By the early 1950s the Directors of Sydney Ferries Ltd (SFL) were worried men. World War Two had ended. Financial and petrol restrictions had been lifted, wool was selling for ‘one pound per pound’ on overseas markets and Australia was starting to boom. SFLwas not going with the trend.
Most of its predominately woodenhulled ferries were old or elderly. All had been worked hard during the war with restricted maintenance and most needed replacing or soon would. Wage increases for the crews were not to be matched by fare increases – the inhabitants of the waterside suburbs went political at the very suggestion.
The company was a medium-sized conglomerate more than 50 years old. It owned pleasure grounds at several excellent locations around the harbour.
SFLalso owned commercial premises, at least one harbourside hotel (Clifton Gardens), the largest harbour lighterage company in the port and the popular large capacity showboat Kalang. Several of these businesses were doing well and Showboat Kalang would have been much better financially if Premier James McGirr’s Labor Government would agree to her having a liquor license.
But … the passenger ferry section was losing money and SFLdid not have the financial reserves to build a new fleet.
What to do? The decision was made.
The NSW Government would be offered the loss-making ferry services while the other arms of the conglomerate would be retained.
The SFLDirectors decided, on March 9, 1951, they would discontinue the ferry services by either the end of March or in April and to communicate this decision to the Government with the suggestion that body should buy these ferry services and associated infrastructure. The government was not keen and intimated that it might just use its sovereign powers to take the whole lot over, without compensation.
The Directors quickly countered this by paying a dividend to shareholders of more than 80,000 pounds, drawn from SFL’s reserves.
A separate commercial entity was formed, known as Harbour Land and Transport and thus secured, the Directors continued the negotiations.
On July 1, 1951 the NSW Government accepted that private enterprise would not and could not run Sydney’s major ferry fleet. It took over the concern – for about 25,000 pounds.
McGirr’s ministry was well aware it had no expertise to run ferries. It formed the ferries into a new organization called the Sydney Harbour Transport Board and instructed the members of that Board to negotiate with the management of the Port Jackson and Manly Steamship Co to provide operational management of the inner harbour ferries.
This system was to run very well from 1951 until the early 1970s when the Manly company was bought out by Brambles Transport Industries. Brambles rhetoric about ‘service’ was not matched by its actions. Far from running the Manly and Inner harbour ferries it seemed that all Brambles intended was to asset strip the Manly company and then force the Eric Lewis Coalition government to buy the remnants of the service. Of this, more later.
With Sydney’s inner harbour ferries under government control, many of the older ferries were soon disposed of and plans were made to create a new type of inner harbour ferry. It would be smaller, faster around the bays, carry fewer people and need a crew of two. If it was successful perhaps 15 more of the type could be built. Some large capacity ferries would still be needed for special events, workers runs and the like.
Kooleen was successful – very, but the passengers loathed it and the ridicule she attracted stayed with her for life.
There were no outside seats and poor vision from within (situations not dissimilar to some of the various modern catamarans of the 2000s).
She vibrated and she looked like a submarine with windows. The marine unions would not run her with a crew of two and they easily won their case in court. When I was her master in 1980 I often wondered how I would restart the engine if it failed during a wharf approach – I didn’t need to know, she had a qualified engineer below.
The press and public reaction to Kooleen’s arrival in 1956 cured future governments of any ideas of new ferries, for a while. Instead they converted three of the remaining old steamers to motor vessels and re-engined several of the motor ferries that had been converted from steam before WWII.
By 1960 the SHTB fleet was in the form it would present for almost a decade. Kooleen was used on low density routes and off-peak. The diesel ladies and smaller K-types worked the suburban routes and the Kanangra looked after the heavy lift runs such as ferrying workers to and from Cockatoo Island.
After an initial flurry of regular custom, Showboat Kalang began losing money. There were many places that Sydneysiders could now visit by car or bus and Sydney’s harbour did not then have the much-hyped ‘fun’ status that seems to have been generated in the 21st century.
In 1958 the Directors of (then) Harbour Lighterage and Showboat tried to interest Premier Joseph Cahill’s Labor Government in buying the old boat. No thanks! The SHTB had sufficient floating problems without taking on another.
The wooden ferries were becoming difficult to operate. Kubu, the last inner harbour steamer, was retired in 1959.
Back to the ferry drawing board.
Using the basic concept of the early ‘Lady’ class ferries, a new type of inner harbour ferry was ordered by Premier Robin Askin’s Coalition Government. Three of the type were ordered from the NSW State Dockyard in Newcastle in late 1967. The first was Lady Cutler, which went into service in October 1968. She was roomy. She was comfortable and she provided good outside shelter for those who like to sit ‘outside.’
Her two sisters Lady McKell and Lady Woodward (1970) followed soon after a few minor improvements derived from the Cutler. They were so successful that they quickly begat two larger versions Lady Wakehurst (1974) and Lady Northcott (1974).
Another two of the Cutler-size Lady Herron and Lady Street (1979) were in service by 1980.
These seven ferries were intended to provide the major carrying capacity for the inner harbour for the next 20 years but trouble was brewing on the Manly run.
Although the Manly company’s John Needham had run both companies (and his own private company – Hegartys ferries) competently, the Manly service also needed new ferries and could not afford them. Plans for a large doubleended catamaran were announced but not proceeded with.
Brambles Transport Industries bought out the company in 1972 and quickly gutted it. The oil rig tenders in Bass Strait were taken over and the remnant ferry service was offered to the Askin government while the people of the Manly area roared with rage over the drastic reduction of the passenger services. The government gave in and took over the ferries. Thus ended private enterprise on major ferry services of Port Jackson.
The Askin government formed the Public Transport Commission (PTC) on December 1, 1974. The PTC was tasked with the job of running both the inner and outer harbour ferries and was placed under the control of Mr Phillip Shirley. The organization was also responsible for buses and passenger trains and in order to impress the public with its competence, the PTC decided to paint trains, buses and ferries in the one livery.
As I described it at the time, “hospital ward cream and Italian fishing boat blue” might work on trains – it didn’t – and buses but on ferries it was ghastly. It seems the PTC soon realised this and gradually, some might say surreptitiously, the pale blue was replaced by a much darker shade which did not show green seawater stains and red rust streaks quite so obviously.
So, for the period 1951 to 1975 – almost 25 years, we can say that the various state governments took over the ferries from private enterprise, which could not run them profitably, then produced an effective harbour ferry service. New and efficient ferries of traditional style were in use. Apart from Kooleen, no attempt had been made to re-invent the wheel but this was to change.
Next month: Fifty years of Sydney’s public ferries – Part 2.