Dictionary of Sydney

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King's Dockyard

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King's Dockyard

There are probably many things about the white settlement of Australia that now strike us as rather odd. One such oddity is that a colony on the other side of the world, accessible only by water, was not permitted to have a shipyard. This regulation, for the most part an attempt to protect the trade monopolies of the East India Company, soon proved to be impractical, and eventually the King's Dockyard was built. It stood on the western shore of what is now Circular Quay, roughly where the Museum of Contemporary Art is in 2008.

Sydney's first shipyard

As early as December 1788, Robinson Reid, the carpenter from the Supply, built Sydney's first boatshed, which was on the eastern shore. Out of this tiny hut, he then built the famous Rose Hill Packet, launched in October 1789 and subsequently employed in transporting provisions to Parramatta. According to the Deputy Judge Advocate David Collins, the convicts christened her with this tongue-in-cheek name. The ship also became known as 'the Lump', a fact that does not speak highly of Mr Reid's boatbuilding skills. In 1793 the Francis was assembled and launched, after being sent out on the Pitt in frame, to sail largely between Sydney and Norfolk Island.

In June 1797 a spot of ground was marked out on the western shore of the cove for a shipyard, and work on the King's Dockyard began in earnest. From the following year, official reports give a picture of a thriving centre of activity, with mention of tradesmen related to the dockyard's core business (shipwrights, caulkers, boatbuilders, labourers and watchmen), as well as others engaged in building the various facilities of the yard (brick and stone layers, plasterers and labourers). The gradually emerging facilities included a workshop, a storehouse for the joiners, a watch-house, an apartment in the dockyard for the clerk, a joiner's shop, a smith's shop, a steamer (for the timber) and a warder's lodge.

The first master boatbuilder

By 1802 about 28 men were regularly employed in the dockyard. Along with the lumberyard on the corner of High (George) and Bridge streets, the dockyard became one of the two biggest centres of convict employment in the early days of Sydney.

Even before the King's Dockyard existed, Sydney's first master boatbuilder had already been appointed. Daniel Paine, a promising young shipwright from the Naval Yard in Deptford, had arrived in September 1795 with John Hunter, who had selected him. Paine lasted less than a year in the position. For the first few months after his arrival, he busied himself with getting his own house and garden in order. There is very little evidence that Paine engaged in much boatbuilding during his tenure in the position, apart from probably doing some repairs to the Otter and building Bass and Flinders' second Tom Thumb. He did, however, seem to have a keen interest in timber. It is likely that he spent the bulk of his time marking out the special timber required for naval purposes, perhaps also cutting some. Through a combination of unfortunate events, Paine fell foul of the court. His previous association with radical thinkers, such as the Scottish Martyrs, exacerbated the trouble in which he found himself, and he soon left the colony.

The dockyard's heyday

In September 1796 Thomas Moore, former carpenter on William Raven's Britannia , was officially announced as Paine's replacement. By June the following year Moore had begun the construction of the King's Dockyard. Once in full swing, the dockyard engaged in surveys and repairs of vessels. In 1802, the Porpoise, Lady Nelson, Francis, Norfolk , and Bee were repaired here. Apart from the smaller boats required around the harbour, in Moore's time larger colonial vessels were also constructed at the yard. In 1800 Moore laid down the keel of the Portland, which was launched in 1816, some seven years after his retirement from the yard, as the Elizabeth Henrietta.

Something of a boom in boatbuilding in Sydney occurred during 1803 and 1807. Although several vessels launched at this time were privately built, Thomas Moore was also busy in the King's Dockyard. The Cumberland was completed in 1803 and the following year, the Integrity was built to an innovative design. She was the first vessel to actually be launched, rather than being floated off as previously. On the strength of her success, Governor King wrote home, convinced that if more shipwrights were sent, the dockyard could turn out a 38-gun frigate in less than two years.

England looks to the colonies for naval support

Even though ancient prejudices probably meant that King's enthusiastic proposal was ignored, his news reached home at a critical period of English maritime history. After hundreds of years of sea warfare, supplies of the slow-growing English oak (and especially the special pieces known as 'crooked timber'), that were necessary for wooden ship-building had reached an all-time low. Napoleon was contemplating the invasion of England, and hostilities had begun between the two countries that led to the famous battle of Trafalgar. England's dockyards therefore had very little timber for repair of the battle-weary fleet, let alone for building new vessels. Timber supplies from Europe had also started to dry up, so in 1802 Britain reluctantly began to discuss turning to her distant colonies for naval supplies. By 1804 this remote timber began to roll in.

In 1803, in direct response to this crisis situation, Thomas Moore was officially confirmed as the colony's Surveyor of Timber for naval purposes. This timber had been on the agenda from Arthur Phillip's original commission, and both Paine and Moore had previously been engaged in its location and harvest. But now, with a new urgency, Moore and the men from the King's Dockyard began harvesting local timber and getting it ready for export. This fledgling dockyard on the other side of the world had suddenly acquired international significance.

Moore's samples of Australian timber were sent back for examination in the English naval yards. The first load was hurriedly placed aboard the Glatton in May 1803, whose captain was in a rush to get back to the war. Another load went with the Calcutta in March 1804 – just after her crew stood ready to assist in the famous battle of Vinegar Hill – and another in the Sydney in August 1805. Although the crisis died down with Nelson's victory at Trafalgar, the Navy Board was still investigating Australian timber well into the 1820s. At the beginning of that decade, Commissioner Bigge called upon Moore to give his opinion on the local timber for naval ship-building. Moore had always been an enthusiastic exponent of the value of the colony's timber, and the fact that his opinion was sought some 15 years later, shows the great value of the experience he gained in the earliest days of the dockyard.

The end of an era of wooden ships

Thomas Moore retired to the Georges River in 1809, and William Cossar was placed in charge in 1812. He held the post until 1821, when it was given to John Nicholson. In 1833, after 36 years of operation and as the era of wooden ships was beginning to come to an end, the King's Dockyard in Sydney Cove was closed down.


Peter G Bolt, 'Thomas Moore: S/Purveyor of Timber', in Thomas Moore of Liverpool: One of our Oldest Colonists. Essays and Addresses to Celebrate 150 Years of Moore College, Bolt Publishing Services, Camperdown NSW, 2007, pp 62–104

Daniel Paine, The Journal of Daniel Paine, 1794–1797, in RJB Knight and A Frost (eds), Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1983

Donald Robinson, 'Thomas Moore and the Early Life of Sydney', Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 56 no 3, 1970, pp 165–92

Eric Russell, Thomas Moore and The King's Dock Yard 1796–1816, Somersby NSW, 1975