This suit was intended to be worn by a castaway marooned in the subantarctic islands. Many suits like it, as well as food and other provisions, were taken by a government steamer and deposited in metal drums at castaway depots on subantarctic islands.
The suit was probably made in Dunedin, perhaps by Hallensteins. The houndstooth fabric, which had to be extra thick to withstand harsh subantarctic conditions, was woven on a loom. It was then cut to a typical late-nineteenth-century three-piece-suit pattern, and machine sewn.
Maintaining castaway depots was a government initiative, which saved many lives during the latter part of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. In those days, sailing ships often took a dangerous path through subantarctic waters, known as the Great Circle route. There was good reason for this - if they needed to pick up speed for their journey, the best way to do it was to take advantage of the steady westerly winds known as the roaring forties that ran across the almost empty ocean down there.
Unfortunately, the area around the subantarctic islands wasn’t well documented - one chart placed the Auckland Islands 35 miles south of their true location! This, combined with high winds and poor visibility meant that a number of ships came to grief there.
At first, various Australian state governments, and New Zealand’s Southland provincial government took it upon themselves to help shipwreck survivors. They set up relief depots for castaways on many of the island groups in the area - the Auckland, Campbell, Antipodes, and Bounty Islands. At these depots they placed sealed drums containing the necessities of life. Then, in 1877, the central New Zealand government recognised this as their responsibility, and for fifty years a state-owned steamer made regular trips to the area to search for survivors and restock the depots.
Ships were wrecked near the Antipodes Islands in 1893 and 1908. The ill-fated Spirit of the Dawn crew never found a depot. The survivors of the President Felix Faure in 1908 had more luck. And when the Derry Castle hit one of the Auckland Islands, her eight survivors actually set up makeshift huts round the depot. While these men battled the elements until their rescue, they almost certainly wore three-piece suits like this one!
In 1927, the government scheme stopped because sailing ships no longer took the Great Circle route, and the depots were left untouched for many years. This suit never warmed the body of a castaway sailor. It was still in immaculate condition when it was retrieved from one of the Antipodes Islands by a United States ship, in 1947.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (1998).