• Richard Michell

The North Remembers...Manly Ferry, King in the North!

Barney Kearns started a Manly ferry service in 1830, operating an on-demand transfer by sailing boat between Balmoral and Manly, but the operation we know today, with ferries between Circular Quay and Manly, was started in 1853 by Henry Gilbert Smith. He sought to encourage land purchasers and day trippers to his newly laid out Brighton village and was wildly successful. Both the village and the ferry prospered. By the late 1850s half a dozen vessels operated on the route.

The flagship South Steyne (1,781passenger capacity). Photo credit: Manly Warringah Pittwater Historical Society

Brighton and Manly Steam Ferry Company formed in 1865, operating a 63ton, purpose built, double-ended steel paddle steamer, the Phantom. Its funnel was painted white with a black top. The colour scheme and double ended design became synonymous with Manly ferries. In 1877 the company re-organised as the Port Jackson Steam Boat Company and commissioned a vessel from Scotland, the paddle steamer Fairlight, starting on the Manly run in 1879 with a top speed of 12 knots. Its appearance and layout set the template for future ferries.


In the 1890s, passengers enjoyed cheap food, orchestras and, on the Brighton, access to a wine bar complete with an aviary of canaries. In 1907, the Port Jackson and Manly Steamship Company Ltd. was formed and ran the service for the next 70 years. With the 1903 introduction of a tram network radiating out from Manly Wharf, residential settlement grew, the transport network expanded rapidly up the Peninsula. Commuter traffic rivalled holiday.


From 1910 to 1952 eight ferries were purpose built or modernised to service the demand. The flagship was the South Steyne. Built in Scotland in 1938 it was 1,203 tons and could carry 1,781 passengers! In 1971 the operation attracted a takeover bid by Brambles Industries Limited. but the new owners had little interest in the ferry service, attracted by other activities of the company which included servicing offshore oil rigs.


At the time of the takeover there were four ferries in operation – South Steyne, North Head, Bellubera and Baragoola. In 1973 the Baragoola was withdrawn and in early 1974 Brambles announced that the Bellubera was also to go, causing public outrage and a Save the Manly Ferries campaign. Petitions containing tens of thousands of signatures were delivered to state parliament and, after various twists and turns, the State Government took over operations, but would operate only two ferries – North Head and Baragoola.

This didn’t work and in 1976 the government announced it would build three new ferries - the Freshwater class. The first, the Freshwater, was commissioned in 1982 and was followed by the Queenscliff in 1983 and the Narrabeen in 1984. A fourth, the Collaroy, was added in 1988. The style of these ferries was in the tradition of the old ferries and they have proved popular with passengers.

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