Red Funnel Trawlers - Life in the 'steam' fishery by Graeme Andrews with John Scott Gault
In Afloat November 2008 we told of the fleet of the Sydney-based Red Funnel Trawlers. Soon after publication we were contacted by the family of John Scott Gault with his extensive and very detailed description of how the company and its people worked.
Here, we offer an abbreviated version of Mr Gault’s memoirs with the suggestion that anyone interested in the full details might go to the Afloat website.
“My father William and his wife Mary Ellen, with their family of eight children, arrived in Australia in 1927. Father was a skilled shipwright and was a qualified trawler master with North Sea experience.
Family members worked on the Sydney Harbour Bridge construction and then on Cam and Sons in Blackwattle Bay. Cousin John worked his way back to the position of Master variously on Alfie Cam and Olive Cam after starting as a deckhand.
Brother James went to Red Funnel Trawlers as a fitter and turner getting an apprentice ship there from 1927 to 1934.
At this time Red Funnel had a large ice-making plant in their works in Woolloomooloo Bay and they also made their own nets. My sister Meg joined the firm as a net maker aged 14 and worked as one of the team making the trawls and ancillary parts as well as net codends and rope tarring.
Father William gradually became responsible for the maintenance of the fleet which then consisted of Millimumul, Durraween, Goolgwai, Nanagai and Bar-Ea-Mul. These ships carried crews of 13 men and in the years 1927-1939 worked day and night except for two days during which boiler cleans, bottom cleans and maintenance were carried out. The ships were worked very hard with one spare crew ashore for a few days, working in the yard before being rotated on to the next ship that was due for yard work.
I joined the company in 1936 as an apprentice shipwright during which time the company was providing an abundance of fish of which the most plentiful was flathead. The ships worked as far north as Red Head and as far south as the ‘paddock’ at the eastern end of Bass Strait. In the latter area any ship was lucky to get two or three days fishing and often they had to shelter at Gabo Island.
A ship would come in about 1900hrs and the shore crew would be there. We would work through the night unloading until the shore crew took the trawler around to the coaling station at Pyrmont in the morning. The trawling crew would come aboard at Pyrmont and take the ship to sea, meaning she was only in port for about 14 hours.
Steam trawler Moona in October 1958. Davidson Collection. SHF. / Steam trawler Matong outbound August 2, 1952. Davidson Collection. SHF.When no ships were in I would be employed making trawling gear such as trawl boards, otter boards, pound boards and any spare wooden gear that needed replacement. Otter boards were heavy wood and were 10ft 6ins by 4ft 9ins of three inch thick Oregon. They were clad with cheap steel in 5/8ins plates which were forged by a blacksmith across Cowper Wharf Rd.
The otter boards took an awful pounding. Weighing about half a tonne each they often struck rocks or even wrecks on the ocean floor and sometimes a ship would lose one with all the expensive wire. The ship usually had one on either side of her but could continue if one side was lost but you caught less fish.
In those days a good fish catch in one day might run to 100-200 boxes or baskets of fish. The trawl was hauled and emptied onto deck where all hands were used in sorting. The baskets were then handed down into the fish room to the third hand who iced the fish and separated them with pound boards so that the weight was evenly distributed to avoid squashing and movement.
When a ship came in, sometimes at 0700, about 20 men discharged the fish into baskets, hoisted them from the hold and emptied them onto the fish tables. Here they were sorted for size and species, weighed, iced and loaded into lorries which went straight to the markets. Special fish were cleaned, filleted and delivered direct to various clubs and the like.
The ships came in from Monday to Thursday and no ships went out of a weekend – that was time for maintenance.

The 1919  Goolgwai was wrecked near Malabar, June 29 1955.Refrigeration:

The base refrigeration plant ran 24 hours a day in three eight hour shifts. The plant could make about 15 tons a day, with ice in one hundredweight blocks (c.32kg). These were manhandled by workers who could easily pass them from hand to hand.
A large chute ran to a crusher on the wharf where the ice was smashed up and fed to the ship’s cold room in 40 tonne loads, as needed.
That was about the way things were until the start of World War Two. During the war we lost two ships – Bar-Ea-Mul and Millimumul which latter was lost with five of her 13 crew. The rest of the fleet had joined the RAN and were acting warships!
During 1953 and 1954 the company installed a new ice-making plant which could make 20 tonnes a day. Much of that which we had done before was now mechanised but it was still hard work.
Before the war we bought a new ship from Fleetwood, UK. St Elmo was renamed Korowa. She was a big, sturdy ship with two fishrooms and she was capable of making 13 day voyages. She did well in our fleet. My brother William Jnr was mate for several years.
Notable aboard was cook Sid Sharpe – you would not want to be watching Sid prepare meals but when they came to the tables it was like being in one of the best restaurants in Sydney. Beautiful meals were victualled to keep the fishermen strong for what was very hard work.
Not long after the war we heard that several WWII-built steam trawlers were for sale in New Zealand. We gained Maldanna followed by Moona and Matong. All needed major refits and alterations to change them from warships to trawlers.
With Matong the company decided to send a conversion crew to New Zealand. The flight over took five hours and we spent three weeks on the job. We then had her surveyed and steamed her back to Sydney which took five days.
Goolgwai outbound April 20 1955. / Steam trawler Duraween in her final years. Ron Thiele Coll.The newer ships had arrived were just in time. The old Durraween was found to have hull plating only about 3mm thick. She was stripped and broken up. We now had six ships but not for long.
Bar-Ea-Mul had been leaking for years. She was our last wooden ship and to repair the rot would have cost more than she would be worth so she too was retired, stripped and broken up.
Not long after the war manager Edgar Coles, realising that our skippers, mates and engineers were getting old, advertised in Fleetwood in England for prospective emigrants. He did well and the six or seven families that came out were very welcome and well worth having.
About 2000 my friend Andy Tait and I had occasion to go to Woolloomooloo. I was astounded to see that there was no trace left of the Red Funnel company buildings or even of the wharf itself.
Red Funnel Trawlers base at 5 Wooloomooloo from USC Northwind, 1956.Number 5, Woolloomooloo was gone. Perhaps the termites had the last word and the MSB had demolished the remains? I had wonderful memories of working there and of the really arduous but rewarding way of life that very few of us can now remember.’

Web-only bonus content:

The full-length version of John Gault’s detailed explanation of how Sydney’s steam trawlers operated


My father, William Gault, with his wife Mary Ellen and eight children migrated to Australia in June, 1927. William was a skilled shipwright and was the skipper of his own trawler MGGIE GAULT in Scotland as well as being her skipper when it was taken over by the Royal Navy during the First World War as a minesweeper at Scapa Floe.

William worked on the Sydney Harbour Bridge for some days and then decided with his cousin, John Gault, to go to Red Funnel Trawlers, hoping to return to their former employment as skipper on the trawlers. During the interview William mentioned he was also a shipwright and a fishing skipper, resulting in Captain Hales, the Shore Captain and supervisor of Red Funnel Trawlers, giving him a job. Two days work caulking the boat deck of the BAR-EA-MUL turned into a career of 20 years as shipwright with the company.

William progressed in Red Funnel Trawlers as a shipwright and was a very competent tradesman looking after the spare gear. He was soon known as "chips" or "chippy".

My brother, James Gault, worked Red Funnel Trawlers as a fitter and turner apprentice from 1927-1934 under Alec Grassick, who was the machinist and fitter and turner. He undertook all the various repair work on the steam engines of the trawlers.

Red Funnel then had an extensive ice making plant together with cool rooms and the engineers looking after the plant were Jim Horsnell and Harry Sheefe. My sister Meg Burling, joined the firm as a net maker at 14 years of age, one of an extensive staff of girls supervised by Miss Toombes. They used to make the trawls and all the ancillary parts of the trawling nets. The cod ends were tarred and prepared at the wharf.

However, on arrival of a new Shore Skipper, nets were imported from Scotland and that was the end of the net making staff.

During 1934-5 my brother William Gault, who had been on coastal ships, also obtained a position at Red Funnel Trawlers as a deck hand and rose through the ranks to first mate. William Jnr. was colour blind and was unable to sit for a skipper's ticket but continued to work with Red Funnel Trawlers for years.

My father William Snr. carried on at Red Funnel looking after the fleet which then consisted of the MILLIMUMUL, DURRAWEEN, GOLLGWAI, NANAGAI and BAR-EA-MUL. The BAR-EA-MUL was a wooden ship and needed a lot of maintenance. These ships were crewed by 13 men – the skipper, mate, third hand, and three deck hands, wireless operator, cook, chief engineer, second engineer and three firemen or stokers.

During the years from 1927-39 the ships worked day and night except for two days when boiler, bottom cleaning and painting were undertaken. The reason they were kept going was there were four ships and five crews which meant one crew was ashore for a few days then they rotated onto the next ship. These ships were worked very hard and the old wooden trawler was expected to be just as well maintained as were the steel ships.

I joined the company in 1936 as a shipwright apprentice under the direction of my Dad, at which time there was plenty of work and an abundance of fish of which flathead was the most prevalent fish caught. The trawlers fished the east coast as far north as Red Head and down south to the "paddock" which is a great expanse of water to the east of Bass Straight. Here they were lucky to get two or three days fishing without being blown away with bad weather. The trawlers frequently sheltered at Gabo Island prior to returning to Sydney.

I've seen the wharf at 5 Woolloomooloo absolutely covered with boxes of flathead, mowong, gurnard, latchett, and particularly john dory, four or five in a box and 18 in. to two feet long-, very broad and thick - what a beautiful eating fish!

William Snr. and I were kept busy maintaining the trawlers during the short time they were in port. They would come in at 7pm at night and we would be down there waiting for them, working through the night until the shore crew arrived early in the morning and took the trawler over to the coaling station at Pyrmont where they coaled. The trawling crew would come aboard and take the ship to sea from there which meant the trawler was idle for only 16 hours.

George MacArthur was manager of the office and Edgar Coles was the chief clerk of the office which had two or three girls and Clive Willougby, who was the youngest clerk. I remember George Farquhar, Sam Mills, Bill Gimpton, Bill Smith, Sam Sanson, Tom Webb, George Double and Jimmy Reid, some of the skippers who were in the trawling industry.

While the ships were at sea we were involved in making the trawling gear such as trawl boards or otter boards, pound boards and all sorts of spare wooden gear for the ships together with any particular job required while the ships were at sea.

The otter boards were made by hand - they were 10ft. 6in. long by 4ft. 9in. high, made out of 3 in. oregon timber and the keel was made out of 12in. by 3in. Australian hardwood. These were set up on trestles and marked where the various bolt holes, made of 5/8ths steel, were to be bored by hand. They were bored in such a way that when the board was clamped together and held up you could see right through. They were clad with cheap steel 5/8ths plates on the bottom and were forged by the blacksmith across the road from the wharf.

Beneath them was a steel keel which was a 5x11/2in. thick steel sole that ran the full length of the board and was rounded at the fore-end sloping away to the stern bolted on quite firmly then there was the end plates to strengthen the end of the boards, the towing part was two thick round steel triangular brackets from which the board was towed. The net was towed from the back end of the board and connected to the net were cables known as sweeps then the net was hung from there so there was quite a big apparatus drawn across the bottom.

The boards were subject to very heavy wear, They weighed g 1/2 ton each and should they strike a reef or wreck on the bottom of the ocean a fair bit of knocking about happened. Consequently they might lose the whole otter board, the trawl and a large quantity of wire through the collision after which the crew would have to use the other side.

I might explain here there were two trawl nets,one to port and one to starboard. The ship carried two sets of trawl boards and two net trawls so she could shoot away from the port side or from the starboard side. A good catch of fish in those days would be anything up to 100-200 boxes or baskets of fish. The trawl was heaved up and emptied onto the deck where all hands would sort out the fish. The baskets were handed down below into the fish room to the third hand who iced down the fish and separated them with pound boards so that the weight was equally distributed to avoided squashing and sliding.

The ships came in at 7pm and a fairly large crew, anything up to about 20 men, discharged the fish into baskets and hoisted them up through the hold swung over onto the fish table and emptied for the fish crew to separate them into their respective size and species. They were weighed, iced down and put on lorries which the fish crew sometimes drove to the market.

The man in charge of the discharging crew was Arthur, a Norwegian, a little wiry man who also guided the baskets up from inside of the hold and swung them over onto the fish table. One remembers a particular friend Bluey MacKay who was in the fish crew and also drove the truck to the markets working from 7pm until sometimes 7am in the morning and perhaps later if they were cleaning fish. The ships came in four nights from Monday to Thursday nights and no ships went out during the weekend.


The plant was used to refrigerate the two cool rooms and also stored the surplus part of the catch that wasn't sold at the markets on the night of arrival. There would be anything up to 100 or more boxes stored in the cool room which was maintained by William Snr. and me. The ice was made in great 100 cwt (c.32kg) blocks, drawn from the brine which was used to make the ice, keep the water cool and freeze the water that was in the moulds. The moulds were in banks of about 8x100 cwt. ( eight by c.32kg) blocks and they were drawn up on a hand winch operated by three men. They drew ice every day and when the ships weren't in they would store the ice in the cool room upstairs.

There was a big chute that ran out to a big crusher on the end of the wharf up on a trestle - the ice slid down to the various chutes and was crushed prior to being directed into the hold of the ships.

During the war there were only two ships operating - the BAR-EA-MUL and of course the old MILLI-MUMUL until she was sunk by a Japanese mine off Newcastle with the loss of five men. The remaining eight were able to save themselves with the life boat. BAR-EA-MUL was the only steam trawler operating out of Sydney at that time.

During 1953-54 the company built a new icemaking plant on the ground floor and made about 20 ton a day. It was more modern. Instead of hand winches to lift the ice out of the brine tank there were electric winches. So we would lift it up out of the brine tank, take it over to a thawing tank - the whole 8x1 cwt was on this frame and dropped into the thawing tank for a few minutes and the ice left the mould and then lifted out of the thawing tank and then slid onto the platform.

They were then lined up ready for the crushing and we installed a continuous lift, like a chain lift, that kept coming around picking it up on metal fingers, lifting it up on a chute thence down onto a tipping platform where the ice slid onto a contraption ready for the next lot of ice. The ice slid off the tipping platform then the platform returned by counterbalanced weight ready for the next block. Meanwhile the blocks coming off slid down the long chute then into the crusher then the crushed ice was carried by another chute through the hatch and into the fore-end of the fishroom.

It was very important that the fish, when caught and flapping on the deck, were quickly picked up and put into baskets. In the fishroom the pounds were divided off into shelving 30in. apart so that temporary shelves were put in there and there would be alternate layers of fish and ice. This took up the 30in. after which the shelving was put in over that and the same thing continued when there were three rows of shelving to take the weight so that the fish on the bottom would not be crushed and were kept in prime condition for the trip.

Trips would be from seven to 13 days, depending on the roster, and as said before there were four ships and five crews so that these ships were kept turned around in 16 hours for the full six months. Keeping the fish refrigerated and packed this way kept the fish in prime condition.

Purchase of a ship from Fleetwood, England

A ship was bought in England by our company and steamed out from Fleetwood, England, to Sydney. ST.ELMO was not a pretty ship and had been used in the codfishing trade off Iceland. She was bigger than our others.

ST. ELMO was renamed KOROWA, after one of the towns in New South Wales. She was soon doing up to 13 day trips for us. She was a very powerful strong ship and did well in Australia. My brother William Jnr. was mate of her for several years with skipper Web, who was quite a successful fisherman, Chief Engineer Martin Conway, Second Engineer Paddy Fearon and Wireless Operator Innes Thompson who later came ashore and became our Shore Wireless Operater.

One remembers the cook Sid Sharpe: you would not want to be watching the cook preparing the meals but when it came to the tables it was just like it came from one of the best restaurants in Sydney. They were beautiful meals meant to strengthen the fisherman because it was a very arduous hard working occupation both on the deck and in the engine and boiler rooms.


DURRAWEEN, GOOLGWAI, MILLI-MUMUL and the BAR-E-mul were the main fleet later joined by the smaller NANGAI. NANAGIA was skippered by Bill Sikes, with mate and engineer was Ken Shearer.

Charlie MacKay was in charge. He had two offsiders in charge of the victualling and other stores. He also looked after the new warps as they came in from the factories with Charlie and his two assistants. Charlie Thomas had one leg injured and we called him ‘Hoppy Charlie’, of course. There was another man known as ‘Big Charlie’ who was a Finn who had escaped from Finland to avoid the army call-up.

‘Sweeps’ were what we used to fasten the trawl boards to the leading edge of the wings of the trawl net. They were sometimes used to stir the flathead off the bottom so the net would come along and pick them up. All these wires or warps had to be cut and spliced.

Big Charlie came into his own there as he did most of the splicing and would spend hours doing these heavy wire eyes, ready for action on board the ship. The foot ropes were made from recycled old ropes of the seine net boat. They weren't just thrown away. They had to be all made up. The two Charlies were experts at this.

Very often when we weren't working at night the work would commence at 7.30am in the morning and by 11am the ship would be coaled and back at the wharf to take the crew and all the stores aboard by mid-day for the 7-13 days trip.

I worked on the wharf with my Dad, William Snr. on the ships from 1936-1939 until the war broke out when some ships were taken over by the Navy. Their trawl boards were taken ashore and we were left with only the MILLIMUMUL and the BAR-EA-MUL.

At this time I tried to join the Army and the Navy in the engineering section and when I mentioned I was an apprentice they told me to go and finish my time and then come back. I was ‘man- powered’ to Cockatoo Island where I spent nearly two years, completing my apprenticeship. I was a journeyman at Cockatoo Island building destroyers, corvettes and other Naval vessels and repairing a lot of transport vessels. I had the pleasure of working on the QUEEN MARY while she was in Athol Bight.

After the war I decided to go back to Red Funnel Trawlers. There I was ‘man powered’again, because they were working on a lot of the small ships section craft for the American Army. My first job back at Red Funnel was to caulk the decks of NANAGAI. NANAGAI had been taken over by the Americans and Ken Shearer stayed as skipper. NANAGAI was sent up to the islands to New Guinea to service the advancing Australian and American Army.

We did quite a lot of work on new boats that were being built for the small ship section. Forty-five foot timber tugs were being fitted out by us at Red Funnel Trawlers. Various other works were taking place at the wharf, one particular job was on the BAR-EA-MUL. We had been searching for leaks on her for years without success but at last we had an idea where they were.

William Snr. found them in the coal bunker and we set to work and ripped up the ceiling and found that the planking was badly warn by lumps of coal dropping down from the aperture between the ceiling and the skin of the ships. These wore the planking away and William Snr. being a very qualified skilful man, decided a lot of work could be undertaken while the ship was still in the water.

We set to work and got big baulks of hardwood timber and fashioned new frames to go between the existing ribs. They were made out of anything up to 14-18in. hardwood 6in. thick and anything up to 10-12ft. long. William Snr. got ‘Bluey’ Knight to make up a lot of pieces of timber of special size and dimensions and we made a chain mould out of timber which we applied to the shape of the ship transferred it onto a piece of ply wood, cut the ply into the shape fitted it down on to the ship to make sure it was right, then took it ashore to apply to the hardwood then cut it out with a big band saw, to a degree, then it had to be edged to the bevel of the ship. These frames were in three were taken down to be fitted to the ships and spiked to the existing frames.

When all this work was done which was hard heavy work, the ship was taken over to Morts Dock where it was hauled up onto the slip and the planking affected was taken off. We found that the planking was very worn, from as much as 3in. back to just one inch thick. New planking was put in and fastened to new frames and she went back to the fishing trade.

The BAR-EA-MUL kept the firm alive with fishing during that time whilst we had quite a large ship repair business going with long hours of hard work. However, at last peace came, and gradually our ships the DURRAWEEN, GOOLGWAI and KOROWA were returned to us and we re-fitted them for the fishing industry.

Shortly after this the company heard that there were some trawlers built during the war by the New Zealand Government for sale over there. They had been used as mine sweepers in their waters, and as they were laid up, the Company quickly bought the MALDANNA. She had to be refitted for trawling and was expertly overhauled by our crew of shipwrights and boiler makers, making another ship available to the fishing industry. Shortly after another ship MOONA was purchased and the same procedure was adopted.

Another ship MATONG had to be surveyed in New Zealand and the company decided to send Alec Grassick, Ken Shearer, the mate Sam Samson and myself as shipwrights over to New Zealand where we worked on the ship. The engines were refurbished and boilers cleaned and fired again - and the Lloyds survey and trials undertaken. We then steamed her over to Sydney which took five days.

Around about this time William Snr. became suspicious about the condition of the DURRAWEEN. A shell plating test was conducted on the starboard side under the gallows which was very thin at about 3mm thick. He recomended to Mr. Coles’ the Manager’ that she be condemned. All her trawling gear was stripped and the ship was sent over to Blackwattle Bay to be broken up.

The fishing fleet of six then included BAR-EA-MUL, GOOLGWAI, KOROWA, MALDANNA, MOONA and MATONG. New crew arrangements permitted the crew to stay with the ship when she came ashore and have more rest time for a change whilst the repair work was undertaken.

During 1946-7 there was a leak reported by the engineer somewhere around the stern of the BAR- EA- MUL and William Snr. and I went down the afterhold, a very damp and dark part of the ship, and found that the stern post of the ship was very badly rotted. William Snr. once again went up to the manager and recommended that the BAR –EA-MUL be condemned. All the trawling gear was taken off and sent over to Strides yard and then she was taken out to sea and sunk. This left Red Funnel Trawlers with just five ships.

These ships prior to the war, as I explained before, were worked 24 hours a day seven days a week and crewed by an expert crew so there was a crew ashore for a few days at the end of each voyage.

To maintain these ships the boiler was blown down twice a year. This means the fires were drawn and the boiler was allowed to cool down over- night. William Snr. and I would get a taxi to Red Funnel Trawlers at 6 o'clock in the morning and start work at 6.30 a.m. A lighter had been arranged to tow us up to Chapman's dock to the pontoon which was a big floating dock many years of age and in sad condition but it worked pretty well. The ship was pumped out, scrubbed clean with antifouling prior to the shore employees, which included William Snr. I and a few others, to undertake what work we could while the ship was in dock.

One of my particular jobs as soon as the dock was dry was to go down and undo the gratings of the various intakes. That is the boiler intake and various outboard intake valves, take the gratings off and clean the marine growth out of them and arrange for the repainting by the painter and dockers and have them screwed back up in position. It didn't take very long but it was a job that had to be done meticulously and, in the case of the BAR–EA-MUL, I got the opportunity to renew the copper sheeting around the propeller aperture once or twice. The boiler was cleaned, closed and filled up with water for the fireman to light the fire and raise steam. Sometimes we would steam back or be towed back to the wharf. This operation would be done twice a year on all the ships and took up quite a bit of our time.

At times instead of going into Chapman's dock, we would go across the bay to Morts Dock’s slipway and the crew would have the job of helping the shipwright pull in the bilge chocks to keep the ship upright and this was done by a very strong skilful shipwright by the name of Latta who with a boat hook pushed the chocks into position while we hauled them over. The ship would be hauled up onto the slip and the same procedure undertaken on the boiler and bottom as explained before.

Shortly after the war our manager Edgar Coles realised that the skippers and mates were getting old and retiring so he decided to start a campaign advertising in the newspapers in Fleetwood, Hull and Grimsby for skippers and mates to migrate to Australia and be guaranteed a position on arrival with the Red Funnel Fleet. Six or eight men migrated with their families and had a very good life trawling in Australia. This augmented the number of crews available and proved very successful.

Reflections on the Trawling Industry

About the year 2000 my friend Andy Tait who happened to be treasurer of the Royal Institute of Marine Engineers invited me to go with the members of the Institute and inspect a Royal Naval warship which was berthed at No.4 Woolloomooloo wharf where we marvelled at the modern electronics which drove this very up-to-date vessel. On completion of the inspection Andy and I went down onto No.4 and along to where No.5 should have been.

To my utter amazement and dismay I saw that the Red Funnel Trawlers building had been completely demolished. I was astounded to think that I had spent something like 20 years treading the boards of this wharf and it was all gone. I stood where the entrance should have been and could see in my mind’s eye the hundreds and hundreds of men and women who had taken part in this industry in the years that I had been employed there. I was completely astounded but, as progress moves on, I realised that the building had been ravaged by white ants and no doubt the Maritime Services Board decided to demolish it.


In concluding this story, I have many wonderful memories in my life at No. 5 Wharf, Woolloomooloo remembering my father, William Gault Snr., who spent many years working hard as did my brothers, James working on the engines, William Jnr. on the trawlers, all now deceased, and my sister Meg working on the nets who is now 89 years old, my apprenticeship and years of toil at the Red Funnel Trawlers which employed many people during its operation are still with me – memories of an era long gone.