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Docklander - September 2015

03 Sep 2015

Docklander - September 2015 Image

The unbroken line of human endeavour

For John Williamson, ship-building is not just a passion, but also part of his family history.

Born in Belfast, once home to the world’s biggest shipyard, Mr Williamson is today one of the regular volunteers helping to restore the Alma Doepel in Docklands.

But his connection with ship-building began much earlier, in fact, even before he was born. Both his grandfather and great uncles helped to build the ill-fated Titanic.

“Coming from that city, almost everybody worked in ship building or serviced the ship-building industry,” Mr Williamson said. “It was the biggest shipyard in the world for a while.”

An engineer by trade, Mr Williamson worked in copper mines in Zambia, Africa, before becoming a fitting-out manager at a shipyard in Cork, on the south coast of Ireland.

After eight years the shipyard closed and Mr Williamson and a couple of friends from the shipyard began a company which used computer-generated manufacturing in the clothing industry.

Eventually, in 1988, Mr Williamson, his wife and their six children immigrated to Australia, settling in Melbourne.

“At the time we were thinking about Australia, unemployment (in Ireland) was at something like 20 per cent, which is sort of unheard of in Australia,” Mr Williamson said.

“In Ireland you’ll get five years of high unemployment and five years of low unemployment and then it will go bust again.”

Mr Williamson said his children had thrived in Australia, with four still living locally, one working with the United Nations in Thailand and the other running a restaurant in London.

And Mr Williamson himself has also had an interesting time since moving to Australia 27 years ago.

After his children left home he and his wife decided to do “something different” and moved to Magnetic Island, where they ran a small restaurant for three years.

But after tiring of what he calls “the same paradise everyday” and with grandchildren arriving, the pair moved back to Melbourne, where they bought a French restaurant on Clarendon St, South Melbourne.

Since retiring six years ago at age 65, Mr Williamson has spent much of his time volunteering at Shed 2, helping to restore the Alma Doepel.

A Glen Iris local, Mr Williamson travels into Shed 2 in Docklands around three days a week to volunteer on the restoration project.

He remembers enjoying an afternoon sail on the tall ship in the early 1990s and was keen to get involved in the project when he heard about it.

According to Mr Williamson, the fact that the Alma is the last of its kind makes it an extremely important project.

“I also think its important for young people to see and experience how people lived in the past and how hard life was for people on a ship like this,” Mr Williamson.

“I think it’s also a beautiful thing to produce a ship like that, which would normally have a working life of about 20 years and now its 110 years and it’s still here.”

“It will survive, and there’s no reason now that it shouldn’t survive forever if people are passionate about it.”

And the ship also represents a historical transition in shipbuilding according to Mr Williamson,

“This ship marks the transition. It’s the last example of the old system where, for 500 years, we used wind to drive a ship.”

“When you consider that the Titanic (powered by steam engine) was launched seven years after this ship, you can see the transition between the modern era and the ancient era,” Mr Williamson said.

Apart from the historic value of the ship itself, Mr Williamson says for the volunteers who are rebuilding the ship, there’s a great sense of purpose.

“When I worked in shipbuilding that was the great thing about it,” he said. “You work on a ship for two or three years and at the end you produce something that sails away and there was a great sense of satisfaction in that.”

“If you build ships that’s a big achievement, it’s the end of an unbroken line of human endeavour for the last 6000 years.”

 

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