In Afloat May 2006, through the generosity of David Cam, I was able to tell the story of the Caminiti family and the fishing and coal mining conglomeration developed by Cam and Sons.
I am able now to complete the tale of those times when steam trawlers worked out to sea from Sydney, keeping Sydney, and much of New South Wales, well supplied with fresh fish, caught by Australians in Australian waters.
The Cam company disposed of its ships during the middle 1950s and had completely closed down by about 1960.
It seems that history continues to repeat itself: in the early 1900s the NSW government was exercising its collective mind as to how a beneficial supply of fresh fish could be provided for the public. One hundred years later nothing much has changed except that much of our fish is now imported!
The attempt by the NSW Labor Holman Government to set up a deep sea State Fishery really kicked off in 1914 when NSW Chief scientist David Stead was sent to the UK to learn and look and then order some new trawlers. Steam trawler Brolga arrived in Sydney on April 24, 1915, followed a few days later by Koraaga and the following month by Gunundaal.
Actual trawling began in June 1915 and three additional ships were soon ordered from the State Dockyard in Newcastle. Four fish shops were set up around Sydney and by 1922 there were 20 such shops with 14 in the Sydney area, the others around the state on main rail lines.
The Newcastle built ships, eventually four, were Goonambee, Goorangai, Dureenbee and Dibbiu with a fifth, Bar-Ea-Mul built in Balmain. The latter was sold, upon completion, to the government of Queensland.
The venture eventually cost much more than it made and by 1920 the losses were mounting. In 1923 the then Fuller Government gave up and sold out.
The trawlers were sold to private companies – Coastal Trawlers Ltd, Red Funnel Fisheries Pty Ltd and A.A. Murrel Pty Ltd. These companies were all busy by 1926 but Coastal and Red Funnel were soon to merge as Red Funnel Trawlers Pty Ltd.
A new company had joined in from about 1926 with the Caminiti family quickly making its mark.
Another fishing company was that of A.A. Murrel Pty Ltd. This company commenced in 1926 with one trawler adding another in 1929.
Life aboard the small steam trawlers was hard and even during the depression obtaining and keeping crews was not easy.
As Garry Kerr says in Professional Fisherman (date unknown):
“Ray Austin: I served time on the Olive Cam and the Alfie Cam in 1946.
We used to spend 12 or 14 days at sea with two days ashore. The shore crew would unload the catch and do any repairs and bunker up with coal if they had time.
“They were pretty good seaboats, although very wet, there was a saying that they submerged at the Heads and surfaced down at Gabo Island. I’m not sure about the pay then but it was about 25 bob ($2.50) a day and ninepence a basket for white fish, and fourpence for red fish.
“We worked mainly four on, four off. Turn to, to ‘shoot away’, pick up and store the catch and clean up. We worked bloody long hours. I think there were six deckies, four firemen, one engineer, one wireless operator and the master and mate.
“The galley was right aft with the mess room beneath. You would get your feed, climb down the hatchway to the mess room below. We would get a bucket of water from the galley to take to the forecastle where we bunked.
By the time we got forward we would have only half a bucket of hot water to wash in but after a couple of days you didn’t worry about washing. You were wet through most of the time so it didn’t matter.”
Most of the trawlers were taken up by the Royal Australian Navy for use as auxiliary minesweepers during World War Two. Hard use and restricted maintenance meant that post war, the generally elderly little steamers were tired and worn out. None of the companies had done well financially during the war and there was little likelihood of new ships coming on line.
The NSW government took effective control of NSW fisheries in 1945 by introducing a five percent tax on all fish landed by the deep sea trawlers.
This coincided with bad coastal weather and increased maintenance of all the existing fleet of trawlers. Murrel sold his last trawler Tongkol back the far East from whence he had bought her.
In 1947 Charles Cam died at 66 years of age, leaving members of the family to continue to contemplate the future of fishing. In 1961, son Rocco Cam died and in October other family members wound up the company.
In the meantime Red Funnel Trawlers, was suffering similar problems to those of Cams, plus the wrecking of Goolgwai in 1955.
Various new regulations, claimed by trawlermen to be nit-picking, had exacerbated the company’s problems so that by 1958 Red Funnel Trawlers had laid up Mulloka and Moona and were running only Matong and Maldanna. Cornelis Meyer of Avalon Beach told of a voyage in the last few years of Red Funnel in his letter of 2006.
“In 1951 as a newcomer to Australia I obtained a job as radio operator on Maldana. I made only the one trip as upon my return AWA radio inspectors informed me that my Dutch radio certificate had no validity in Australia. Red Funnel hadn’t minded at all.
“On our 14 days cruise we had a league of nations crew and loaded 30 tons of crushed ice and about 80 ton of coal from the base at 5 Woolloomooloo.”
On the last day of January 1959 company Secretary Mr W. Langley announced that the company was ceasing operation and that its assets were for sale.
“This closing means Sydney is without a deep-sea fishing fleet,” Langley said. “For the bulk of its fresh fish Sydney will now have to rely on fishing centres hundreds of miles away. We felt that we were working before a firing squad.
… Having disposed of all the small fry the government’s intention was to pick off the bigger companies in its own good time with a bullet in the back.
“The Fish Trades Review says the ‘bullet’ was the compulsory marketing clause of the Fisheries Act. This has caused the big companies to pay a super-tax of up to 10 percent on all catches. Instead of attracting capital to the industry Government control has driven it away. (Daily Telegraph, February 6, 1959.)
None of the remaining trawlers was modern enough or in good enough condition to attract sale for further service and all were soon sold for scrap and were broken up.
Red Funnel Trawlers continues to trade as a company. I regularly note refrigeration trucks sporting a rendition of a Red Funnel. Several emails and one phone call during the past year or so produced no information so I will have to leave the story of Red Funnel Trawlers at February 6, 1959. _
The end of the road – an unidentified steam trawler is broken up in Pyrmont in the early 1960s.
*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.