"HERALD" SATURDAY MAGAZINE
SYDNEY'S PASSING HARBOUR PAGEANT
Billy Blue Was Father
Of The Ferries
SYDNEY's ferries, now
threatened with extinc- tion, have a history stret- ching back some 150 years. There was Billy Blue, the first ferryman ... and "The Lump," which plied to
Parramatta . .
This article recalls some
of the highlights of the harbour's passing pageant of the ferries, with their Venetian atmosphere and - at night - their fairy- land twinklings.
PERHAPS we should not
take too seriously the threatened passing of Syd- ney Ferries. For a cen-
tury and a half, one way and another, they have been passing, either up and down the harbour or from one administration to
The current discussion centres round Sydney Ferries Ltd., the com- pany operating all Sydney ferries except those to Manly, which are run by the Port Jackson and Manly
Steamship Co. Ltd.
Although Sydney Ferries Ltd. was officially launched as a company on December 18, 1899 it was con- tinuing the work of other companies which had commenced, collided, competed, and coalesced, during the preceding two-thirds of a cen-
William Blue is generally re- garded as our first ferryman. His- tory is on familiar terms with him. It usually refers to him as Billy Blue. He gave his name, without prejudice to Blue's Point. But be- fore his time there had been un- official ferrymen to whom the travel- ler could say "And I'll give thee a silver pound to row us o'er the
First attempt at a ferry service was from Sydney to Parramatta. It was inaugurated by a speedboat named the Rose Hill Packet, but known as "The Lump." She was locally built, had both sails and oars, and such a turn of speed that at times she made the journey in less
than a week.
By the time the colony was only five years old there were a number of boats ready to ply for hire across the blue waters and among the green inlets of Port Jackson.
BUT Billy Blue, about 1830, estab-
lished the first regular service. It paddled its way from Dawes Point on the south side of the har- bour to Blue's Point, on the North Shore. As often as not the boatmen, having but recently visited the old Ship Inn would go to sleep in the bottom of the boat. Passengers were then at liberty to row them- selves and the drunken sailors, across to their destination. There was no additional charge for this
In 1830, also, Barney Kearns ran a ferry, to a set time-table, from Balmoral to Balgowlah, to serve the needs of the Pittwater pioneers.
That same year saw the advent of a queer craft which coyly called itself The Experiment. It had a paddle-wheel, the main motive power for which was a capstan, turned by four horses walking round and round on deck. It also had a
pressure contrivance with a wooden plug, which a man had to watch con- tinuously because the plug would blow out when pressure became ex- cessive. It is not known whether this alarmed the horses, or whether they came to the conclusion that this was a dead-end job, but they
gave so much trouble that The Ex-
periment was a failure.
The following year the Surprise was launched at Neutral Bay. It
was our first steamer and was even more of a speedboat than the Rose Hill Packet. When in the mood it could make the trip to Parramatta in something under four hours.
Commercial organisation of ferry traffic began in 1833, when the Aus- tralian Conveyance Company was formed. Within three years it was making a profit of 38 per cent. The early thirties of last century, due to the advent of steam, saw the advent of ferries run on a business rather than a personal basis.
One such business venture was the Parramatta Ferry Company, which included Balmain in its places of call, and which ran a boat called The Waterman. That was in 1840, and within another 20 years ferries had become established as a feature of the harbour.
A regular ferry, had been estab- lished by Gerrard Bros, connecting the city with Milson's Point, and this may be regarded as the real source of that broad flow of com- mercially organised ferry traffic which eventually became Sydney
That stream of traffic was increas- ing its volume with the flow of the years and the growth of the metro- polis. Tributary companies began to debouch into it. In 1861 Ger- rard Bros, became the North Shore Ferry Co.
IN much the same way that one of
our rivers commences its career as the Barwon, becomes the Darling, and ends as the Murray, so this ven- ture, started by Gerrard, became the North Shore Ferry Co. and ended as Sydney Ferries Ltd.
One of the tributaries, into that main stream was the Lane Cove ser- vice, started by Joubert in 1875. Another was the Watson's Bay and South Shore Line Steam Ferry Co., which, despite the cargo of adjec- tives which its name had to carry, ran for many years before joining
the main stream.
This Watson's Bay Company was founded by Sir John Robertson, one- time Prime Minister of New South Wales.
During the period of the eighties and nineties, ferries became import- ant in the social life of the com- munity.
The Parramatta run was probably most important in this way. It was long enough for devotees of chess to concentrate, shoulders hunched, on the fate of kings and queens, or for song devotees to hold impromptu concerts around the piano in the cabin.
Social life was further embel- lished when, in 1884, the first all night service to North Shore was
Less social, perhaps, was the Pyrmont-Erskine Street crossing by
the Alexandra, especially when a southerly buster came down from the head of the bay. Passengers had to crowd to leeward for shelter, and the engineer had to rush a number of' 56-pound weights to windward to keep the vessel on a sufficiently even keel. This at least gave younger passengers who were so inclined, a chance to do some weight-lifting, at no extra charge.
On December 18, 1899, the main stream of traffic was reached. North Shore Steam Ferry Company was taken over by a new company, Sydney Ferries Ltd., the company which to-day is the talk of harbour side citizens, and which, at that time, issued one-penny tickets that resembled postage stamps. A year later this company absorbed the Parramatta service.
IN 1906 Joubert's Lane Cove ser-
vice was sold to Balmain Ferry Co., and in 1917 this tributary reached the main stream by being absorbed into Sydney Ferries Ltd., which, three years later, received yet one more inflow. It acquired the Watson's Bay company with the adjectival name. This company, in the meantime, had itself absorbed various competitors on its run.
By about 1920, when ferry traffic was approaching its maximum flow, there were thus two main compan- ies-the Sydney Ferries Ltd.. with a multiplicity of services, and the Port Jackson and Manly S.S. Co. Ltd., specialising in the Manly
During this period, covering prac- tically the first third of the present century, Sydney ferry boats were as much a part of the character of the city as were gondolas in Venice or
buses in London.
At night the spectacle of a maze of ferry lights was unique and wonderful. They formed a general pattern of movement in various directions. The assembled lights of each boat moved forward with
This was the main harbour gateway to the North Shore round about the turn of the century. On the right is the North Shore Steam Ferry Company's passenger wharf and on the left the vehicular ferry. The service was taken over by Sydney Ferries in 1899.
a gentle minuet glide, but each separate light, reflected, performed a separate and sprightly dance upon the rippling water. At the same time long streamers of reflected colour, also rippled by the moving water, extended from lights on shore and on wharves. The total effect was a kaleidoscope of coloured movement. It seemed that all the lights of half the world were dancing on the water.
There was one anachronistic feature-the paddle-wheel vehicular ferry to the North Shore. It com- menced its very staid career in the eighties and continued till 1931.
This vehicular ferry, the old horse ferry as it was called, had one distinguished patron: Henry Lawson. Being a poet, and therefore richly endowed with poverty, he favoured the horse-ferry because it was free to foot-passengers.
In 1914 Sydney Ferries Ltd. had 42 boats and carried some 25 million passengers a year. By 1928 the fleet had grown to 50 boats and the number of passengers to an estimated figure of 50 million.
BUT in 1932 Sydney Harbour
Bridge was opened. Concurrent- ly, buses were multiplying almost by geometrical progression. In 1933 Watson's Bay ferry, the one that for so long had carried such a cargo of adjectives, sank to rest. Ferry traffic generally was running dry.
In 1946 the Gladesville and Ryde tributaries ceased to flow. Only last year, on November 10, the obituary was announced of the Lane Cove ferry service after a creditable life of three score years and ten, plus five.
Latest figures show Sydney Ferries-Ltd. to have 21 boats, only 15 of which are in service, as against 50 in 1928. Passenger traffic has declined from the 50 million in that year to an estimated 29 million at present.
It is notable that, with all the maze of ferry traffic through so many years, there has been only one serious disaster.
This was the tragic occasion when, at 4.30 p.m. on November 3, 1927, the Greycliffe was cut in two by the Tahiti off Bradley's Head. The ferry was crowded with parents and children returning from the Public Schools Amateur Athletic Associa- tion sports which had been held on Sydney Cricket Ground. Altogether 40 lives were lost.
There have been minor personal tragedies. A few people have been lost overboard, either by accident or design. In the second category was the man who boarded a ferry steamer intending to jump overboard but who delayed his intention for several trips because there were women aboard and he did not wish to upset them. He whiled away the journeys reading Omar Khayyam until he found a suitable chance to dive into the deep waters of eternity.