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KURING GAI on Sydney Harbour, date unknown

The Manly Ferry

1855 - 2011

The Manly Ferry has been an integral part of Sydney Harbour for over 100 years, used by residents and commuters as their daily transport, and recognised internationally by tourists as an icon of Sydney. Images of the ferries have been included in countless forms of media and promotion, but this figure head role was matched by the major part the service played in developing Manly and the northern beaches as part of suburban Sydney. The Port Jackson and Manly Steamship Company that operated the Manly ferries for nearly a century famously coined the expression about Manly being “Seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care”, a phrase that became part of Sydney and Manly’s popular culture.

The ferry service was started in 1855. Henry Gilbert Smith chartered the paddle-steamer HUNTRESS and operated it between a wharf he built at Manly and existing wharves at Sydney. Smith saw Manly’s potential as a seaside resort and suburb. He had purchased land estates in 1853, and planned Manly to be Sydney’s version of Brighton in the UK. He gradually developed a regular service and acquired shares in other steamers to support the trade. The first regular daily service was run by PS VICTORIA, travelling from Phoenix Wharf in Darling Harbour.

The Port Jackson Steam Boat Co. Ltd was established in 1877. It later became the Port Jackson Steamship Co.Ltd in 1881. The popularity of the route was increasing as both the population of Manly and surrounding areas grew and it became a significant weekend recreation destination for many of Sydney’s residents. In 1878 they introduced the PS FAIRLIGHT, a purpose built paddle steamer that came out under its own power from Scotland. Its design recognised the need for a larger ferry than those used on the inner harbour routes, in order to accommodate the passengers and the open water at Sydney Heads. In the 1880s the big double-funnelled PS BRIGHTON was added to the fleet, an imposing and elegant vessel that brought further grandeur to the service, as well as much needed extra capacity.

This monopoly by the Port Jackson Steamship Co was challenged in 1893 when a group of Manly residents established a competitor called the Manly Co-operative Steam Ferry Company. There had been concern about the fares being charged, and Manly Council had advertised for a competitor. The new company only lasted three years until 1896, but by the end of its short life it had not only brought the fares down as planned, but also created the origins of the next generation of ferries that became legendary in the 20th century.

The Manly Co-op took a bold move soon after its creation to commission the well-established Sydney naval architect Walter Reeks to design them a new flagship vessel. Reeks had been very successful with two new and different double- ended, screw propelled ferries for the Balmain New Ferry company on the inner harbour called THE LADY MARY and LADY HAMPDEN. He took those principal features and continued his often unorthodox approach to design to create a new, wooden Manly ferry with two decks, enclosed, turtle back ends, a heavily cambered keel and relatively unique rudder and propeller arrangement. It was to be called EMANCIPATOR by the Manly Co-Op, but in 1896 the company was absorbed by its rival the Port Jackson Steamship Co before the ship was completed. The new owners launched the vessel as MANLY, the first screw-propelled ferry on the route, and a new direction was established.

Fast and modern, equipped with saloons, cabins, a promenade deck, and with a large capacity for passengers over the main and upper decks, MANLY was a success. This was despite severe vibration problems caused by the long shafts going out of alignment when the wooden craft bent, an issue that was most apparent when the ferry crossed the heads and encountered a swell. Reeks solved this problem with his next design KURING GAI launched in 1901. Built in steel by Mort’s Dock and Engineering in Balmian, the ram bowed, double ended ship was bigger than MANLY, and finally established the combined qualities needed for the service over the next decades. It had strength, speed and capacity, the identical ends were enclosed with high bulwarks and decking, there were two wheelhouses, large covered and enclosed areas and it had striking looks. KURING GAI became the benchmark on which the fleet was built over the next three decades, with each vessel improving on the previous one.

Morts Dock followed through in the first quarter of the 1900s with a series of impressive ferries built on the Reeks MANLY and KURING GAI pattern, initially designed by their own naval architect Andrew Christie. The craft included BINNGARRA, BURRA BRA, BELLUBRA, BALGOWLAH, BARRENJOEY (later rebuilt as NORTH HEAD) and finally BARAGOOLA the last of the big ferries to be built locally. By the early 1930s costs in Australia were now too high compared to building a ship elsewhere. The next two sister ships CURL CURL and DEE WHY were twin-funnelled, large craft thatwere built in Scotland, steaming out to Sydney under their own power. The final chapter came in 1938 with the triumph in Manly ferry design, SOUTH STEYNE.

Over this period the service had its heyday, and the managing Director Walter Dendy was one of the most well respected businessmen in Sydney. The ferry service was still the primary means of public transport and travel in general from Manly to Sydney, and the tram service and buses servicing the northern beach suburbs largely terminated at the wharf. The road connection from Manly to the City was still a relatively minor route, and private cars were not yet the norm, but all this changed post war in the 1950s. A new Spit Bridge across from Seaforth the Mosman and associated road ways, steadily improving bus services all the way north to Palm Beach, and the rise in private vehicle ownership combined to seriously challenge the viability of the Manly ferry service.

The response by 1967 was to consolidate the fleet of conventional ferries around SOUTH STEYNE, NORTH HEAD and BARAGOOLA, and introduce a regular rapid hydrofoil service alongside the larger, slower ferries. In 1991, the hydrofoils were replaced with three fast catamarans called JetCats. However the much higher speed included much higher running costs, and the fares for the fast service were therefore greater than the normal service, but perhaps the biggest problem was reliability. Both the hydrofoils and the Jetcats were plagued with breakdowns and operating issues, adding to their cost and giving them a poor image in the public eye

In addition to the ferry service, the company ran two small cargo vessels for a period on a similar route, The company also built and operated attractions to encourage patronage on its Manly run. In 1931 on the western side of their wharf they built a large shark proof swimming pool, enclosed by a boardwalk. Beside the pool was a bathing pavilion which housed a diving and harbour plunge pool, a dance hall and dining rooms. The pool was destroyed by a huge storm in 1974 that caused widespread damage in Sydney and along the coast, meanwhile the pavilion has become part of the Manly Ocean Aquarium and Manly Art Gallery site. The company also converted the cargo wharf into an amusement pier called the Manly Fun Pier and for a period a World War II-era submarine, previously operated by the Royal Netherlands Navy was moored there as a museum ship.

North of Sydney, the Company acquired the Palm Beach business of W.J.Goddard & Sons, including their general stores and ferry services in 1942.They bought new ferries and operated services for Church Point, the Basin, Scotland Island, Brooklyn, Berowra, Bobbin Head and Patonga. In 1943-44 the Company purchased the Currawong estate (including the guest houses) at Little Mackerel Beach and the Narrabeen Ice Works. However in 1950 financial difficulties saw all of this gradually sold and the company retired from the Pittwater area, apart from running weekend excursion trips that went a short up the Hawkesbury River on the sea going SOUTH STEYNE.

The demise of the company was caused by its success in another area altogether. In 1964 a new directorship diversified the company into the offshore oil-rig supply business, and this brought significant profits. They used this to invest in the hydrofoils, which ultimately ran at a loss, but the continued, improving success with the oil-rig supply venture led to the company being taken over by Brambles Industries in 1972. Their main interest was the oil-rig supply market and not the ferry service, and almost immediately they began to dispose of the service by selling the hydrofoils and operating them on a lease-back arrangement. By 1974 the entire service was under threat of closure, and the New South Wales Government moved in to take over the Manly ferries late in 1974. Subsequent government restructures have seen the ferries run by different departments under different titles, and in 2011 the operations now reside in Sydney Ferries Corporation

Just as the government took over the service SOUTH STEYNE suffered a mysterious fire. It was taken out of service and never worked the route again. Meanwhile the Government added the new and much smaller LADY WAKEHURST to the run, and persevered with the hydrofoil service, then replaced it with the Jetcats, and finally a brief ‘experiment’ with the inner harbour Supercats. By 2009 they had abandoned a fast service altogether, and private enterprise moved back in with a catamaran service from west Circular Quay to Manly and return.

Four new large ferries were commissioned and entered service through the 1980s. Sister ships FRESHWATER, NARABEEN, QUEENSCLIFF and COLLAROY were built in Newcastle and brought back the big ferry style that had typified the Manly ferry heyday. In 2011 a combination of commuters, tourists and weekend crowds keeps the service popular and the regular pattern of a pair of Manly ferries crossing the heads in opposite directions, a ritual noted by many around the harbour, has been maintained into the 21st century.