In the January 2006, Afloat, I wrote about the Cape Don; its history and the on-going task of its restoration. The ship has been moored for several years at the Waverton Coal Loader in Balls Head Bay. It’s still there and I believe negotiations are on-going with NSW Maritime about its future. Let’s hope that a sensible position can be reached and the Cape Don> can find a permanent home and become an integral and fascinating feature of the area.
Although the area remains Crown Land, its management since 1997 has been with North Sydney Council. It was then that the Carr Government decided the area should be kept as waterfront parkland, enhanced by the restoration of the many interesting buildings that are on site.
Although North Sydney Council has not submitted a Development Application for the site, the planning of the restoration project is well advanced and will proceed in three stages with the final cost estimated to be in excess of $10m.
It is my impression that North Sydney Council would welcome a working ship in situ to remind visitors that this is where colliers disgorged their cargo and where coal was stored until it was used for bunkering or exported to ports around the world. It is important to note that at one time, the largest export from Sydney Harbour was coal. This was shipped from coal loaders at Blackwattle Bay, White Bay and the Waverton Coal Loader.
To understand why a coal loader was built in Balls Head Bay, we have to go back to the original land grant made to Edward Wollstonecraft, the business partner of Alexander Berry.
Berry and Wollstonecraft arrived in Sydney in 1819 and started a business as general merchants with premises in George Street. Wollstonecraft managed the business and Berry brought the merchandise to Sydney. While in Sydney, their ships were moored in Berrys Bay.
In the 1820s, Wollstonecraft was granted 200ha of land on the northern shore of the harbour. On Wollstonecraft’s land, the partners built a house, warehouse and a wharf. The cottage was named Crows Nest. Berry then negotiated a grant of 28ha next to and on the western side of Wollstonecraft’s grant. Part of this land included the rocky island that today we know as Berrys Island.
In recent times it was used as an oil terminal and now is in the process of being reclaimed as parklands.
Berry married Elizabeth Wollstonecraft, his partner’s sister, in 1827 and the couple lived in the cottage named Crows Nest. In 1832 when Wollstonecraft died, he left his estate to his sister. Berry decided to build a grander house there but in 1845 before it was finished, Elizabeth died. Berry moved into the new house, also called Crows Nest and died there in 1873.
Reference should be made here to the articles I wrote about Berry and Wollstonecraft’s land holding in the Shoalhaven (see Afloat, November and December, 2005). However, in the wash-up after the death of Alexander Berry, the Crows Nest land, the wharf, store and house, were leased to the NSW Torpedo Corps as their depot. That was in October 1877. The Corps built additional workshop facilities there and retained their occupancy until the end of 1889 when they moved to Middle Head.
In 1889 after the death of David Berry, the Crows Nest Estate was divided into thirteen blocks and offered for leasehold in February 1895. There were few interested and it was not until 1906 that an agreement was reached between the State Government and the Berry Estate. In this agreement, foreshore land from the Crows Nest Estate was ceded to the State in exchange for the government building a thirty-bed hospital at Berry, a part of the original Shoalhaven Estate.
The coal loader site was part of this arrangement. The Government, anxious to derive income from this land, leased it to the Sydney Coal Bunkering Company in 1917. That company, a subsidiary of he Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand, provided bunker coal for passenger and cargo ships of the parent company. Their lease was for 35 years.
Work began on constructing the coal-loading platform in 1917. Initially it was thought that the sandstone cliff could be quarried so that four tunnels could be cut through it allowing the coal heaped above to be directed by chutes into waiting containers below. This proved easier said than done because the sandstone base was not solid and the rock face had to be supported with concrete and stone packing, much of which had to be quarried off site. Stone was used to face the western exterior of the structure and was also featured around the entrances to the four tunnels. When the tunnels were complete and the position of the hoppers and chutes determined, the top was capped. Thus the coal loader is a solid structure with four tunnels; not hollow as I’d always imagined.
On the top of this structure were two gantry cranes. Initially, the coal came from the Bellambi Colliery in the Illawarra.
From 1918 to 1920, a wharf was built into Balls Head Bay. An electricpowered, cable railway, designed and constructed by Mead Morrison of Chicago, was begun in 1920. On completion, it delivered 700 tonnes of coal per hour. This cable railway brought the coal from two of the tunnels below the stockpile.
These tunnels contained 33 hoppers that deposited coal into rail wagons that were hauled along the wharf on an elevated platform to one of the two delivery gantries that could be positioned alongside the bunkering chutes of waiting ships.
This method of bunkering revolutionised the process that previously had been done by handlabour. Then, coal was shovelled into buckets or baskets on the collier rafted alongside the receiving vessel. It was then hauled vertically on to planks then pulled horizontally onto the deck of the receiving ship and sent down a chute to the bunkers. Using this method, 100 tonnes of coal an hour could be delivered using five gangs of men.
In 1934, the Waverton Coal Loader was taken over by the Wallarah Coal Company who operated the coal loader until 1957. However in 1937, a severe storm damaged one of the gantry cranes and the loader operated with a single gantry. In 1956, this was replaced with an enlarged, single, unloading grab crane.
The Wallarah Coal Company operated the Catherine Hill Bay Colliery and it was from here that most of the coal then came.
The operation was taken over by J & A Brown and Abermain Seaham Colliers in 1957 and this company in 1960 became a subsidiary of Coal & Allied Industries. In 1964, the coal loader was taken out of service and it was not until 1974 that it was recommissioned as a coal export facility. In 1976 with the need to achieve a quicker turn around of larger vessels using the wharf, the cable railway was replaced with a conveyor system consisting of remote-controlled bin gates, travelling feeders, reclaim conveyors, two wharf conveyors and a travelling ship loader.
This system had a capacity of 2,000 tonnes per hour.
The coal loader served the export trade until 21 May 1992 when the last ship was loaded. The lease to Coal and Allied Industries was not renewed and the plant closed.
The existing leaseholder is Rio Tinto who is negotiating with North Sydney Council to vacate the site.
From c.1953, the area now set aside to be developed as parkland, was used by the Australian-owned Golden Fleece Company as a bulk oil storage facility. The shore tanks were filled from tankers moored at the wharf. For refuelling ships, the system was worked in reverse. Eventually Golden Fleece was bought by Caltex in 1981 and in 1995, Caltex merged with Ampol. It was Golden Fleece (formed as a public company in 1947), Caltex and Ampol that proposed the construction of the Kurnell refinery in 1959.
The manor restoration to be undertaken by North Sydney Council at the Waverton Coal Loader site will be on the buildings associated with those used by Coal & Allied Industries and Golden Fleece/Caltex. Plans for using the actual coal loader have not progressed and this is understandable when one recognises that the structure is solid with tunnels, capped with a flat area previously used to stockpile coal.
Maritime NSW has plans for pontoons to be stationed along the wharf and the area used as a mooring site for visiting pleasure craft with a length of more than 50m. These are presently accommodated at Rozelle Bay.
I have some difficulty with this. When I visited the site recently, it was on one of those days where there was a gale warning for enclosed waters. A howling westerly was blowing straight at the coal loader and the Parramatta River, Iron Cove and Balls Head Bay were very turbulent. There’s not much protection if a large boat facility using pontoons were to be constructed using the wharf as its base. And I see shore access as being very difficult.
And to finish where I started, what will happen to the Cape Don>? She’s snug against the wall of the coal loader and relatively accessible – although if the public are to be part of their plan, access to the ship will have to be radically improved.



*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.