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History lessons in Docklands

04 Feb 2013

History lessons in Docklands Image

By Tony Lewis

What do you do to help your 12-year-old son in a school project about Australia’s maritime history?

If you are Barbara of Essendon, you and your son Charlie set off one Saturday morning and cycle to Docklands to start your research.

Barbara and Charlie arrived at the furthest edge of Docklands, on Lorimer St by the Bolte Bridge. There, amid the rattle of needle guns, the chatter of pneumatic hammers and the buzz of sanders, they found an historic 80-year-old ship. Up on concrete blocks, the ship is being restored by a dedicated group of volunteers.

The ship is the Australian-designed and built steam tug Wattle and the volunteers are members of Bay Steamers Maritime Museum.

Wattle began her life in 1932 as a Great Depression project at the Cockatoo Island Dockyard in Sydney Harbour.  History used to say that Wattle was built to keep dockyard apprentices in work. However, research by Bay Steamers’ historians found that creating continuing employment for the senior tradesmen was the main reason for her construction, as well as providing an incentive for a private leaseholder to take over the dockyard.

After her launch in June 1933, Wattle worked for the Royal Australian Navy as a general workboat around Sydney Harbour and occasionally towed targets for gunnery practice outside the heads.

The navy laid her up in 1969 and she was saved from the scrap yard by a group of steam enthusiasts. A decade later, largely due to the efforts of Leigh Doeg (who operates Victoria Star out of Central Pier), Wattle came to Melbourne.

After a six-year restoration program, Wattle began steaming on the Yarra and Port Phillip, operated by Bay Steamers. From Victoria Dock (now Docklands) and Gem Pier at Williamstown,

Wattle conducted cruises for around the Port of Melbourne and the bay and was chartered for weddings, parties and corporate events.

Laid up for repairs in 2003 and close to the scrap yard again for lack of funds, Wattle was rescued by Sorrento Steam, a group of business men whose enthusiasm for Australian maritime heritage saw them prepared to buy Wattle and fund the restoration, with the work being carried out by Bay Steamers. And so the current project began.

Barbara and Charlie were escorted around Wattle and shown the two-cylinder steam engine, the concrete ballast removal, the hull plate replacement and the stripping and polishing of Wattle’s woodwork.

So fascinated was Charlie by all he saw, he cycled back to Wattle next weekend and volunteered for work. Once Bay Steamers convinced their insurers to lower the qualifying age from 18 to 12, Charlie was enrolled as a member and began his work under the experienced eye of volunteers many years his senior.

One of those is John Rogers, a retired marine engineer who has been involved with Wattle since 1988. John’s influence on Charlie must be serious – when Charlie graduated dux of his primary school last year, he said in his graduation speech that his ambition was to become an engineer on a steam ship! Wattle will be waiting for him.

Bay Steamers Maritime Museum, email  (JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), or telephone Tony Lewis (Chairman) 9846 1819, Jeff Malley (Secretary) 9876 2213.

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