With the announcement this week by the NSW Government that Sydney ferries are to be privatised, it might be worth casting our eye back over the history of this essential Sydney service.  Maybe more than any of the other transport network that serves Sydney, the ferries can lay claim to shaping the very city we live in-helping create suburbs in otherwise isolated backwaters.

The first ferry service was the Rose Hill Packet launched in 1789 to transport goods and people between Sydney and Parramatta (then called Rose Hill).  This was closer to what might be called a punt then a ferry, it was powered by sail, oars or barge poles depending on the river depth.  As the population grew, private watermen, many being ex-convicts who had worked on the Thames, such as William Blue of Blues Point fame, offered private transport around the harbour as required, opening the possibility of expanding the settlement to places otherwise difficult to access.

It was not until June 1831 that the first time tabled ferry service began.  Sydney entrepreneur Henry Gilbert Smith and his brother had an 18m steam ferry built, the Surprise, to serve the run between Sydney and Parramatta.  The trip took about 3 ½ hours but the business only lasted until January 1832.

The next was a ferry actually powered by horses; four horses turned the paddlewheel of the Experiment, owned and operated by Benjamin Singleton. Singleton found it all too hard as well and sold the ferry to John Edye Manning who fitted it out with a steam engine in 1834.  Manning added a second ferry to the service, the Australia, and by 1841 had a fleet of four with eight running by 1844.

Manning dominated the ferry runs west into the late 1860s and had expended east by the mid 1850s.  In 1854, Manning began a semi regular service to Manly, serving weekend picnickers and holiday makers.  By this time though, the power of the ferry to open up land for development was encouraging speculators into the industry.

At Manly Henry Gilbert Smith (who had actually built the Surprise in 1831) began to lease land he owned there to develop it as a seaside resort.  To make it a success he needed transport to the isolated site.  Manning’s steam ships provided this at first.  However, Manning was more interested in weekend trade then any regular ferry and so in June 1859 Smith began his own regular service marking the start of the Manly Ferry.

In 1876 the Manly company was renamed the Port Jackson Steam Boat Company, later just the Port Jackson Steamship Company.

Ferries jostle for space at Circular Quay, c1886

Through the next two or three decades ferry services sprang up all over the place serving the rapidly developing harbour and riverside suburbs.  These included (but are not limited too) the North Shore Ferry Co (1878), the Balmain Steam Ferry Co (1882), the Watsons Bay & South Shore Ferry Co (1887) amongst others.

However, running ferries is expensive and the smaller operators struggled.  In 1900 the North Shore Steam Ferry Company became Sydney Ferries Ltd and soon after began buying up the runs of the smaller operators.

By 1921, Sydney Ferries and the Port Jackson Steamship Company ran just about all the ferry services on the harbour.  Between them they owned about 60 vessels and transported about 46 million passengers a year by 1931 (Sydney’s population at the time was about 1.2 million).

But ferries are only really profitable when there is not much competition.  In 1932 a big new steel bridge across the harbour drastically undercut the ferries’ viability.  The opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge cut ferry passenger numbers in half.

Ferries pass by the unfinished bridge, c1930

By 1951 Sydney Ferries Ltd had run out of money and were taken over by the State Government.  Although they were actually run by the private operators of the Manly ferry service for the Government, they were also in serious trouble.

A growing reliance on land transport by people living in the northern suburbs, rising costs of operating larger ferries needed to cross the open harbour, growing populations and poor public transport interchanges and integration all combined to make the Manly service totally unprofitable.  Even the introduction of new modern ferries and the space-age hydro-foil in 1965 could not help it.

In 1974 the State Government finally stepped in and took over and up until yesterday had been the major operator of ferries on Sydney Harbour for the last 38 years.

Let’s see how long the private operators last this time around (and how many of them we end up with)-I wonder if they can make it 120 years?