Orpheus Newman

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Orpheus Newman


Orpheus Newman in her twenties

It is perhaps ironic that a woman born in St Helier named after a shipwreck in New Zealand should be spurred on by the loss of a famous passenger liner in the mid-Atlantic to invent a life jacket to save others.

Orpheus Newman

Early life

Orpheus Newman, born in St Helier in September 1863, was the youngest of six children born to William Newman (1817-71), a seaman and his wife Mary Sampson (1821- ). She was named after HMS Orpheus, the ship on which her eldest brother, Henry, was serving at the time. Orpheus was on station on the other side of the world where she was flagship of the Australian squadron.

According to family tradition, Mary had a premonition of a disaster, dreaming of her son apparently drowning in a raging sea. Mary’s premonition seemed to come true when, saveral months after the event, news reached Jersey that the Orpheus had been wrecked entering Manukau Harbour on 7 February 1863 in what is generally regarded as New Zealand’s worst shipwreck – of the 259 men on board only 69 managed to reach shore. Mary Newman was convinced that her son was one of the dead and, still grieving, when her daughter was born in September 1863 she named her in his memory after the ship.

Orpheus was born off the west coast of France soon after her mother believed Henry to be dead.

Orpheus suffered drowning fits as a child which encouraged talk among her surperstitious fishing community in Jersey.

"She believed she was possessed by the souls of drowned people and that the sea wanted to take her," her great-granddaughter says.

The story came from a Victorian belief that pregnant women would imprint their thoughts and emotions on to the souls of their unborn child. Her mother believed she had done this while grieving for her son. Orpheus' parents took her to Paris to see a hypnotist to try and cure the drowning fits when she was eight years old.

"The hypnotist told her parents,: “Her will is stronger than mine."

However, news received at the Admiralty in mid-April named Henry as one of the lucky ones who survived the wreck and by the end of the month he had returned to England. Obviously the experience failed to put him off the country for when he was discharged from the Navy he emigrated there and lived in Invercargill on South Island.

HMS Orpheus


When William Newman died in late 1871 Mary decided to join Henry and so in 1873 she took her three youngest children – 14-year-old William Thomas, 11-year-old Ann and 10-year-old Orpheus – to New Zealand. During the voyage out they encountered a storm and Orpheus was cured of her affliction. The family eventually settled in Dunedin, South Island, where William followed in his father’s footsteps and became a fisherman, and Orpheus married a seafarer, Norman Beaumont.

Norman was obviously ambitious as he became a ship’s master, trading between South Island and the Pacific Islands. Orpheus regularly accompanied him on his voyages and must have seen some very exotic scenes – a far cry from the streets of St Helier.

Two events in 1912 had an enormous impact on Orpheus’ life; her brother William, the fisherman, was lost at sea, and following the sinking of the Titanic the Board of Trade issued a call for improved life saving aids.

Already affected by the idea of drowning associated with her childhood and her mother’s fears for her brother Henry, Orpheus turned her experiences to her advantage. Since the mid-19th century cork was the buoyant material favoured for use in life jackets; this was fine once in the water but it created a problem for the wearer if they had to jump from any great height as the hard cork rammed into the neck.

To avoid this Orpheus designed a simple canvas over-the-head bib-like jacket with draw strings which she described as ‘foolproof’. It could be worn by an adult, woman or child and, even if put on in a panic, it could be worn back to front or upside down, and still do its job. The secret of its buoyancy lay in its sealed pockets.

While she had been in the South Sea islands Orpheus had seen the amazing flotation qualitites of a waxy fluff harvested from the seed pod of the kapok tree. Moisture-resistant, quick-drying, resilient, and above all buoyant, this kapok could support up to 30 times its own weight in water. And it was this material which she had sown into her lifejacket.

The lifejacket

Design accepted

From her home in Dunedin, Orpheus carried out lengthy correspondence with the British Board of Trade representatives in Australia. Every time a fault was highlighted by the experts she found a solution until finally her ‘Salvus’ jacket was accepted by the British authorities.

A notice in the Shipping section of The Press (Canterbury, South Island, New Zealand) on 21 January 1918 reported that the Otago Daily Times had said that Mrs Beaumont’s buoyancy aids had been adopted by the British Admiralty for naval service and that her first order was for 30,000 for the Military Sea Transport at Home.

The jacket was also supplied to English ferries, the Union Steam Ship Company fleet and the New Zealand inter-island ferries. It was used worldwide until it was eventually superseded during World War 2 by newer designs using synthetic materials and modified to give support for the head. The best known was the yellow inflatable ‘Mae West’ jacket.

Orpheus died in 1951, aged 85, leaving a daughter, Constance, and a son Llewellyn, who had served in the Field Artillery during World War 1 and despite injury helped his mother by being the model for the instructions for wearing the Salvus.

Based on an article in the St Helier Town Crier, and New Zealand sources

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