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Sydney’s First Ferry Operators

By Alec Smart

the history of sydney ferries

PS Huntress approaching Manly Wharf, 1856. Illustration: S.T. Gill c/o State Library NSW

The History of Sydney Ferries - From 1789

The history of Sydney’s ferries began with a single sailboat between Sydney Cove and Rose Hill. However, the Sydney penal colony was under strict orders not to build boats, partly to reduce the possibility of convicts escaping, but primarily to prevent any challenge to the monopoly the East India Company enjoyed on maritime mercantile operations.

Subsequently, passenger transport along navigable water made a slow start in the rapidly expanding colony.

There is no record of the Indigenous clans around Sydney Harbour operating shuttle vessels around the waterways, although they were a maritime people that utilised nawi (Dharug Aboriginal word for bark canoes) for fishing, transport and recreation.

Parramatta River Ferry History

The first passenger ferry service operating on Sydney Harbour was a small hoy (single-masted vessel) launched on Monday 5 October 1789, just 37 weeks after British colonists established their settlement at Warrane/Sydney Cove.

It could carry up to 30 passengers to and from newly-occupied farmlands at Rose Hill along the Parramatta River, and from 1795 stopping at ‘Hunter’s Hills’ (farms around Huntley’s Point and Woolwich peninsula) on the Lower North Shore.

Initially known as the Prince William, and the first purpose-built sailing vessel constructed in Australia, the 12m x 5m sailboat was constructed by convicts, who renamed it the Rose Hill Packet.

This was due to its principal use as a ‘packet boat’ – the term for vessels that carried freight and domestic mail in packets.

Made of heavy red gum (Angophora costata) under the supervision of First Fleet carpenter Robinson Reid, the Rose Hill Packet weighed a hefty 12 tonnes, and due to its rounder, barge-like shape, it was nicknamed ‘The Lump’ by detractors.

The round trip from Sydney Cove to the Parramatta settlement took up to a week – a significant contrast to the two-hour return journey today – and the vessel was fitted with six oars for when the wind and tides weren’t favourable.

Sydney Cove ferry in 1790

Government House on the East shore of Sydney Cove, 1790.

Historians believe the Rose Hill Packet, aka ‘The Lump’, is the boat in the centre foreground.

Illustration: George Raper

With the discovery of malleable, durable timbers, such as Sydney blue gum (Eucalyptus saligna), independent boatbuilders began constructing small vessels to service the rapidly expanding colony, so in April 1791 Governor Philip issued an order restricting them to ‘fourteen feet from stem to stern’.

Expansion Begins

Soon wharves sprung up on the harbour front and by the end of 1793 a number of emancipists were operating along the lucrative Parramatta River trade route.

Meanwhile, because of its ponderous progress, and the construction of the King’s Dockyard in Sydney Cove in 1797 making faster, streamlined vessels, the Rose Hill Packet was superseded, and in 1800 retired and broken up. A three-tonne, ¾ sized replica hangs in the foyer of the 233m skyscraper at 6 Parramatta Square.

On 1 June 1831, the first Australian-built, steam-powered, paddle-wheel ferry, PS Surprise, commenced a regular passenger service between Sydney Cove and Parramatta.

Funded by Henry Gilbert Smith, chairman of the Commercial Banking Company (now NAB), unfortunately, it was not financially successful, and Smith sold the vessel to a Hobart operator the following year.

In 1834, Edye Manning launched a timetabled regular ferry service along the Parramatta River, with three paddle-wheel steamers, Emu, Black Swan and Pelican, the journey taking approximately 90 minutes from Sydney Cove to Parramatta. The service was taken over by successive ventures that expanded the fleet.

Blcak Swan Sydney ferry in 1844

PS Black Swan, c1844, stopping at a wharf on Sydney Harbour.

The Hunters Hill Museum reveals, “On 7 March 1835, the Australian Steam Conveying Co. was formed to take over Mr. Manning’s venture. Subsequently this service was taken over by CE Jeanneret who added the Pheasant to his fleet in order to compete with the Lane Cove River service, which had now been established by DN Joubert...

“Joubert’s ferries subsequently included Kirribilli, Wommerah and Aegeria. Over the passage of years a great rivalry developed between the two French families (Joubert and Jeanneret) and their respective ferry services…

“In the early part of the 20th century, there were no less than 12 ferry wharves on the Parramatta and Lane Cove Rivers for which the Council was responsible.”

The Paramatta River Steam Company, 1865

The Parramatta River Steam Company was formed in 1865 to take over the Parramatta River operations. However, although the service was popular, there were limited wharves along the route, so boatmen waited at popular points and charged commuters a fee to row passengers ashore from the tarrying ferries.

One of these was near Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum, where two punts shuttled across Parramatta River between Abbotsford and Bedlam Point. One catered to disembarking ferry passengers, the other, Bedlam Ferry (founded 1834), carried road traffic from the historic Great North Road (since renamed Punt Rd on the north bank).

The tidal Parramatta River silted up over time, making it impossible for deep-hulled ferries to travel up-river. From 1928, the service stopped at Meadowbank Bridge for 64 years. It wasn’t until December 1993, after dredging of the river and the introduction of shallow-hulled RiverCat catamarans, that ferries were able to resume carrying passengers further upstream to Rydalmere and Parramatta, then Wentworth Point for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

PS Comet Sydney ferry in 1843

PS Comet. From 1843 she plied the Parramatta ferry service.

Moved to Melbourne in 1853, then sold to New Zealand in 1862 but sank en-route.

North Shore Sydney Ferry History

In 1790, a military encampment was established at Woodford Bay in Cameraygal country on the Lane Cove River, which repelled the Indigenous inhabitants over the next 15 years – including battles with resistance leader Pemulwuy.

In October 1794, the first land grants in the district of 25-30 acres apiece (10-12ha) were issued to 27 soldiers of the NSW Corps.

Timber cutters established themselves in the region, followed by tanners, manufacturers, settlers, and ex-convicts.

The history of Sydney ferries would not be complete without the story of one ex-convict, Billy Blue. He was a Jamaican soldier who was originally transported to Australia to complete the last two years of a seven-year sentence for stealing sugar, was made a water bailiff by Governor Lachlan Macquarie.

Initially an oyster seller, in 1807 Blue was granted an exclusive license to establish a north-south ferry shuttle rowing across Port Jackson, from Dawes Point to McMahon’s Point, servicing the expanding settlements on the North Shore.

Sydney ferry operator Billy Blue

Ferry operator Billy Blue alongside Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, Botanic Gardens, 1834.

(This portrait was made shortly before Billy died in May). Painting: John B East

In 1817 Macquarie granted him 80 acres (32.3ha) of land on the southern tip of McMahon’s Point, now known as Blues Point. By 1830 he had enlarged his fleet to 11 vessels, which he commanded wearing a blue naval officer coat and top hat, earning him the nickname ‘The Old Commodore’ by Governor Macquarie.

In 1830, a regular Sydney ferry service began operating between Balmoral Beach in Mosman and Balgowlah in North Harbour, in close proximity to Manly. Meanwhile, other operators set up ferry services criss-crossing Sydney Harbour.

With the introduction of steam-powered vessels, regular services operated between the city and northern suburbs from 1942, eventually coalescing in a public company, the North Shore Steam Ferry Co. Ltd, in 1878.

In 1900, this entity was reincorporated as Sydney Ferries Ltd, which in time took over most of the independent operators – except rivals the Port Jackson & Manly Steamship Company.

After repurposing several old vessels and commissioning new, Sydney Ferries coalesced as the world’s largest ferry operator in both fleet size and the number of passengers. Between 1891 and 1922 they operated 27 K-class double-ended steam ferries (all named after Aboriginal words), many of which were decommissioned after the opening of Sydney Harbour Bridge in March 1932, when passenger numbers halved from a peak of over 44 million a year.

Following the NSW Government’s takeover of Sydney Ferries in 1951, due to financial difficulties, more of their fleet was sold or broken-up.

PS Huntress Sydney ferry in 1855

PS Huntress (centre left) paddle-wheel ferry en-route to Manly Cove, c1855

Manly Ferry History

Henry Smith, who financed the first paddle-wheel steamer ferry service to Parramatta in 1831, was also known as the ‘Father of Manly’ after he began developing some of his land between Manly Cove and the Pacific Ocean as a tourist resort in 1853.

Smith initially chartered a paddle-wheel steamer, PS Huntress, to bring tourists for occasional day trips from the city. However, without a wharf, it had to anchor in Manly Cove, with passengers transferring to row boats to reach the shore - risky in choppy seas.

Smith then purchased an interest in the Phantom steam-powered ferry and built a wharf in Manly Cove, which, at 61 metres long, enabled the double-ended vessel to safely dock.

The first ferry laden with tourists moored at Manly Wharf on 6 October 1855. By 1859, Smith had established a regular shuttle service between Manly and Sydney Cove.

After extending Manly Wharf by 50 metres in 1868, and adding new vessels, five years later, in 1873, Smith sold the lease on the wharf and his share in the Manly commuter ferries to new operators, who within two years sold the interest to John Carey, founder of the Daily Telegraph newspaper. In 1877, in partnership with three other businessmen, Carey formed the Port Jackson Steamboat Co. Ltd, which was reincorporated in 1881 as the Port Jackson & Manly Steamship Company (PJ&MSC).

The successful venture acquired new larger vessels to cater to public demand, most of them double-ended, to avoid the difficulty of having to turn around in the tight confines of Sydney Cove.

According to the history of Sydney ferried archived in the State Library of NSW, Port Jackson and Manly Steamship Company “during the 1890s depression and, in a dispute with Manly Council in 1893, lost its access to the main Manly wharf.

“In the same year a group of disgruntled Manly residents formed the Manly Co-operative Steam Ferry Company Limited. The rival operators engaged in a fare cutting war until the new co-operative was absorbed by the Port Jackson company in May 1896.”

PS Narrabeen Sydney ferry in 1898

PS Narrabeen, 1898, on route to Manly. Photo: Henry King

Current Sydney Ferry Services

The NSW Government, following their acquisition of Sydney Ferries in 1951, contracted its operations and maintenance to the Port Jackson & Manly Steamship Company. However, in 1974, they assumed control of Port Jackson and Manly Steamship Company too.

Sydney Ferries Corporation is the NSW Government agency that owns the current fleet, overseen by Transport for NSW, and the public ferry network services are operated under contract by Transdev Sydney Ferries (a subsidiary of French multinational Transdev).

Sydney Ferries operates services on ten routes, with its central hub at Circular Quay, although other private operators, such as Captain Cook Cruises and NRMA (My Fast Ferry) run ferries along parallel or separate routes. Other operators run commuter services in Pittwater to the north and Port Hacking to the south.

There are no ferries operating in Botany Bay, although the NSW Govt is building public wharves at La Perouse and Kurnell to create a water connection between the north and south at the entrance to the bay.

Since the introduction of the fast hydrofoils in 1965 (retired 1991), which skimmed the 10km journey between Manly and Circular Quay in 15 minutes, a dual express and regular commuter service has operated between Manly and the city. The hydrofoils were replaced by JetCats (1991-2008), succeeded by the current Manly Fast Ferry (2009-).

Recent history of Sydney ferries is MV Freshwater

MV Freshwater, launched March 1982, seen here at Manly Wharf in Feb 2023. Photo: Alec Smart

Sydney Harbour has recently seen the return of three of the four Freshwater-Class ferries, the first of which, MV Freshwater, began service in 1982 on the City to Manly route. These large 1150-capacity, double-ended vessels have endured through all weather conditions and remained popular with commuters, unlike their successors – the trouble-prone Emerald-class II ferries.

Three Emerald IIs, Fairlight, Clontarf and Balmoral, were introduced in 2021 with much-publicised ‘wave-piercing hulls’, designed to overcome the large swells that rolled in occasionally from Sydney Heads, which their predecessors, the Emeralds were not built to withstand.

Meanwhile, the Freshwaters were scheduled to be phased out. However, public pressure to reintroduce all four of the Freshwater ferries increased after the three new Chinese-built Emerald-class IIs recorded approximately 80 major defects in their first year of service.

List of Sydney Harbour ferries here

Ferry routes and timetables, public and private:

Sydney-Manly ferry history here

To read more stories about Sydney's colourful history, go to Balmain history here, Cronulla history here and Marrickville history here.


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