the Avalanche. Six were taken off — all that the lerret could hold and then the second lerret went in and picked up the remainder. On the beach the men waited to grab the ropes and pull the lerrets ashore. To everyone’s relief this was achieved successfully.

Only 12 of the 116 had been saved. In Portland they knew that these men would not have been rescued but for the bravery of the fishermen. So each man who took part in the rescue was given an illuminated address depicting the scene and setting out the details of the rescue.

Here in Wanganui when news of the sinking of the Avalanche was received, relatives of the many Wanganui people aboard anxiously awaited the casualty list. On the Saturday evening the eagerly awaited cable arrived and the Wanganui Herald immediately published an extra listing the names of those who lost their lives. Five families of this church (St Paul’s) lost relatives and the church bell was tolled when the news was received. It was late night but the shopkeepers put up their shutters and closed early as a mark of respect. Early in the next week the Presbyterian and Methodist churches held memorial services.

The courtesies had been observed and as it is so often the case after such a tragedy, it is forgotten as other events crowd out its memory. With the loss of the Avalanche such a thing did not happen either in Portland or here in Wanganui.

In the old cemetery in Heads Road (Wanganui), the husband of Mrs SHIELD placed an inscription to the memory of his wife on the tombstone of her infant child buried two years before. They TAYLOR family placed an inscription on their family grave in memory of their daughter Annie. The monument outside this church was erected by Mr W H WATT in memory of his partner Captain T B TAYLOR when he was drowned in the Cook Strait in 1871. Now he added to it inscriptions commemorating the loss of his own and Captain TAYLOR’s daughter in the sinking of the Avalanche. At this time St Mary’s Church, Upokongaro, was being built and the MONTGOMERY family presented the east stained glass window in memory of their son Archibald.

The advice was received in Wanganui from the vicar of St George’s Church, Portland, that a piece of rising ground had been purchased and it was proposed to erect a church to commemorate the work of the local fishermen and quarrymen. The quarrymen seeing there were no pall bearers at the funeral of the few bodies that came ashore ceased work and followed the coffins to the grave. Subscriptions were invited from the people of Wanganui. We do not know how successful the appeal was in Wanganui. However, the WATT family gave the north window in memory of Margaret. All the windows and furnishings in the church were given by relatives of those lost. The church was consecrated under the name of the Avalanche Memorial Church of St Andrew. These independent desires, from different parts of the world, to erect memorials make the Avalanche disaster unique. Yet another memorial was envisaged by Mr WATT and in 1880 he set aside as a trust, land he would have bequeathed to Margaret. This consisted of a city block and 54 acres at Mosston. (North of Wanganui) The revenue from the trust was his during his and his wife’s lifetime and then his sons. On the death of his son the revenue was to be used to establish the Margaret Watt Home (as an orphanage). The trustees were to be elders of St Paul’s together with the Mayor of Wanganui and a representative of the WATT family.

When the Trust deed was drawn up in 1880, Mr WATT realised that it would be many years before the home could be built. The deed therefore went into great detail as to how the home was to be run. It also said how the children should be dressed and how they should be fed. Ninety years later as we read the deed we wonder whether those interpreting it could not be allowed a little more latitude. He even designed the flag that should be flown at the home. When you visit the home this afternoon you will see it flying at half mast. Mr WATT decreed that the flag should fly at half mast on 11 September each year. The son James Paton WATT died in 1930 and after 50 years the way was clear for the home to be built. It opened on 5 December 1931. Today there are 16 children living there. (2005 — It is now closed and is used by Barnardos.)

So 100 years later, memorials created as a result of the Avalanche disaster are being enjoyed by people who cannot appreciate the sorrow it caused."


At St Andrew’s Avalanche Memorial Church can only hold 100 people two services were held on Sunday 11 September 1977, to mark the centenary of the Avalanche disaster. At these services the Whanganui Historical Society was represented by Mrs Nancy CAMERON who was invited to read the lesson. At the service a plaque was unveiled bearing the names of the 14 men from Portland who had taken part in the rescue. No less than 80 of their descendants attended the service and the luncheon which followed. Prior to the luncheon a film was shown, made by Tophill Junior High School re-enacting the disaster.

The Rector of Portland, the Rev Michael FIGGIN, preached the sermon and dedicated the new memorial. In his sermon Mr FIDGIN called on the parishioners not to let St Andrew’s Church become redundant.

THE AVALANCHE — from the Wanganui Herald 17 September 1877 p2

The ship now peacefully resting beneath the waves of the English Channel was one of the finest shops of Messrs Shaw, Savill & Cos line. She was built in Aberdeen in 1874 by Messrs Hall and Sons, she registered 1,161 tons, and was classed 100 A1. Her first trip to Wellington was made under the command of the late Captain BISHOP, among the passengers being Mr and Mrs George PIRIE, late of Wanganui. Captain BISHOP also brought her out the second time. The third trip found Captain WILLIAMS in command and among the passengers on the return passage were a number of Wanganui residents. The fourth and last trip commenced but a few days ago and ended as we now know only too well. The Post of Friday last, in giving publication to the first telegram containing the news of the collision, mentioned a number of names of those supposed to be on board.

Among them were the wife and family of Mr C B IZARD, the wife and daughter of Mr Justice RICHMOND and others. Subsequent information disclosed the pleasing intelligence that the families of Mr Justice RICHMOND and Mr IZARD had postponed their departure till October. Other Wellington residents, Mr and Mrs W H LEVIN and Mr R BURRETT, had intended taking passages in the Avalanche, but changed their plans at the last moment. Among those having friends and relatives in this district who were at first supposed to be lost, we may mention Mrs R GRAY and Miss BRUCE of Turakina. These happily are not included in the already too lengthy list. We trust the completer list of passengers will shortly be sent as among those not designated as "returning colonists" may be found friends and relatives of residents here. We hear of one or two cases where friends are expected, and until the full list of names is made known the feeling of suspense becomes almost unbearable. ‘Tis surely better to know the worst than suffer the agony of uncertainty with its fitful flashes of hope and despair.

From the Whanganui Historical Society Journal November 1978

The following is a letter dated 17 September 1877 from James Paton WATT to his father William Hogg WATT: -

"My dear Papa
Instead of writing you a letter relating our pleasant trip through Scotland I have to write one full of the most disastrous news. Margaret left London on Saturday the 8th accompanied as far as Gravesend by Mrs BALL, Capt and Mrs PETERS, Mr GRAVES and other friends. The Avalanche in going down the river ran foul of another vessel and had her figurehead carried away. Had this only been a little worse, she would have had to put back and the dreadful collision would have not occurred. However she continued her course and daily were we and others expecting letters from Margaret, which she promised to send off with the pilot. But instead came news which was most unwelcome. We were in Dundee and had been spending the evening with Mr SIMPSON. After tea he went to town and on the way saw the telegram of the collision advertised, so fearing it might be the Avalanche he bought a paper, and came home: unwilling to tell Mrs SIMPSON he said nothing, till we were leaving, when he walked to the omnibus with us, and then told us he had dreadful news for us. This was the Wednesday at 9pm, just 24 hours after the sad event had occurred. As soon as I heard him say this, my thoughts at once were of poor Margaret and much shocked was I and Richard too, to hear that the vessels had been in collision. Next morning the Dundee Advertiser was full of the accident and a short piece at the end of Margaret and Miss TAYLOR was put in by Mrs SIMPSON. On Thursday we left Dundee and arrived in London next morning by the train. Captain PETERS met us at the station and we are stopping with him now. I must give you an account of the collision as you will be most anxious to hear the correct account.

It occurred on Tuesday evening at 9.20, September 11, the wind was very high, the sea running strong and rain falling. About 12 miles off the Bill of Portland the ship "Forest" of Windsor, Nova Scotia, 1500 tons, saw a light, and in about ¼ hour she ran into the ill-fated Avalanche striking her just behind the main-mast. The vessels did not clear of each other, and the Forest ran three more times into the Avalanche causing her to sink in two minutes. So sudden was it that Mr SHERRINGTON says none of the passengers had time to get on deck. He was 3rd mate of the Avalanche and was 2nd in the St Leonards coming home with us. He and the two sailors were all that were saved of 100 souls on board the Avalanche. He managed to scramble onto the Forest and as soon as he was on her he saw the Avalanche go down with all aboard, stern first. As soon as the vessel was struck he say Capt WILLIAMS and told him to come with him and save himself, but he says the captain stood like a statue, quite thunder struck, not able to speak a word. Poor man all know he would not have saved himself if none of his passengers could be saved, and if he had had a chance of saving himself clear before his eyes, he would not have deserted his ship and his passengers . He was not in command at the time, as there was a pilot on board. All blame if any is attached to the Forest, and an inquiry is now being held. The Capt. of the Forest and 8 of his crew were saved in a boat.

I saw Mr SHERRINGTON today and he says the lady passengers had all been sick and were in bed, and that none got on deck, so that it is a comfort to think that death would have been instantaneous, and they would have no suffering. Poor Annie TAYLOR would go with Margaret ……… what news it will be to Wanganui. The whole family of the WILKINS but one has gone. There was an apprentice named McALLUM on board, who was at Highgate school with me, and Mr SIMMOND’s eldest son (Mr SIMMONDS of Nelson College) ………………….

Your affectionate son
James Paton Watt.

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