Edward Harper was looking for gold.
Specifically he was looking for a fortune in gold coins that went to the bottom of the sea when the cargo and passenger steamer the SS Elingamite sank in 1902.
The 2.5 tonne Australian steamer started service in Sydney in 1887. With 100 first class berths and a top speed of 11 knots, she was popular and the Victorian government picked her to be an armed cruiser, loading her up with four Armstrong guns.
Early on November 5, 1902, the Elingamite left Sydney for its regular run to Auckland with 136 passengers and 58 crew.
On board were 52 boxes of coins for New Zealand banks including 6000 gold half-sovereigns.
On November 9 the ship ran into thick fog. Despite the care of Captain Ernest Atwood, creeping along at half speed, the ship struck West Island, one of the islands in the Three Kings group about 65 km off New Zealand.
The ship foundered and sank in only 20 minutes. Most aboard managed to get to lifeboats, some making it to islands while others made the mainland.
One boat however was never seen again. In total 45 people were killed.
Captain Atwood was found guilty of grossly negligent navigation at a court of inquiry, and his master's certificate was suspended.
It was only eight years later that it became known that the map showing the Three Islands he was relying on was wrong.
The location of the wreck of the ship was well known and there were attempts to recover the gold from it over the years, even by famous showman Felix Tanner who we have already written about.
One of the first recovery efforts was in 1907 when Edward James Harper dived on the Elingamite.
Harper was born in London and became a well known diver, completing many salvage missions all over the world.
Diving off the schooner the Huia, Harper went down several times, bringing up £1500 in coins, some of it gold.
He brought up more over several days but on his last dive on January 22 he complained of chest pains and collapsed, dying of what was thought to be a heart attack (but may have been decompression sickness).
He would be the 46th death attributed to the Elingamite but not the last. A year later a Mr Clarke died having dived three times and complaining of cramp in his legs and arms.
Further salvage operations continued over the years, including, in 1965, efforts by Kelly Tarlton (from Underwater World fame) and Wade Doak, a famous marine conservationist, along with two others, who began the first of many expeditions to recover what they could. But much was left behind. The wreck is now privately owned.
Harper is buried in Northland’s Leigh Cemetery.
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