Sydney Harbour and her ferries are like peaches ‘n’ cream: you can’t have one without the other. The harbour has guided the shape and growth of the city over the 19th and 20th centuries, with ferries and other watercraft linking disparate parts of the city. For many, passenger ferries were – and still are – the easiest and most scenic way to travel around Sydney to take in a bit of sightseeing, or to get to and from work or school. Indeed, this was the case for a group of passengers who boarded the Greycliffe on a clear, sunny afternoon on 3 November 1927, bound for Watsons Bay.

his photograph does not represent any of the ferries discussed below, but does show ferries plying Sydney Harbour in the early twentieth century. This photograph does not represent any of the ferries discussed below, but does show ferries plying Sydney Harbour in the early twentieth century.
This photograph does not represent any of the ferries discussed below, but does show ferries plying Sydney Harbour in the early twentieth century

The Greycliffe, a modestly sized timber ferry with Captain William Barnes at helm, set out from the Quay at 4.15pm. This particular run was known as ‘The School Boat’ because most of the passengers were school children travelling home. After making its first (and last) stop at Garden Island to pick up dockyard workers, also homeward bound, the Greycliffe had a total of 120 passengers on board.

Meanwhile, the Royal Mail Steamer Tahiti was speedily making its way down the harbour towards the heads on an almost identical course. It was being skippered by pilot, and Watsons Bay local, Captain Thomas Carson. The Tahiti, carrying 300 souls, was on its way to New Zealand, and thence to San Francisco. The steel-hulled ocean-going passenger liner, which could carry up to 500 people, was three times the size of the Greycliffe.

When both craft were just off Bradleys Head, the Greycliffe suddenly swerved sharply left into the path of the Tahiti. The wheelhouses at either end of the Greycliffe hindered visibility from the bridge, meaning that Captain Barnes didn’t see the looming hull of the Tahiti until it was too late to act. The Greycliffe was cut in two, and 40 people were killed.

The collision of the Greycliffe and Tahiti remains Sydney’s greatest maritime disaster. It is said that it took the lives of a broad cross-section of Sydney society at the time, whose ages ranged from two and 81. Among the dead were an architect, six school children, three doctors, Australia’s first female pilot and the Mayor of Leichhardt. The inquest into the accident found that both Captains Barnes and Carson were at fault, as was the design of Greycliffe.

Now we move forward ten years or so, to 13 February 1938, to another tragedy involving a Sydney ferry. On this day, at two o’clock in the afternoon, a crowd was gathering at the No. 2 Wharf at Woolloomooloo. Charles Rosman, owner and captain of the Rodney, and his deckhand Norman, were walking up and down the wharf calling out to onlookers and selling tickets for ‘a trip down the heads following the Louisville’ for a shilling.

The Rodney was a timber passenger ferry, and was then only one month old. It had been issued with a permit on the 27th of January 1938 to ply for hire with a passenger limit of a grand total of 213, including the crew. This allowed for 151 passengers on the main deck, with a maximum of 60 on the upper deck. The USS Louisville was an American Navy cruiser which had spent a number of days berthed in Sydney. The American sailors proved to be popular fixture around town, wining and dining the ladies of Sydney, and no doubt breaking a few hearts.

Passengers on the listing Rodney, just before she capsized -
Passengers on the listing Rodney, just before she capsized

Just after 2pm, Rosman managed to sell all his tickets and filled the Rodney to capacity. The ferry left Woolloomooloo and headed out to the harbour in pursuit of the USS Louisville. Onlookers reported that the ferry quickly caught up with the Navy cruiser, following her ‘on her starboard quarter’. The Rodney then crossed the USS Louisville’s wake, turned slightly to starboard, and then travelled parallel with the cruiser, and slightly faster.

By this time, we find ourselves just off Bradleys Head – again. Most of the passengers on the Rodney were on the top deck waving their handkerchiefs at the sailors. Onlookers reported that the ferry had been dangerously listing to port. Suddenly the ferry tipped over, with one witness reporting that ‘it was all over in 40 seconds’.  Within minutes, the USS Louisville threw life bouys overboard and launched their lifeboats, while the Police Band, who had been seranading the cruiser on the Cambrai, sprang into action and rescued many from the capsized craft.

The inquest later found that there had been over 100 passengers on the top deck, some of them standing on top of the seats, others on the wheelhouse. Sixteen people died when the Rodney capsized, but unlike the dead of the Greycliffe, they did not represent a broad cross-section of society. Most of them were young, mostly single or divorced working class women, many of whom had been identified by the clothes and jewellery they had been wearing that day.