June 23 - 29, 2013: Issue 116

 Australia's First Steamers

Whenever we research any of the material we run on our History page we always end up with much more. This year's run of Pittwater ferries has been no different. A few years ago we found out the first ever school launch or school ferry began right here in Pittwater and we've run a little bit about this in our Children's page this week. For you, who also live in a maritime community, we offer a few small insights into steamers, the first steamers in fact, to run as ferries in NSW.

Large vessels were not, originally, allowed to be built here as people thought, due to our large population of convicts, that they could be stolen by those transported here who would then use them to escape. Those described here were paddle steamers or paddle wheelers. A paddle steamer is a steamship or riverboat powered by a steam engine that drives paddle wheels to propel the craft through the water. Paddle wheelers at first were driven by animals or humans. Our first official ferry was known as 'the Lump'.

The Rose Hill Packet was the first vessel that could be considered as a ferry, indeed she was also the first 'large' vessel built in Sydney. Built by Robinson Reid (carpenter on the Supply), she was launched on the 5th of October 1789 from the King's Slipway (on the current location of Customs House). Due to inadequate tools and poor local timber, the new vessel was little more than a bed of wood and somewhat ungainly earning the nickname of 'The Lump' rather quickly.

Described as a hoy, she was propelled by a single sail on one mast and propelled with the assistance of oars. A journey to and from Parramatta often took the best part of a week - and more often than not passengers had to assist in the task of rowing the vessel. She could carry up to 10 tons of cargo and 30 passengers (probably not at the same time though) and although her exact dimensions are unknown, from her description she was around 38 to 42 feet in length and with a very shallow draught.

However ugly she may have been she was succesful in her role and operated until 1800 before being replaced with more agile (and better built) government vessels, hoys, sloops and pulling boats. 

From The Encyclopedia of Sydney Ferries website.


The Parramatta Service - The early ferry services on Sydney Harbour was the subject of an address delivered last night by Miss Margaret Swann to the members of the Manly, Warringah, and Pittwater Historical Society. As may be imagined, the first service was between Sydney and Parramatta. The service was Instituted in 1793, and was maintained by rowing boats, which ran very much as their owners pleased. The owners' pleasure, however, was not appreciated by the public, and in 1803, the Government framed regulations, one of which was that the boats must be watertight and carry at least four oars so that passengers "if they pleased" might give the boatmen a helping hand. The boats wen also compelled to carry mast and sail. This state of affairs continued till 1831,when a paddle-wheeled ferry steamer, the Surprise, was built by Smith Bros, at Neutral Bay. Had the Sophia Jane, from England, not arrived while the Surprise was waiting for her engines to be put in the Sydney-built steamer would have been the first co cleave the waters of Port Jackson. The Surprise, however, was not a success. In 1832 a horse-propelled paddle steamer, the Experiment, was launched. The equine engines, however, refused to work, with the consequence that her first passengers missed the Parramatta races. Later on, in 1834, steam engines were Installed, and the Experiment justified her construction. The Australian Steam Conveyance Company afterwards inaugurated a service, which was carried on with-out Interruption until 1928. when the service ceased. SYDNEY'S EARLIEST FERRIES. (1933, May 19). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 15. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article16980564

This is a little incorrect. The Surprise was actually the first steamer of this kind to run on the Harbour, better yet, she was Australian built. People think the Sophia Jane was first due ti having arrived from the UK in May 1831, which she did, but then had to be 'fitted' for duties here:;


In our last we reported the particulars of the first starting of the first steam vessel in New South Wales ; we must now relate what happened to her after she got beyond the ken of Sydney. Her passage up the river continued to be as agreeable and successful as was her exit from the cove. The banks of the river were in many places crowded with spectators, whom the novelty of the expected sight had drawn from their homes. All went on well till she arrived at Red Point, the shallowest pass in the whole river, where she unfortunately stuck fast in the mud. This mishap was occasioned by the delay that occurred in adjusting the engine before she left Sydney. Had she started at the hour fixed, 10 o'clock, there is no doubt she would have completed her trip to Parramatta in the finest style. As it was, she did not reach Red Point till half past 2, about two hours and a half after high tide, when of course there was not water enough to float her over the flats, though, in the opinion of her steersman, King (the old Commodore of Parramatta passage-boats), she would have crossed them with ease had she been half an hour sooner. At Red Point she rested herself till 10 at night, when the tide was sufficiently up to enable her to proceed, and by half-past 10 she was quietly moored alongside the Commissariat Wharf at Parramatta.

On Thursday morning, the concourse of spectators, for so small a town, was immense, amounting to 400 or 500, some of whom had come from the interior to behold the surprising Surprise. At 1o'clock she again put forth her steamy powers, and proceeded towards Sydney, having on board between thirty and forty passengers. At Newington, the seat of Mr. Blaxland, she stopped to land a number of Parramatta ladies and gentlemen, who accompanied her thus far byway of experiment. The remainder of the passage was performed without obstruction or accident, and she arrived at Sydney al half past 4 in the afternoon.

Among her passengers from Sydney, was Capt. Biddulph, the commander of the steamer Sophia Jane, who was so much delighted with the river, that he declared his determination to perform a trip with his own vessel as far as Red Point.

The only defect in the Surprise, as we noticed in our last, is, that she is rather top-heavy, and rolls to an un-pleasant degree. The proprietors (the Messrs. Smith) have determined to remedy this forthwith, by lowering her deck eighteen inches. The alteration will occupy about fourteen or sixteen days, when she will commence her regular trips, with every prospect, we doubt not, of accommodation to the public, and complete success to the spirited owners. The rates of fare are to be, for cabin-passengers, 3s. 6d.; and for steer-age, 2s.

The Sophia Jane is actively proceeding with her preparations for service ; she will be ready in a fortnight or three weeks. A survey has just been held upon her, by order of Government, to ascertain how far she may be eligible for the occasional conveyance of troops and prisoners to the penal settlements of Moreton Bay and Norfolk Island. THE "SURPRISE" STEAMER. (1831, June 4, Saturday). The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 - 1842), p. 2. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2200904

The Sophia Jane.

Since this handsome specimen of naval architecture arrived, under the disguise of a square-rigged schooner, which she did on Saturday morning last, she has been a focus of attraction to the curious. Immediately on dropping her anchor in the stream, crowds pushed off to visit her ; but the decks being lumbered, and the machinery not arranged, her commander, Captain Biddeworth, R. N. declined receiving visitors, greatly to the disappointment of many. She has since hauled into the Cove, and  now lies moored head and stern in, at the Heaving Down Place, East-side. We observe, the engineers, smiths and carpenters are actively at work, and when the fittings up are completed, but not till then, and we think very reasonably, she will be thrown open to visitors. To a nautical eye, the Sophia Jane presents a beautiful model for capacity and fast sailing. She sailed from London on the 15th December last, called at Pernambuco, and stopped for some days at the Cape, yet working with her  sails only, which present but a very moderate spread of  canvas, she has made the passage to this port, short of four months. Her paddles are now ship-ped for the first time, we believe, since leaving England ; and a few days more will put her in a capacity for plying. Not having had yet the opportunity of a personal inspection, we take the following particulars at second hand : — She measures 256tons ; is 126 feet on the deck, and at least 30 on the beam. She has three cabins elegantly fitted up.—The chief cabin furnishes 16 bed places ; the ladies' cabin abaft, 11 ; and the fore cabin or steerage, 20.Eleven can be added easily; in all, 54. She was built in 1826, by Barnes and Millar, and her cost value is estimated at £7500. A meeting of merchants was called at the Cape, when she lay there, with the view of purchasing her. The price was stated to be £8000 ; and the expense of navigating her, including insurance, £3610 per annum, upon the calculation of her making eighteen voyages to Algoa Bay and Table Bay in the year. The returns for freight and passage money were estimated at £5760 for the same period, exclusive of the profits of contingent employment. The Cape    merchants did not like the terms, and they hauled off. She has followed up her original destination ;and now enriches our increasing little naval force. Steam navigation will help greatly to raise the character of this Colony abroad, and to improve it at home. The addition of such a vessel as the Sophia Jane to our coasting trade is a most gratifying event. It is almost in the trading world what a  new Governor would be in our political hemisphere. A fresh spirit will be infused into all our settled and unsettled districts that can be approached by water. Persons will shortly be able, we expect, to breakfast in town, lunch at Newcastle, dine at Port Stephens, and put up comfortably at Port Macquarie next morning, at half the present expense and in quarter the time, of the journey to Wallis's Plains. Should she not find enough to do between this and Newcastle, the route to and from Hobart Town lies open, and to Western Port, when the fine line of coast about there shall be settled. The Surprise steamer is getting in her engine over at the North Shore. Mr. Grose's steamer at William's River is also getting forward fast. Mr. Patterson completes her machinery. The owner of whichever  steamer  plies first, will richly merit a grant of land. Government, it is to be hoped, will not show a backwardness in clearing the Parramatta channel. The Surprise, it is estimated, will draw 3 feet when laden. The Sophia Jane draws 6, it is said, with her machinery (of which she carries a duplicate set complete) and 100 tons of goods on board. Captain B. and Mr. Lamb her consignee, will doubtless lose no time in fitting the Sophia Jane out for the inspection of the curious. The Sophia Jane. (1831, May 20). The Australian (Sydney, NSW : 1824 - 1848), p. 3. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article36864964


A Correspondent in today's Gazette gives the following agreeable intelligence :-My business leading me from Maitland to Port Stephens, curiosity conducted me to the spot where the William the Fourth is building, when, to my surprise, I saw, not a puny boat fit only for fresh water, but a noble vessel capable of steaming the roughest seas. On expressing my astonishment to the builders, Messrs. Marshal and Lowe, they very politely invited me on board, and proceeded to explain the whole of her dimensions to me, which I now give you as nearly as I can recollect. Length of keel, 70 ft; ditto from the taffarel to the stern, 80 ft ; width of beam aft, 13 ft ;ditto of ditto midships, 15 ft; ditto over the spancing, 20 ft; height from the kelson to the flush deck, 7 ft. 6 in.; height of the after cabin, 6 ft. 6 in; length of the ladies' cabin containing berths, 12 ft.; ditto of the gentle-men's cabin, containing berths, 16 ft. ; ditto of the fore cabin, containing berths, 15 ft.;ditto of the engine room for an engine of horse power,-; thickness of outside plank,1¾ in.; ditto of ceiling, 1¼ in.; ditto of deck planks (native pine), 2¼ in.; tonnage, 100tons; tonnage for goods, 25 tons; draft of water, 5 ft.; two masts, schooner-rig.-The whole (excepting the deck planks) including the treenails, of flooded gum. Thus, Mr. Editor, you see that this colony can now boast of being able to build her own steamers, and these with her own indigenous timber, the flooded gum, which Messrs. Mar shall and Lowe, declare is equal to any in the world for ship building, and particularly for tree nails. Whenever this beautiful vessel maybe launched into her proper element, which it is calculated will be in about a month; it will be seen, that vessels of 600 tons can be built, or completely repaired in the William River, quicker and cheaper than can be done in Sydney Cove; a circumstance of the utmost importance to our whale fishery speculators, who, I have not the least doubt, will, when they see the masterly work of the William the Fourth, not fail to give ample employment to Messrs Marshal and Lowe, at their ship building establisment in Clarence Town, and so follow the good example set them by Mr. Grose of Parramatta, the proprietor of the steamer, I am, Sir, Your humble servant, Wlliam River, Sept. 6, 1831. COLONIAL SHIP-BUILDING. (1831, September 24). The Sydney Monitor (NSW : 1828 - 1838), p. 2 Edition: AFTERNOON. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article32076082

William the Fourth. - The new steam-packet of this name, built by Mr. Grose, of Parramatta, was launched yesterday-week, at Williams' River, and was to proceed in a few days to Sydney to take in her engine. It was expected she would be ready to ply in about three weeks. A numerous concourse of persons, from all parts of the country, attended to witness the interesting ceremony, and were regaled by the proprietor with a bountiful collation. ADVANCE AUSTRALIA Sydney Gazette. (1831, November 22).The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 - 1842), p. 2. Retrieved  from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2203655

P.S. SOPHIA JANE - from a painting by Dickson Gregory, image No.; 2805501, courtesy State Library of Victoria