Shipping was vital to the early colony, as transport was so much easier by water than by land. Shipbuilding was banned until 1813, to prevent convicts from escaping. After that, deep water sites around Darling Island and in Johnstons Bay soon attracted shipbuilders. Banfield & Allen built a schooner and a ferry, Bower & Drake built a ferry, Chapman & Gunn built an iron coaster, H.E. Jeffery built an iron-hulled screw-driven vessel, P.N. Russell built in wood and iron, John Sands used wood and so did E.B. Swan.
They all began on a small scale but with large ambitions. The first Manly ferry was built in 1851 in Thomas Chowne’s yard. He acquired the site in 1840, conveniently next door to Goodlet & Smith’s timber yard, and built 13 vessels over the next twenty years. He later sold this site to CSR.
Before long these companies were overshadowed, first by the Australasian Steam Navigation Company then by CSR, but their impact on Pyrmont was profound. In the second half of the nineteenth century Johnstons Bay became a bustling centre of water-borne trade, prompting timber yards and iron works to come and provide the raw material for shipbuilding and repairs. Many shipwrights lived here, working for themselves or for larger companies. When CSR built the sugar refinery they had immediate access not only to deep water, but to engineers and shipwrights to service their ships.
In the heyday of shipbuilding and repairs, many families owned and raced 18-footer sailing boats: in this way the skills of the shipwrights were handed down through the generations. Large regattas were held every year until industrialisation made Balmain and other harbour sites safer and more attractive.
CSR took over the Johnstons Bay foreshore in the 1870s and 1880s, displacing the shipbuilders, and the Government bought Darling Island in 1899 so that the Sydney Harbour Trust could reclaim and redevelop the poorly controlled private wharves. Soon Johnstons Bay was alive with CSR’s fleet and Darling Island was in continual use by overseas ships. Shipbuilding was squeezed out.