REMINISCENCES | Australian shipping – the early days

Cutty Sark

One winter night in 1889, the sleek new P&O mail steamer Britannia was making her way up the east coast of Australia, at a very respectable 15 knots, when the mate on the night watch called the Captain to the bridge.

“We’re being overtaken by a sailing ship, sir. I can make out her running lights but I can’t read her name, she’s doing better than 17 knots.” The equally astonished Captain couldn’t believe that his new steamship was being overtaken by a sailing ship.

The sailing ship, of course, was the Cutty Sark under the command of Captain Richard Woodget. Woodget was famous for his skill as a shipmaster, and when the southerly hit that night he threw up every stitch of canvas he had and literally flew past the Britannia.

The watchkeepers on the Britannia were dumbstruck. On their arrival in Sydney harbour, the Cutty Sark was already at anchor, stowing her sails and getting ready to load another cargo of wool for Britain.

Steeped in legend, the news of the amazing speed of the Cutty Sark spread quickly. She was regarded as the fastest merchantman afloat. Almost as famous was the ships master, Captain Richard Woodget. He broke all sorts of speed records and regularly bested his closest rival, the clipper Thermopylae.

I’m not sure what causes the eccentric larrikinism that so identifies the Australian character. Could it be that crossing the equator had some sort of strange effect on them or was it that they were so far from a respectable and conservative mother England that all restraint was lost?

Whatever it was, it certainly afflicted Captain Woodget. The hard driving clipper captain had time to indulge in some very unusual pastimes. He used to roller-skate around the deck of the Cutty Sark, not an easy thing to do on dry land, let alone on the canting deck of a clipper ship.

He would ride a bicycle around the tween decks for exercise. He bred Collie dogs, there were always some of his champions on board with him. And he was an avid photographer. Woodget had the largest and most modern photographic equipment available at the time. He turned his cabin into a darkroom and produced many wonderful shots of life aboard this most famous ship. Not the most conventional man in many ways.

The Cutty Sark marked the pinnacle of the age of sail but alas, it also marked the approaching end of an era as the range of steamships was extended. With more coal bunkering ports becoming available, the range of steamships increased and sail started to slowly disappear.

Ironically, less than a week before the Cutty Sark was launched in 1869, the Suez Canal was opened, shortening the route from England to the east by some 4,000 miles. This gave steamships another edge over sailing ships.

The disappearance of sailing ships didn’t happen overnight. Nor was the appearance of steamships a single event. The transition from sail to steam took almost 100 years from the first half of the 19th century to the early 20th century. By the 1920s, very few sailing ships remained.

Incredibly, the Cutty Sark was retired in 1922, 53 years after she was launched. She now resides in her own drydock in Greenwich, the showpiece of the British National Maritime Museum and probably the most famous sailing ship in the world.

There’s no hard, definitive date when sailing ships finished on the Australian coast. The heavy iron and steel hulled windjammers were still visiting Sydney and Newcastle in the 1920s. But the numbers were diminishing.

After colonisation the British government outlawed boat building in the New South Wales colony. There were too many ingenious ways for convicts to escape by boat, but this was relaxed when it was discovered that the best way to move from one place to another was by boat.

Dozens of boatbuilders sprang up around the coast, many to go on to become an iconic part of Australia’s maritime history. Names like Halvorsen still evoke lust in some demented souls. But no real ships as such. But by the 1830s this was about to change.

In May 1831 the Sophia Jane arrived in Sydney from Britain to much public acclaim. Although she was a paddle wheel-assisted sailing ship, she is arguably the first real steam ship to arrive in Australia.

Her arrival overshadowed the somewhat smaller William the Fourth, which was launched in November of that same year. The William the Fourth was really the first true Australian steamship, built on the Williams River at Clarencetown north of Newcastle. These ships were tiny by today’s standards but regarded as ships nonetheless.

All the ships on the Australian coast were registered in Britain (and remained so until 1981). Many were built in Britain. But which company was established first?

In 1854, Captain William Howard Smith sailed into Melbourne on a ship in which he had a half share and began a passenger service to Geelong. The company grew and expanded throughout Australia until it was sold in 2001, 147 years later. Certainly, the oldest and longest continuously operating shipping company in Australia.

Before long there were dozens of ships trading on short coastal runs and up the rivers. The discovery of coal at Newcastle filled the growing demand for fuel as the colonies grew. 1862 saw the first shipment of 290 tonnes of coal on the Corio from Hexham to Sydney, sixty miles down the coast. The Sixty Milers as they became known were the embryo of the bulk trade in Australia.

In the twenty years from 1851 till 1871 Australia’s population quadrupled to 1.7 million driven by the rush for gold.

The 1870s saw a growth spurt in Australian shipping. In 1875, three businessmen from South Australia began a shipping service from Adelaide to Melbourne. It became the Adelaide Steamship Company, which at one time boasted the largest shipping fleet in Australia.

This company grew to have services as far reaching as Cairns in North Queensland right round to Derby in Western Australia. In the same year, 1875, McIlwraith McEachern emerged and began shipping frozen meat from Melbourne to the United Kingdom. The following year it began trades to all the other colonies. That same year, 1876, James Huddart and Thomas Parker began shipping coal from Melbourne to Geelong. By the 1890s they were trading as far afield as New Zealand.

Jump ahead to the 1890s. In the west, the Ocean Steamship Company merged with the Western Australian Steam Navigation Company to become the forerunner of the state government owned State Shipping Service of Western Australia. In 1892 the Melbourne Steamship Company began interstate shipping to Brisbane and an Australia-wide coal trade. After a merger with two other established companies a few years before, the Australian United Steam Navigation company (AUSN) began operating in Queensland.

I have a chart of Sydney Harbour printed about the time of Federation (1901) which shows all the berths at Darling Harbour, and the names of all the old steamship companies that were regular visitors to Australia’s largest city.

Huddart Parker, AUSN, Burns Philp, the North Coast Steam Navigation Company, the Adelaide Steamship Company, McIlwraith Mc Eachern, the Newcastle and Hunter River Steam Navigation Company, the Illawarra and South Coast Steam Navigation Company, the Melbourne Steamship Company, Dalgety and Co., China Navigation, the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand and naturally, Howard Smith. Australian shipping was coming of age.


Kent Stewart

Founder of Maritime Engineers, a multi-region maritime consultancy with clients in the oil and gas industry, navy, commercial shipping and marine insurance, Kent Stewart is our resident expert on commercial shipping and the offshore industries.