She is the last of her class. Understated. Elegant. The soft glow of the midday sun bounces off her marine green and cream exterior. Worn surfaces are patched over and painted to look as good as new. You wouldn’t believe she’s 100. She is the Lady Denman Ferry and we are on an adult learning program to the charming heritage complex in Jervis Bay built to house this historic vessel.
It’s a perfect April day for enjoying the gardens and museum at the Lady Denman Heritage Complex. We are given a warm welcome and tour by President of the Board Dr Morgan Sant and Bridget Sant. In our company we also have our very own David Payne who curates the Australian Register of Historic Vessels. There is a wealth of knowledge between these three and we soak it up with enthusiasm.
The Heritage Complex is an exemplary story of the potential of volunteer initiated museums. There are over 200 dedicated volunteers here contributing over 3000 hours of work per month and just a few paid staff. Fortunately for us they also have a very generous team of volunteer caterers who do a beautiful lunch for us, a feast of salads, cold meats, bread, tea, coffee, delicious buttery homemade slices and fruit. All enjoyed dining on lace tablecloth covered settings overlooking the ferry of course.
The galleries are modest in scale but rich in content, beautifully presented and play host to a number of fascinating collections. The Halloran collection is my favourite, assembled by a local businessman it includes early navigational instruments, scrimshaw, Dresden-style porcelain figurines of famous captains, cutlasses and a curious collection of commissioned paintings of local history. Perhaps even more intriguing are some of the touches that have been introduced by the galleries’ volunteers like these engraved beer bottles that adorn the tops of display cases.
The feature attraction, the Lady Denman Ferry is housed in a purpose built wing. It took 200 volunteers, a flooded area and a tractor to tow her into here where she rests on steel cradles. Although most historic vessel curators would argue in favour of displaying vessels in water rather than housing in a building, it is actually quite a treat to be able to view the underside of the ferry in such detail. It tells the story of the incidents that marked this ferry’s colourful working life and the dramatic journey back to Huskisson through odd lengths of timber patching up broken sections of the hull, rusted corners and knocked edges.
When retired from service in Sydney in 1979 Lady Denman was destined to be scrapped until an enthusiastic community lead by local business owner Dick Young petitioned a government minister for this Huskisson-built ferry to return home. It wasn’t until 1988 that the museum had its first buildings, in 2001 the current gallery to house Lady Denman was constructed and in December 2011 the museum celebrated the centenary of this rather lovely and historic Lady-class ferry.