Homebush Bay, Rhodes and Newington are fast becoming affluent residential suburbs. They are adjacent to the wonderful Olympic Park and offer a lifestyle that has great appeal; good accommodation, wonderful recreation areas and close proximity to the Olympic Stadium and other sporting venues offering easy access to sporting events. Even cricket has been attempted at the main stadium, now bearing the name of a bank!
Much of the land on which these facilities have been built has been reclaimed from Homebush Bay and the wetlands that surrounded it. Originally dominated by industry, especially at Rhodes, then developed as a dumping ground for almost anything, much of the land was badly contaminated with heavy metals and poisonous compounds. In spite of the remediation programs, there are still many problems concerned with cleaning up the area. Much has been done, much will continue to be done in the future, but the prospects for a pristine environment in the foreseeable future are still bleak.
Many readers would be surprised that parts of Homebush Bay were also once used as a ship-breaking yard.
In 1966, approval for a ship-breaking yard was granted by the Maritime Services Board to several private companies. These companies paid a monthly fee. Vessels were moored in the bay, ready for breaking-up ashore. In 1970, the MSB constructed a ramp for this purpose.
Those vessels known to be brokenup from 1970 were Kookaburra, Branston and Samson by Goldfield Metal Traders, Kara Kara by Marrickville Metals and two barges by Nicholson Bros Harbour Transport Pty Ltd.
Another ship, Meggol, was broken up in the bay but the hull removed and scuttled off Long Reef as part of the artificial reef created there from 1976 onwards.
There are at least four ships’ hulls and the remains of several barges and smaller vessels visible in Homebush Bay. These will be protected under the historic Shipwrecks Act, 1976 which applies to all shipwrecks over seventyfi ve years old. Relics over fifty years old and located in lakes and/or rivers, are protected under the provisions of the NSW Heritage Act, 1977.
The wrecks still visible are the colliers Ayrfield and Mortlake Bank, the tug Heroic, the steel boom defence vessel HMAS Karangi, at least one other smaller vessel and some barges, lighters and dredges.
SS Ayrfield (originally launched as SS Corrimal) was a steel-hulled, single screw, steam collier of 1140 tonnes and 79.1m in length. It was built in the UK in 1911 and registered at Sydney in 1912. It was purchased by the Commonwealth Government and used to transport supplies to American troops stationed in the Pacific region during WWII.
In 1950, it was sold to Bitumen and Oil Refineries Australia Pty Ltd and in 1951 sold to the Miller Steamship Company Ltd and renamed Ayrfield. Under the Miller flag, it operated as a collier between Newcastle and Miller’s terminal in Blackwattle Bay. Here is a description of the collier entering Blackwattle Bay:
As a teenager I went to sea on the Ayrfield, one of R. W. Miller’s colliers. It took great skill by the helmsman to steer the ship through the opening of the Glebe Island swing bridge in the darkness of night.
The ship had to have a reasonable speed to negotiate the opening as there was only a few metres clearance on either side. As we swung to port to berth in Blackwattle Bay, the vessel would slow ready to berth, and if the tide was low with a full cargo on board, the hull would scrape the muddy bottom. Skipper Ron Archer would carry out this manoeuvre effortlessly.” 1
The registration of Ayrfield was cancelled on 6 October 1972 and the old collier sent to Homebush Bay for breaking-up. The hull is located near the mouth of Haslams Creek with the bow pointing towards the shore.
SS Mortlake Bank
The stern section and part of the bow of the Mortlake Bank are located about 50m north-east of Ayrfield. The bow is lying nearly at right angles to that vessel. The Mortlake Bank was a steel-hulled, single screw, steam collier of 1371 tonnes and 71.65m in length.
It was built at Wallsend-on-Tyne in the UK in 1924 and in 1934 was bought by McIllwraith, McEacharn Ltd of Melbourne and operated between Hexham and Mortlake transporting coal to the Mortlake Gasworks of the Australian Gas Light Company. On 4 October 1972, its registration was cancelled and it was sent to Homebush Bay for breaking-up.
As an aside, it was on 31 May 1942, as the Mortlake Bank entered Sydney Harbour and passed though the boom net, that the second of the three Japanese submarines (M-24) made its entry under the ship’s keel. It was M-24 that fired its torpedos and then avoided sinking from the eschewing bombardment and escaped, only to finish on the bottom somewhere off Long Reef.
Heroic was a steel-hulled, steam tugboat of 258 tonnes and 38.1m in length. It was built at South Shields, UK in 1909 for Thomas Fenwick [tugboat operators] of Sydney.
In 1911, it towed the three-masted French warship, Euré to Sydney from Noumea for breaking-up. During WWI, it was commandeered by the British Admiralty, renamed Epic and engaged in rescue work off the Scilly Isles. By 1919, it was back in Sydney as a working tug. During WWII, it towed Allara back to Sydney after that ship had been torpedoed off Sydney.
It was sold to J. B. Mullins in 1973 to be renamed Bustler II. However some time after that, it was brought to Homebush Bay for breaking-up. It is located just offshore on the southwestern corner of the Bay. It is heeled over and lying on its port side with its bow pointing south. It is alongside the wreck of HMAS Karangi that is closer to the mangroves fringing Olympic Park.
HMAS Karangi was a steel-hulled, boom defence vessel of 971 tonnes and 54.25m in length. It was built at Cockatoo Docks and Engineering Co. Ltd in Sydney and launched on 16 August 1941. A boom is a net held together by steel rings and supported in the water by floats. The boom gallow, projecting from over the bow of the vessel, was used to lower and retrieve the nets placed across the harbour entrance. A gate was fitted to allow entry of friendly vessels and was opened and shut by the boom gate vessel.
The Karangi was designated as a ‘Kangaroo’ class, boom defence vessel similar to the ‘Bar’ class of the Royal Navy. There were four boom working vessels built at Cockatoo Island during WWII for the Royal Australian Navy: Kookaburra (launched 28 February 1939), and the sister ships Koala (launched 27 March 1940), Kangaroo (launched 26 September 1940) and Karangi (launched 22 December 1941). All four ships assisted in laying the boom defences of Darwin and were there when the first Japanese bombing raid took place on 19 February 1942.
On the morning of Thursday 19 February , the boom defence vessels were in position working the boom, which was nearing completion. The normal activities of the base continued. The first Japanese air attack on Australia opened ... on the patrolling Kittyhawks, on ships in the harbour …, other craft in the vicinity ... and a minesweeper. Following this initial attack by the fighters, bombs fell from high-level bombers. Anti-aircraft fire lessened the severity of ship losses and casualties, which were still substantial.
The Kangaroo and Kookaburra sustained some damage and one life was lost on board Kangaroo. There appears to have been no recorded damage to Karangi or Koala. 2
Karangi was stationed at Darwin until the end of 1943 and from then until 1952 served in Western Australian waters. In 1952, it was present at the British atomic tests at the Monte Bello Islands after which it was refitted at Garden Island in Sydney.
During 1953-54, Karangi returned to service in Western Australian waters including another stint at the Monte Bello Islands. It continued in service in the west until 1957 when it was placed in unmaintained reserve in Sydney Harbour at Athol Bight where it remained until 1965.
The Karangi was sold to L. Bookluck of Enmore on 8 September 1966 and partially scrapped. In 1970, what remained was removed to Homebush Bay for breaking-up.
The Karangi lies on the shore side of the tug Heroic with its bow pointing south.
Barges, Dredges, and Lighters
There is a collection of these vessels lying just south of the wrecks of the Heroic and the Karangi. One of these may have served as a crane barge or crane lighter and is similar to the ex- Maritime Services Board barge (MSB 16) that is located on the ship-breaking ramp east of Ayrfield and Mortlake Bank.
There are several barges, dredges and lighters visible in Homebush Bay but their identification and history are incomplete. The NSW Heritage Office lists the following as working in Homebush Bay during its time as a breaking yard. Some may have been scrapped, some removed and some abandoned where they stood. Those identified were L 989, L 906, L 498, L 409. No. 7 crane, No. 1630 crane, FP 1569, No 2 punt.
1 Don Goodsir, letter May 2003 to Gregory Blaxell .
2 From Rebecca Bower, Historical Research of Three Abandoned Hulks in Homebush Bay, Sydney, Report for Bicentennial Park, June 1993, p 6.
*Gregory Blaxell is an historian and author. He has been boating offshore and in the harbour for more than 25 years. His latest book is The River: Sydney Cove to Parramatta.