For more than 125 years the small iron sea-going steam (later diesel) cargo ship Nelcebee has been part of the waterfront of Port Adelaide.
Nelcebee is older than the majority of the port’s ‘old’ buildings. She predates powered flight by almost 20 years and is older than the internal combustion engine. When she was re-assembled by Thomas Cruikshank at Cruikshanks Corner in Port Adelaide she was lauded as the largest iron ship to be ‘built’ in South Australia.
When she was launched in 1886 it was her second construction. Earlier she had been built and assembled at the yard of T.B. Sleath & Co of Rutherglen, Scotland in 1883.
She was then dismantled and all her parts were numbered to help the colonials reassemble her down in the Antipodes.
For the next 99-plus years Nelcebee worked around the gulfs of South Australia. The following potted history was provided by the South Australian Maritime Museum (SAMM), owner of the old ship and presently trying to raise sufficient funds to stabilize her and present her, ashore, for posterity and for the members thereof.
“… first owners were A. Wilson and the Adelaide Milling and Mercantile Company. In 1890 it was sold to the Adelaide Steam Tug Co for use as a tug/lighter in Port Pirie.
“In 1927 Nelcebee was sold to E.H.Hipkins for one shilling (10c) on the condition that it was not to be used in opposition to the tug company. Hipkins converted it into a two masted auxiliary schooner and it joined the ‘ketch fleet’ taking cargoes around the various ports, including the grain trade at Port Victoria.”
To provide cargo hold space Nelcebee’s new owner removed boiler and steam engine, the resulting space allowing her to double her carrying capacity. A new diesel engine was fitted further aft, together with a stumpy funnel which looks, at first impression, as if it is sprouting out of the poop deck.
“In 1935 Nelcebee was involved in a serious collision at Tumby Bay. Her crew managed to run her ashore and saved her but lost the grain cargo. After she was repaired she went back to work. In 1951 after fighting heavy seas in Spencer Gulf she was run ashore on the sandy flats to save her from being overwhelmed.
“In 1965 Nelcebee was bought by ketch owners R. Fricker and Co Ltd and was placed on the Port Adelaide to Kangaroo Island trade route. She worked with Falie (extant) carrying general goods and fuel to the island and backloading minerals from CSR.
“When CSR closed their mine in 1982 there was little left for Nelcebee and Falie to do. A modern roll-on/off ferry Troubridge was able to carry trade and passengers over much the same route and at higher speeds so Nelcebee was soon laid up. She made her final round voyage on April 15, 1982 under Master Captain Albert Cutler with Chris Frizell as bosun.”
In August 1985, after 99 years at work, Nelcebee was donated to the SAMM through the Tax Incentives for the Arts scheme (now known as the Cultural Gifts Programme). It was here that I began a close interest in the little old ship. As one of the two accepted Australia-wide donation valuers of the time, I spent a day analysing and photographing the ship as part of the valuation inspection.
Since then Nelcebee has been laid up afloat but static in Port Adelaide, given sufficient maintenance to keep her afloat and visually adequate.
Surveys in 2005 revealed that the constant wear and tear of salt water and exposure had thinned the old iron plates too much to allow the risk of her being kept afloat. She has been high and dry since then as a preservation and future maintenance plan was constructed by the SAMM in conjunction with shipping experts.
The major aspect is that Nelcebee will be placed on display ashore. This allows much more of her original structure to be retained for posterity than has been the case, for example, with the restoration/recreation of the 1874 iron barque James Craig, operating from Sydney.
Government regulations are much more severe with passenger-carrying operational vessels than they are for shore bound ships, which are, effectively, buildings!
Most of the world’s great preserved ships are kept ashore – in docks or on the hard generally, because such a situation requires less work and financial outlay. Australia generally has been reluctant to allow old ships to be preserved ashore or even afloat but South Australia has a precedent for Nelcebee. Not too far away, at Whyalla, motorists can often be surprised by the sudden appearance of a WWII naval minesweeper surrounded by trees. HMAS Whyalla is a much bigger ship than is Nelcebee and has become very well established as part of a much larger display.
It is intended that the ship be part of an extensive display of the area’s social history, of the times when Port Adelaide was an important part of the national shipping scene. The holds would provide exhibitions concerning the ketch trade while the ship itself would give at least a glimpse of life as it was.
The 20,000 odd students that presently visit the museum would have a more ‘hands on’ display in which the sails might be hoisted (on the right day), cargo might be loaded and so on. At night Nelcebee might provide a niche function venue in conjunction with the associated shore establishment.
A group of businessmen on Kangaroo Island has proposed a plan to preserve the ketch Falie, for many years Nelcebee’s running mate to Kangaroo Island, ashore as a tourist attraction. There would certainly be a nautical symmetry in having one of the old traders on display at either end of their now-defunct cargo run.
How much will such a project cost? I don’t really know but I doubt that it would cost initially, more than a brace of Bentleys or perhaps as much as a nice new fibreglass ‘pose’ cruiser, or perhaps a large modern ‘McMansion.’
Whatever the cost it will be but a tiny fragment of the money fed into Australian poker machines or TABS and the result would be something that would retain something of the atmosphere of what was once a major port. Perhaps those developers that are busily removing Port Adelaide’s redundant port infrastructure and replacing it with rows of apartments might like to contribute something to giving the new arrivals something nautical to look at?
When Nelcebee’s almost 100 years of work around the tiny ports and anchorages is contemplated, there might well be good reasons the good citizens of the SA gulf area contribute towards saving a small part of the long local maritime history.
If any of Afloat’s maritime people would like to learn more of Port Adelaide’s attempts to retain something of its maritime heritage they might care to contact Kearin Hausler at the South Australian Maritime Museum by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.history.sa.gov.au
*Graeme Andrews’ book The Watermen of Sydney can be had from Boat Books, ABC books and all good book stores. Mail order enquiries may be made to Stannard Marine at 02 9418 3711.