Lake Macquarie History

Early Boat Building in Lake Macquarie

Boatbuilding up to the 1870s

The establishment of the steam sawmills in and around Cooranbong about 1875 resulted in a sudden increase in the quantity of timber available for export. Prior to this time, no more than half a dozen ketches had been simultaneously engaged in the trade, but now this number was very inadequate. This encouraged a number of the Cooranbong townspeople to enter the shipping industry, and at least ten new cargo vessels were built within a period of about three years. Some of them were constructed at Cooranbong, where a man named Kenah opened a shipbuilding yard in 1874. The first vessel launched at his shipyard was probably the large ketch Sea Bird, described as 'the fastest ketch on the coast’ soon after it was launched. Sea Bird boasted a fifty-foot keel, a sixteen-foot beam, and a hold of five feet. It was built to the order of the Tobin brothers of Mandalong and Cooranbong.

An even larger boat came from Mr. Kenah's shipyard late in 1877. This was the Emily and Mary, built for the Coulter brothers who also managed the Heart and Hand Hotel at Cooranbong. The ketch measured sixty feet in length, possessed a sixteen-foot beam, and a hold of five and a half feet. An item in the Newcastle Herald described the launching ceremony, in which Emily, a daughter of Samuel Coulter, performed the christening in the traditional fashion. Samuel Coulter was to be the captain of the new craft, which the newspaper correspondent described as being 'the style of vessel that suits the Lake Macquarie trade-carrying a large cargo on a light draught of water'. Samuel and Edwin Coulter operated a small fleet of ships in partnership with the Blackford family, who also resided at Cooranbong. Two years before the Emily and Mary was launched, the two families were together operating at least four vessels on Lake Macquarie. Two of these craft, the Maggie Scott and the Queen, seem to have been utilized mainly in taking hardwood from Cooranbong to Newcastle. Two other small ketches, named Star of Peace (17 tons) and Sea Gull, made regular trips to Sydney with oak shingles, the cargo averaging approximately 65,000 shingles for each boat. The Sea Gull met with an untimely end in the spring of 1876, while endeavouring to cross the lake entrance bar. From a newspaper report of the incident, we learn that the two vessels Star of Peace and Sea Gull left Sydney together at three o'clock one morning, bound for Lake Macquarie. The Star of Peace, being the smarter of the two ketches, outsailed the other and arrived at the Lake Heads in time to have the benefit of a flood tide. The Sea Gull arrived two hours later, and her skipper decided to wait outside the bar for the next high tide. Unhappily, however, a gale blew up and the helpless vessel was driven onto a reef and totally wrecked. All hands on board the craft were drowned.

Other ketches which assisted in the export of timber from Cooranbong after 1875 included the following which were listed in the Newcastle Almanac of 1883: Free Trade (39 tons), Leo (21 tons), Alfred Edwards (34 tons), and Agnes Rose (35 tons). The last three were first registered in 1876, and the Free Trade a year earlier. The Growler, built by a man named Rinah, could have been one of the last of the ketches to enter the lake trade, in 1879. Altogether, there were fifteen or more vessels plying to and from Cooranbong during the period from 1875 to 1880. As time moved on, however, the sail-driven ketches were gradually replaced by steam-powered vessels of various sizes and designs. The Newcastle Almanac of 1883 reported that twelve vessels were at that time employed in the Lake Macquarie timber trade. The building of boats at Lake Macquarie was itself an important facet of the timber industry. One of the first shipwrights at the lake was a man named Matthew Kenah, who transferred from Newcastle to Cooranbong in 1874. The following news item was contributed by a resident of Cooranbong and reported in the Newcastle Chronicle (23 July, 1874) as follows: ‘Shipbuilding is again going ahead here. Messrs. Kenah and Braid, shipbuilders of Newcastle, have started to build four vessels for the Lake Macquarie trade. They will have the first one finished before Christmas. She is to be 45 feet on the keel, and will be capable of carrying from 20 to 30 tons.’ Kenah's partner in the business was John Braid, but a number of other shipwrights were employed as well. A number of very seaworthy ketches were launched from Matthew Kenah's shipyard, including two of the largest ones on the lake. After a few years of operation at Cooranbong, Kenah moved his works across the water to Swansea, where he was in business by 1883.

A correspondent to the Newcastle Herald in 1877 described Mr. Kenah's activities at Cooranbong, and then mentioned two other shipbuilders at the lake: ‘We can boast of our ships that are being built. Mr W. Spears has one built to order, which will be ready for launching in aboput ten days. Her length is 90 feet, beam 20 feet, depth of hold 12 feet and she is all built of spotted gum and threatens to be the most faithful craft that has ever been built in New South Wales. Her decks are of spotted gum and her frame is large enough for a ship of 1000 tons. She is built by Mr Batten, to the order of Mr W. Spears Senior. Then we have the Monaghan vessel, which is 70 feet on keel, 19 feet beam and 6 feet depth of hold …She is just on the point of launching.’ Both of these vessels were primarily for the coal-carrying trade. The builder of the first one, William Batten, constructed a number of small boats at the northern end of the lake. The one he built for Mr Speers was the largest vessel he ever attempted, and it was named William Brooks in memory of the original landholder of the Speers Point estate. There is little to say about the Monaghan vessel except that two brothers of that name carried on shipbuilding at Cardiff Point for a number of years. A visitor to the lake reported that the Monaghans were preparing to launch a schooner of about 200 tons, ‘the largest vessel yet built on the lake’. Many settlers thought it was too large and would never succeed in crossing the entrance bar. We hear nothing more of this large schooner but the one under construction in 1877 was lighter. Apart from the Monaghan brothers’ shipyards, the Cardiff sawmill close by also had facilities for building and launching small ships.

Extract from ‘Reid’s Mistake’ by Keith H. Clouten. (1967, pp. 220-222). Published by Lake Macquarie Council.