April 29, 2020

History on the Harbour: Mort's Dock, Balmain

The maritime history of Sydney and Port Jackson is well known to many, but hidden away in the many nooks, crannies and alcoves around the harbour are the smaller stories that tend to be lost to time. The former Mort's Dock at Balmain is one such story.

Boys play unaware of the history on which they stand (Roderick Eime)

On a recent canoe exploration around Balmain and Birchgrove with Sydney Harbour Elder Tours, guide Mike Butler and I happened upon some abandoned infrastructure along the shore adjacent to the Balmain ferry wharf. I joked that it looked like a submarine pen, but it was enough for us to want to investigate further.

It was a glorious autumn day and families and individuals were enjoying a brief respite from COVID-19 restrictions with some exercise in the park. Clearly, these sturdy concrete works, encrusted with decades of rock oysters, had a story to tell - and indeed they did.

Drone shot looking east toward Sydney CBD (Roderick Eime)

Today the location is known as Mort Bay Park and is an expansive flat grassed area enjoyed by locals living in the newish medium-density housing that surrounds the repurposed industrial site formerly known as Mort’s Dock. Of historical significance is the fact that Mort’s Dock was Australia’s first ‘dry dock’, where vessels were removed from the water and hoisted out for hull repair.

In 1853, Thomas Sutcliffe Mort along with partners established the colony’s first dry dock and slipway at was then known as Waterview Bay in the suburb of Balmain. The site grew considerably over the years to the point where maintenance was carried out on large cargo vessels as well as the associated steel and metal works required to support the dock. Workers lived cheek-by-jowl in nearby housing that Mort himself had created and sold to finance the dock’s expansion through the late 19th-century. The site even produced the colony’s first locomotive and was the birthplace of the Australian Labor Party in 1891, derived from unionists working at the dock.

Mort's Dock at the turn of the century. (Australian National Maritime Museum)

The heritage-listed Dry Dock Hotel stands nearby and is almost as old as the dock itself. If those walls could talk!

By the turn of the century, Mort’s Dock was a fully-fledged shipyard and by the 1930s was constructing corvettes and frigates for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) which, as it turned out, was just as well.

HMAS Deloraine is launched from Mort's Dock. 26 July 1941 (AWM)

One of the more notable vessels launched at Mort’s Dock was one of the RAN’s 60 Bathurst-class corvettes, 14 of which were launched from Balmain, including the HMAS Deloraine in 1941. The ‘Del’ served valiantly throughout the war on escort, anti-submarine and minesweeping duties and took part in the sinking of the Japanese submarine I-124 off Darwin in January 1942, one of the first Japanese vessels to be sunk in WWII, just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor and mere days before the fall of Singapore. Moored at Darwin, the ‘Del’ provided anti-aircraft support during the first bombing in February and was miraculously unscathed after the raid which saw almost 40 ships either sunk or badly damaged.

HMAS Deloraine, built at Balmain, served throughout WWII, surviving numerous close calls.

Postwar, the dock gradually wound down and was finally closed in the late ’50s after the advent of container shipping reshaped the maritime cargo industry. The site was sold and much of the infrastructure scrapped by SIMS with little or no regard for heritage. Australian National Line (ANL) used the site for container storage for a few years, much to the displeasure of local residents of the rapidly gentrifying suburb.

Initially by ANL, and later by the NSW Government, the site was levelled and filled, burying much of the archaeological material beneath the lush green park that residents enjoy today. In a nod to history, parts of the old dock around the foreshore were left as a poignant reminder of the glory days of Balmain’s once-flourishing maritime industry.

A plaque erected on the site commemorates this history. (R Eime)



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