Ugly, but ferry reliable

Ugly, but ferry reliable

By Ashley Smith - Royal Historical Society of Victoria

While not the most stylish vessel with its boxy design, this ferry (photographed sometime before 1929) was vital in carrying various civilians and dock workers across the Yarra from Spencer St to South Melbourne for around 40 years.

Ferries of various shapes and sizes have been used to cross the Yarra since the 1830s, with the earliest being the rope-pulled punts, such as the one that ran at the site of Princes Bridge. The first steam ferry services in Melbourne (going to Williamstown) were launched in 1838, and by the 1850s a ferry service, licenced to Archibald Cook, carried passengers across the Yarra from Spencer St to Clarendon St in South Melbourne. While Archibald would boast in 1882 (The Argus, May 23) that he went through “28 years without accident”, he was less boastful about complaints of overcrowding that had occurred late in his service’s run. It also was strictly a passenger ferry, with no room for livestock or vehicles.

By 1883, the Harbour Trust got to work on the infrastructure required for a new ferry service, with excavation works for docks on the Spencer St end and the southern side of the river. In the meantime, the Illustrated Australasian News (June 13, 1883) reported that the new ferry would be square in shape, and “be of such beam that several loaded carts and wagons, irrespective of passengers, can be conveyed at once”.

In June 1884, the new steam-powered ferry was launched at Mr. Johnson and Co.’s Tyne Foundry, located on what would later be the Exhibition Centre site. Christened Lady Loch by Daisy Johnson, the daughter of the ship’s builder, it was described by Mr Bruce (a Harbour Trust member) as “a thing of use and not beauty” (The Herald, June 24). However, what it lacked in looks it made up for in size: it was 59 feet 6 inches (or more than 18 metres) long, and 36 feet 4 inches (or more than 11 metres) broad. Designed by Harbour Trust engineer W. M. Rennick (who supervised the construction of the Queen’s Bridge), the Lady Loch had an iron frame, with a deck of Kauri pine. It was powered by boilers that worked at pressure up to 100lb to the square inch, and cost £9500. At either end was a moveable stage that was lowered by a steam engine to allow passengers and vehicles aboard. For those concerned that Archibald Cook was losing his livelihood to this new ferry, do not despair, he didn’t go home empty handed as the Harbour Trust paid him £860 to give up his licence and his ships.

The first voyage of the Lady Loch was on August 29, 1884, with the fare being three pence for a one-horse vehicle (or one shilling a day) and up to 1 shilling for four horses (or two shillings a day). A few hours into its first service, it had its first accident when it hit the South Dock too hard and caused the guard chains to come off. By 1885 The Argus (June 10) reported “unsatisfactory results” due to “imperfections in her machinery”. Despite the accidents, the Lady Loch provided a dependable crossing for those who didn’t want to waste energy crossing the Yarra by detour to any of the other existing bridges. By 1920 the ferry was still providing a service from 5am to midnight, reportedly hauling around 523 passengers during a 20-minute period, with many of the regular passengers being wharf labourers or coal lumpers going to the docks for work.

The ferry continued to receive criticism, especially by annoyed civilians who would prefer a bridge. One impatient South Melburnian expressed their frustration to The Argus (November 1, 1907), criticising the “lumbering ferry” for a 10-minute wait, and reminding everyone that despite the government setting aside £20,000 for a new bridge nearly 30 years prior, no progress had been made. This wasn’t the first or last such complaint, as since the 1860s the Victorian Government had been considering a bridge at Spencer St, going as far as running multiple design contests, yet for whatever reason the plans would be constantly shelved. It didn’t help that the aging boat continued to have mishaps, like in May 1917, when a cable snapped mid-crossing, causing the ship to run adrift for around 60 or so yards along the slow current before it was halted.

It was only in the 1920s that the authorities started to take the demands for a new bridge seriously, especially in response to traffic congestion. Initial borings were drilled into the Yarra in 1923, and while there would be further delays to construction, the ferry service was already on its last legs. The Williamstown Chronicle (July 21, 1923) reported that the ferry “was not showing a profit”. Strangely enough, while being a long-running Melbourne staple, there appears to be little fanfare or an exact date on the Lady Loch’s final trip. In a 1926 article about the government pushing for legislation on the new bridge, The Herald (October 4) reported the ship had “ceased running” sometime prior, with a motorboat service taking its place. By May 15, 1928, The Age advertised that the Lady Loch was up for auction, and by June 26, 1930, The Argus displayed a photo of a workman swinging his hammer to tear apart “the old Spencer St ferry”. Any ferry service that did remain at Spencer St was discontinued as the new bridge opened in 1930.

The Spencer Street Bridge was a double-edged sword. While it did make the trip to South Melbourne and back easier for vehicles, it was also the beginning of the end for Melbourne’s docks as many Melburnians knew them. Not only did the bridge cut off the inner-city wharves to the rest of the river, but it also reduced an everyday sight of the Yarra to scrap metal •

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