History of the Port of Sydney

Initially, the only vessels which visited Sydney were ships from England bringing more convicts. A wharf, called the Governor's wharf, was built at the head of the Tank Stream opposite the Governor's House on the site of present day Macquarie Place. By the time Gov. Macquarie had arrived in 1810, a general wharf had been erected and nearby a small shipbuilding facility was operated by First Fleet convict James Underwood on the western shores of Sydney Cove at what is today First Fleet Park. The cottage of John Cadman, the master of the Government Boats, was built next to the shipyard during Macquarie's governorship. At the same time the King's Dockyard was upgraded and was to remain operational for a number of decades until it was superceded by larger, more modern facilities firstly on Darling Island in Darling Harbour, and later at Balmain, Woolwich and Cockatoo Island.

Steam Power on the Harbour

Steam power came to Sydney in May 1831 when the British built paddle steamer Sophie Jane arrived and was brought into service on the Sydney to Parramatta run. The first steamer to be built locally was Australia, also on the Parramatta run. Launched in 1834 at a cost of £200, it did a roaring trade as competition was sparse. Ferry services between Parramatta and Sydney continued to boom until 1855 when the railway link between the two centres was opened. It had a negative effect on the passenger ferry service which fell into an immediate decline from which it never fully recovered in spite of enjoying a tourist boom between the 1880s to the late 1920s. The transport of freight on the river was initially unaffected by the railway as most factories were built on the shores of the Parramatta River between Sydney and Parramatta to gain access to its barges. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century when rail and road transport services were considerably improved that the barge service declined.

Billy Blue continued to ferry passengers by row boat from Lavender Bay to Dawes Point. His trade was not affected when, in 1832, a ferry service from Abbotsford to Gladesville at Bedlam Point commenced. Linking the northern and southern sections of the Great North Road, which at that time was the main road north out of Sydney, this service continued until February 1881 when it replaced by the first Gladesville Bridge. In the 1830s, permission was granted to watermen other than Billy Blue to operate rowed ferry services across the harbour, and from that time Dawes Point and Man-O'War Steps became regular pickup points for these water taxi services. The first steam powered ferry service between Sydney and the North Shore was the Ferry Queen, which was brought into service on a run between Windmill Street in The Rocks and Blues Point in 1845. The fare was 3d for a daytime journey and 6d for an evening ride up to 11.00 pm.

In 1840, experiments were carried out into the viability of operating steam powered vehicular punts guided by cables. Due to the impracticalities of laying cables across the busier parts of Sydney Harbour which is very deep, cable punts were never used in Port Jackson itself, but have been used at various times at The Spit, Putney, Ryde and Gladesville. Cable punts began operation at Putney Point and Uhr's Point in the 1840s. The Uhr's Point service provided a vehicular link between Concord Road and Church Street, Ryde, until 1935 when it was replaced by the first of two bridges which today carry vehicular traffic from Concord to Ryde. The Putney punt is still operational and is the last of its kind on the Parramatta River/Sydney Harbour waterways. A non cable-guided punt operated between Milsons Point and Sydney from the 1860s until 1932 when it was withdrawn with the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.



A hand punt run by Peter Ellery plied the tidal gap between The Spit and the area now known as Seaforth from 1850. Ellery charged 6d for passengers and 1/6 for horse drawn vehicles. The punt was taken over by the Government in 1888 and replaced by a steam powered vessel. This ferry, which connected with a tram service to Mosman after 1900, continued in service until toll gates and a timber lift-span bridge were brought into operation on 23rd December 1924 at a cost of £60,000. A 'temporary structure", this bridge was replaced by the current concrete and steel bridge in 1958. Built at a cost of $2.2 million, it features a lift-up section which allows access to the upper Middle Harbour by tall-masted ocean-going yachts. The ramp used to board the punt is still visible at the water's edge on the northern bank.

Ferries and vehicular punts operated at numerous points along the Georges River for close to a century. A service across the Georges River at Lugarno provided the link between Forest Road and Old Illawarra Road, which had formed the main road south from Sydney since the 1840s. Princes Highway began to take the bulk of traffic south to Wollongong in 1929 when Tom Ugly's Bridge at Blakehurst was opened, replacing a punt service. The Lugarno punt continued to operate until the late 1970s when the recently opened bridge at Alfords Point linking Bankstown to Menai made it obsolete.

In the 1830s, Barney Kearns began a ferry service from Balmoral to Balgowlah using a sail boat to service the 50 or so residents living in the Manly area at that time. This service continued on and off for some years, along with a number of services by steam-powered cargo vessels. In 1854 the first Manly Pier was built and a regular ferry service between Manly Cove and Sydney was instigated by developer Henry Gilbert Smith. Sail boats were well established on the Hawkesbury when steamers came onto the scene in 1831 and they drastically cut down travelling times between the Hawkesbury and Sydney. Hand in hand with shipbuilding and tourism, trade ran vigorously throughout the 19th century, peaking in the 1880s when over 450 large boats berthed annually at Richmond's wharf, the centre of activity and industry of the river.

A government-run punt service began on the Nepean in 1823 which led to several new buildings being constructed on the Penrith side of the river. The first bridge over the Nepean River was opened in 1856 and was duly swept away by floods in the following year and again in 1860. Until it was proved that newer bridges could withstand the floodwaters common to the area, punts continued to be well patronised. The subsequent development of rail and road transport brought the river trade in the Hawkesbury and Nepean districts into decline, though the river's increased popularity as a venue for sport and recreational activities has ensured that, though cargo traffic has long gone, passenger transport has continued to this day.



Ferries on the Harbour

Just as the growth of the railway network reflected the growth of inland suburbs like Ashfield, Petersham and Rockdale, so the development of ferry services reflected the growth of residential areas around the harbour's lower north shore. Whilst the working class people lived closed to their place of work, such was not the case with the more affluent. They took advantage of the cheap harbourside land on offer at places like Manly, Mosman, Neutral Bay, Cremorne, Hunters Hill, Drummoyne and Lane Cove, and later Watsons Bay and Double Bay, which offered picturesque, secluded locations for their homes that were close to the city centre by boat.

Many of the people who struck it rich on the goldfields in the 1850s bought land on the shores of Sydney harbour and built gracious harbourside homes in which to retire or life. Ferry services, many of which had been operative since the turn of the century, were upgraded and extended, and played a vital role in the development of these areas. Some, like Hunter's Hill, Cremorne, Mosman and Manly, had to wait many decades until the urban sprawl reached their doors before land access improved to a level that a visit to Sydney by land was no longer an arduous chore.

In colonial days, Parramatta was the tradition destination for Sydney's ferries. The arrival of the Parramatta to Sydney passenger rail service in 1855 led to a rapid decline in the passenger ferry service which remained slow until the 1880s when the tourist potential of the Parramatta River was first realised and tapped. During that decade the Parramatta River Steamer and Tramway Company built the tourist trade up to such a level that it operated thirteen ferries making numerous trips daily. Their service was suspended during World War I but never regained its popularity in peacetime. The company's last ferry ran in 1928. In 1993 the current Parramatta Rivercat went into service, substantially rejuvenating the river's tourist potential.



The Manly Ferry

Very few cities in the world can boast an institution as unique as the Manly ferry, a service which takes passengers on a 30 minute ride up one of the most beautiful harbours in the world, past historic sites, a naval dockyard and hundreds of beautiful homes, then gives a taste of the open sea before berthing at one of the world's most delightful seaside suburbs. The journey back is even better, the sight of the Sydney skyline rolling into view as the ferry rounds Bradleys Head and heads for home, particularly at sunset, is quite spectacular.

This most memorable of ferry trips was born in the 1850s when a successful Sydney businessman, Henry Gilbert Smith, had a dream of developing Manly into a resort, modelling it on Brighton in England. At that time Manly was nothing more than a strip of low scrub between the Pacific Ocean and Manly Cove beaches, whose main claim to fame was it being named ahead of Sydney and the place where Sydney's first Governor, Arthur Phillip, was speared by an aborigine. Smith's dream was to develop Manly as both a high class residential area as well as a tourist resort. He bought and subdivided the land that today constitutes the Manly town centre, and using the catch phrase "Manly - 12 miles from Sydney ... a thousand miles from care" set the direction in which Manly was to grow.

Because of its isolation, Smith knew he wouldn't be able to sell a single block of land or entice one tourist to Manly without a reliable ferry service. The first Manly ferry, the steamer PS Nora Creina, which was custom built by Smith for the Sydney to Manly run, made its first voyage on Boxing Day 1854, and started a tradition that continues until today. Smith did his best to attract residents, holidaymakers and day trippers to Manly. German bands played on board the ferry, and at Manly, everything was laid on to make sure visitors came back.

It was not until the opening of the Spit Bridge in 1924 that the Manly ferry service received competition from any other form transport, though a train or tram service which was first mooted in the 1880s and again in 1915 when the Harbour Bridge was being planned brought more than a little concern to the various ferry operators. From 1924, the ferry service fell into gradual decline, and it was not until the 1970s, when the Government introduced a new fleet of faster ferries , that patronage began to increase as a new generation of Sydneysiders discovered the pleasure of harbour travel.

Development of the Port of Sydney

During the latter half of the 19th century, sail had given way to steam power. Steel hulls began replacing the timber hulls of earlier times. These technological advances meant ships now being built were of a much larger size and carrying capacity. Consequently, facilities in ports around the world had to be upgraded to handle the larger ships and heavier cargoes being offloaded and the heavily congested port of Sydney was no exception. The Sydney Harbour Trust addressed the problem by instigating a number of major upgrades around Sydney Harbour. These included the installation of fuel bunkers and associated wharf facilities at Gore Cove and Berry's Bay on the north shore for coastal and international shipping respectively and facilities for harbour vessels at Ballast Point, Balmain; a new finger wharf at Woolloomooloo Bay designed specifically to handle Australia's growing wool exports; the total redevelopment of the Walsh Bay area utilising the latest maritime cargo handling technology.



Woolloomooloo Finger Wharf, Woolloomooloo Bay

At the peak of its service as part of the Port of Sydney, Woolloomooloo Bay had a total of 11 berths, four of which were part of the wharf. Built between 1910 and 1915, the 400 metre long structure was built primarily as the exit point for Australia's wool exports. It is the last non-naval wharf in Woolloomooloo and is the world's largest timber-pile finger wharf and the longest jetty ever built on Sydney Harbour. It comprised of four sheds, berths 6 to 9, with each shed having an office block with walls of battened fibro.

It was from the Woolloomooloo Finger Wharf that soldiers embarked and returned home from military service in both world wars. When the Australian Government introduced its assisted passage scheme to attract migrants from Europe in the 1950's, the wharf became the major entrance point into Australia for many new arrivals attracted to Australia by the scheme. The wharf's passenger terminal, built in 1956, was designed for liners up to 20,000 tons. It was similar in design to those built at Walsh Bay (Pier One) and Pyrmont, which together handled 150,000 passengers a year at their busiest, one third of which came through Woolloomooloo.

By 1987, containerisation and the advent of air travel had left the wharf redundant and it remained an empty shell for over a decade. Though its architectural significance had been recognised by a heritage listing on the register of the National Estate, a commission of inquiry into plans to redevelop the site resulted in the revoking of the 1987 permanent conservation order on the wharf which claimed the cost of conserving it was too high. One thousand of its piles were said to be rotten and the cost of repairing the substructure alone was estimated at $15 million. When, in November 1990, the State Government announced the imminent demolition of the Wharf, the Building Workers Industrial Union, supported by the Friends of the Finger Wharf, the Royal Institute of Architects and the National Trust, placed green bans on the project even though by 1991 it was already being left off planning maps. Numerous proposals came and went until 1996 when the green light was given to redevelop the wharf.

Completed in 1990, the redevelopment incorporated a 273-room three-star hotel at the southern end and 345 luxury apartments at the northern end, along with restaurants, retail stores and a 63-berth boating marina whilst large sections of the interior were left intact. These included three bays of the Berth 6 shed being left undivided (the hotel reception area), the preservation of one of four lifts (now a dining room of one of the restaurants), the eight pairs of huge lattice-timber goods conveyors, one of eight machinery rooms and much of the old corrugated steel, fibro and multi pane sashes and chain-wire cladding along the streets. The exterior facades were restored in Federation style.



The Walsh Bay docks area

The rocky terrain of the Walsh Bay area limited its early use to fortifications (Dawes Point and Observatory Hill), an anchorage for whalers in Walsh Bay, and windmills. More intensive settlement began the 1820s and was extended by a number of Crown grants in the 1830s. During that decade the basis of the maritime industry that was to dominate the area was established and would continue to be developed until its completion the 1920s.

In the 1830s substantial merchants' residences were built in the along the ridge, together with a number of hotels - The Lord Nelson (1834) and Hero of Waterloo (1844) are the only ones which remain. Construction of shipping wharves at Millers Point began in the same decade and were scattered irregularly along the shoreline from Dawes Point to Darling Harbour. The north shore ferry began operating from Walsh Bay to Blues Point in the 1840s, the location of its wharf is indicated by Ferry Lane.

By the 1880s, many merchant's houses of Millers Point had been replaced by rows of terrace houses which were the homes of the local maritime workers. The still un-named bay housed the wharves of many major export companies such as Dalgetys, Towns', Moore's and Dalton's, but much of these facilities were now obsolete and access was both choked and difficult. The outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in 1900 in the area surrounding the bay led to the resumption of large portions of land for redevelopment. This pre-empted a total rethink of the use of the bay as part of the Port of Sydney. The newly created Sydney Harbour Trust was given the task of redeveloping the area.

The Trust's primary commercial aim was to redevelop the wharfage along modern lines. However, because of the quantity of housing under its control it became landlord for Millers Point and between 1900 and the 1920s effectively transformed the area into what could best be described as a company town. As well as the reconstruction of Walsh Bay, the Trust, together with the Government Housing Board, constructed workers' housing, shops, kindergartens, hotels and warehouses and also refurbished and reconstructed many existing buildings. In this way the population which serviced the port was accommodated nearby with all its community facilities.

The Engineer-in-Chief of the Trust was H.D. Walsh, the man after whom the bay was subsequently named. He oversaw the design and construction of a new system of wharves, stores and associated roads and hydraulic systems to service them. A wide service road, Hickson Road, was excavated around the foreshore and the steep topography was used ingeniously to service the wharves at two levels. Overpass Bridges above Hickson Road give access to the upper levels of each shore shed.

Construction of the whole complex took place between 1906 and 1922. Wharf 1 (today known as Pier one) was the first wharf to be completed, in 1913. It was a passenger ship terminal. Wharf 2/3 and sheds were completed in 1920-1921. Wharf 4 /5 and sheds completed in 1920-1921. Wharf 6 /7 and sheds completed in 1918. Wharf 8 /9 and sheds completed in 1912. The Administrative Block was completed c1912. Wharf 10A /10B was completed in 1906-1908 and sheds altered in 1918-1921 but later demolished in 1976. Superseded by changing shipping technology in the 1970s, the Walsh Bay complex is believed to be the only one of its type surviving in the world.



The Changing Port

Between the wars, the Port of Sydney became the busiest gateway into Australia through a flood of migrants from Europe entered the land of opportunity. Air travel, still in its infancy, was seen as being for the adventurous and foolhardy and not yet seen as a serious means of travel. It was the golden age of the great ocean liner, and the migrants came in their thousands, seeking a better life away from war ravage Europe. At the time, Australia was very much a part of the British Empire and thus most of the new arrivals were from Britain, sons and daughters of the mother country eager to start a new life in the 'colonies', as they were still perceived to be in England. But the flow of traffic was not all one way. Australians still called England 'home' and 'going home' became 'the' thing to do. As the migrants disembarked, their cabins were taken over by a constant stream of people from the comfortable suburbs and the large grazing peoperties, boarded liners and making the 30 to 40 day journey home to Mother England. Most were born in Australia but that didn't matter, the umbilicle cord which attached Australia to Mother England had yet to be cut. They saw themselves as English and not Australian, therefore it was only right and proper that they go 'home' for a holiday at least once in their lifetime.

To this end, Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes bought a fleet of twenty-five seized German ships and established the Commonwealth Shipping line in 1916. British shipping companies like the Orient Line and the Peninsular and Orient Steam Navigation Company (P&O) joined in, which led the latter to invest in a fleet of new ships of around 20,000 tonnes each to handle the flood of business coming their way. These new vessels became known as the 'Strath' sisters. Originally there was no fixed number of new ships planned, except the two near-identical ones that would be produced first. Others to the same design would then be ordered as and when custom demanded they be added to the fleet. The two new vessels, designed specifically for the England - Australia run, were the Strathnaver and Strathaird. It was a 90 year old tradition at P&O to name some of its vessels after places in Scotland with the prefix Strath, and the tradition was continued with these two new liners. Work commenced on Strathnaver early in 1930 at the Barrow-in-Furness yards of Vickers-Armstrongs, where all the 'Strath' sisters were built. Strathaird followed a few months later. By February 1932, both ships had been launched and were in service.

Between the Wars, the Australian trade replaced the Indian services as the most important for P&O. Australian passengers encouraged the provision of games decks. Oil fuel replaced coal and the 'Strath' liners of the 1930s reintroduced white livery previously only used on two ships, in place of the conservative black hull and funnels and stone-coloured superstructure that had been the Company's image for so long. Second Class gave way to Tourist, and after the great Depression, when salaries were cut by 10% and no dividend was declared for four years, P&O's nominal Centenary in 1937 was celebrated with enthusiasm.

The Viceroy of India, though built a few years earlier (1929), had introduced a new level of luxury and speed to the service. It was the first P&O ship to have an indoor swimming pool. All three ships were turbo-electric, steam turbines powering giant electric motors. The 'Strath' liners were all white and surpassed even the Viceroy of India in design, popularity and service. They introduced white colours as a permanent feature of the P&O ships and at the time these two liners were nicknamed the 'White Sisters'. Speed and power was further suggested by having three funnels, although only the middle one was real. They also had indoor swimming pools and the same level of luxury and speed that had made the Viceroy of India such a success on the England to Bombay run.

To cope with the incrased passenger through the Port of Sydney, Woolloomooloo Finger Wharf was converted solely to handle passenger ships as were the wharves on the Pyrmont side of Darling Harbour in Jones Bay and Pyrmont Bay. Wolloomooloo could handle four vessels of around 20,000 tonnes, the average size of the the liners of that day. Pyrmont could take up to five vessels, though it never reached full capacity. Walsh Bay, White Bay, Johnstons Bay and the other wharves of the Darling Harbour area were not used by passenger liners, being reserved for cargo vessels.



The Port of Sydney Today

Though the container terminal built in recent years at Port Botany has relieved much of the pressure placed on the docking facilities of Sydney Harbour, Sydney itself remains a very active working port, with port facilities currently operational at various points around the harbour.

Passenger facilities: After World War II, the passenger terminals at Woolloomooloo and Pyrmont returned to being hives of activity, handling predominently migrant traffic from Europe during the 1950s and 1960s (above). At any given time, there was always one and often as many as three or four ocean liners, mainly migrant ships from Europe, berthed at the various passenger wharves around Sydney Harbour. Before the war, the main passenger traffic out of the Port of Sydney were Australians going 'home' to England, but that ended with the war. Though the belief that Australians are first and foremost British did not die out until some years later, try as they might, the shipping lines were unable to ressurect the concept of 'going home' to pre-war levels. Instead they turned to a new generation of Australians in their twenties and thirties who, inspired by the influx of migrants from all over Europe, discovered the joys of going to Europe for working holidays. The influx of migrants from Europe quickly reached new levels. Sydney's Maritime Services Board had dedicated the Wharf 1 a passenger terminal for P&O vessels.

At the same time, discussion began about the need for a new passenger terminal on the western shore of Circular Quay. But even as the plans were approved and the terminal was being built, changes were afoot in the travel industry and by the time it was completed, it had become obsolete. Air travel had become a safer, faster, cheaper and more attractive alternative. Sea travel was already in decline as more and more people opted for air travel in a world where saving time was gaining increasing importance. By the 1980s, the number of operational passenger wharf facilities in the Port of Sydney had been reduced by a half. Today, only two are operational. Woolloomooloo Finger Wharf was abandoned and left in a state of decay. It would have fallen victim to the demolition hammer were it not for vocal residents who fought for its preservation. Pier One was converted into a tourist shoping area, and later into a five star hotel. One by one the passenger facilities at Pyrmont were closed. The Jones Bay wharves were abandoned and would have been demolished were it not for rescue operations which has seen them turned into commercial premises.

The sheds of Pyrmont wharf were modified for other uses. Peir 13, which had the only purpose built passenger terminal in the Pyrmont docklands, was used as a temporary home for Sydney's casino while the Star City complex was being built, and then as a venue for a number of travelling exhibitions. No longer needed, it was bulldozed early in 2004. To keep it viable, the Circular Quay passenger terminal has been filled by restaurants, with the passanger facilities being retained for those occasions when ships are in port.

The passenger liner of today has taken on a new role, that of the recreational cruise ship. Sydney is the cruise ship gateway to Australia and the South Pacific, hosting over 80 cruise ships every year. The port has two purpose-built passenger terminals, Sydney Cove Passenger Terminal and the White Bay Cruise Terminal.


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SS Strathaird, Australia's first cruise liner


Darling Harbour during re-development


Bennelong Point, 1906


SS Oriana, Overseas Passenger Terminal, 1960

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