Published in Local secrets on 12 May 2016

History of the Balmain Shipyard

Balmain ferry and tug base,1985.Proof 845-10a.

For well over a century, the ferries of Sydney Harbour have been docked and maintained at the Balmain Shipyard, at the southern area of Mort Bay.

The exact year of commencement of Mort Bay being a base for ferry operations cannot be verified, but history indicates its use as far back as the 1860s. In any case, the yard is a symbol of Balmain’s long-gone industrial greatness and is the last dry dock still operating commercially in Sydney, apart from Garden Island.

Until the end of World War II, there were more than a dozen shipyards, boatyards dry docks located around Balmain, which meant lots of work and lots of people. The Dry Dock Hotel is the oldest licensed pub in the vicinity, opening in 1857 and one of many regulars for the thirsty painters, dockers and shipwrights after a hard day’s work. This sense of community still remains engrained in Balmain today and you can still grab a pint at this historic and treasured pub.

Balmain’s ferry service itself has a deep history. Beginning with a solitary boat in 1844, it expanded under the Balmain Steam Ferry Company and then absorbed in 1892 by the Balmain New Ferry Company. Sydney Ferries Limited bought out the company in 1917, with its 12 Lady Class vessels and the Balmain Shipyard joining one of the world’s biggest ferry operations. By 1932, when the Harbour Bridge opened and crippled their business, Sydney Ferries had 51 boats carrying 47 million passengers a year.

In 1975 a graving dock was installed allowing dry dockings. All vessels except the four 1140-tonne Freshwater Class boats on the Manly run are able to use this facility. The dock is in use 12 months of the year for scheduled and unscheduled dockings and vessel inspections by the relevant authorities.

The tradition of craftsmanship continues at the Balmain Shipyard today, as a highly skilled workforce maintains the entire Harbour City Ferries fleet, as well as naval vessels and tugboats.  You’ll find a number of trades working on this site: electricians, plumbers, fitters, shipwrights, painters and boilermakers, working and passing their unique knowledge and skills on to newer generations and apprentices.


Balmain ferry base, 1970.
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