90 years since the Greycliffe ferry disaster

The partially submerged remains of the ferry <em>Greycliffe</em>, following the collision with <em>Tahiti</em>. 40 lives were lost in the disaster. ANMM Collection 00036858, Samuel J Hood Studio.

The partially submerged remains of the ferry Greycliffe, following the collision with Tahiti. 40 lives were lost in the disaster. ANMM Collection 00036858, Samuel J Hood Studio.

The sinking of the Greycliffe ferry on 3 November 1927 remains the most significant accident on Sydney Harbour to date. Forty lives were lost when the ferry collided with the Union Steamship Company’s liner Tahiti. The tragedy had a marked impact on the city – many old Sydney families can still recount their personal connections to the disaster, particularly those associated with the suburbs around Vaucluse and Watsons Bay where many of the victims lived.  It inspired significant plot points in the novels Waterways by Eleanor Dark (1938) and Careful, He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliott (1963).

Today, on the 90th anniversary of the disaster, we tell the story of Betty Sharp, the teenage girl who had a haunting impact on the recovery teams at the time of the accident and through subsequent retellings of the disaster.

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‘Good housekeeping, you know. Economy, common-sense.’

View of McMahons Point, from 1937, showing the boat building yards including Holmes yard on the far left. Image: ANMM Collection 00037893.

View of McMahons Point, from 1937, showing the boat building yards including Holmes yard on the far left. Image: ANMM Collection 00037893.

On 2 June 1949 a small advertisement appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald. It was for the sale of Hegarty’s Ferries, a family-owned service which at that time operated between Circular Quay, McMahons Point and Kirribilli. The whole enterprise was now up for sale, including the ‘diesel-engined boats, its wharves, offices, and equipment’. The owners, the well-known Hegarty family from Drummoyne, were heading south to Victoria.

A surprising purchaser stepped forward to take on the business – three women, headed up by Maud Barber. Maud, although no stranger to the Sydney harbour scene, bought the business along with her daughter and Miss Jean Porter. Maud was married to the boatbuilder and naval architect Arthur Barber, best known for his design of Rani, the first ever winner of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, in 1945.

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The ‘indescribable horror’

Photograph of an injured man

Unidentified injured man and policemen at Greycliffe disaster, 3 November 1927
Samuel J Hood Studio
ANMM Collection

On 3 November 1927, the Union Steamship Company’s RMS Tahiti collided with the Watsons Bay ferry Greycliffe off Bradley’s Head. It became known as Sydney’s worst maritime disaster and etched itself into the minds of those who witnessed scenes of ‘indescribable horror’ on the harbour on that sunny afternoon. Continue reading

ANMM members at Garden Island

Last week on a perfect Sydney springtime day a group of museum members caught the ferry from Circular Quay to Garden Island for a fun and informative walk around the naval base with guides from the Naval Historical Society.

Although now connected to the mainland, Garden Island was originally in fact a small island that since 1788 has been used for naval purposes – from growing food to repairing naval and commerical ships. In 1946 the land between Potts Point and the island was reclaimed and the Captain Cook Graving Dock was constructed. This dock is where we take our own HMAS Vampire and HMAS Onslow for their major maintenance works.

If you haven’t been to Garden Island and soaked up some of our naval history then add it to your list of things to do. Only the northern part of the island is open to the public but it’s a nice way to spend several hours – wandering through the Naval Heritage Centre, inspecting the memorials, monuments, guns and missiles, and then climbing up the small hill and the top of the building there to get wonderful views of the cityscape and harbour.

Garden Island – Fleet Base East for the Royal Australian Navy. Photo by Lindsey Shaw

Sydney cityscape from Garden Island. Photo by Lindsey Shaw

And there are free barbeques provided so bring along a picnic. Or you can go to the Salthorse Cafe and relax by watching the harbour go by.

If you want to see more of the island than is open to the general public then keep an eye on our members’ page for our next outing to this Sydney Harbour gem.

ANMM members with one of the 105 mm guns from the WWI cruiser Emden which was defeated by HMAS Sydney in November 1914. Photographer Jeffrey Mellefont