Dictionary of Sydney

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Mort Bay

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Mort Bay

Mort Bay is enclosed by Simmons Point, the Balmain shoreline and Ballast Point. It was originally named Grose Bay after Major Francis Grose, Lieutenant-Governor of New South Wales. An early use of the name appeared as the location of a grant of 100 acres (40 hectares) by Grose to Captain David Collins, the Deputy Judge-Advocate of the colony, in 1794. [1] Collins made no attempt to develop the property however and the grant lapsed. It was unsuccessfully contested in England in 1840, by Collins's nephew, the Reverend Charles Collins Trelawny. [2] By then the forgotten land had been included in the 550 acres (223 hectares) granted to William Balmain in 1800. [3]

The area became known as Waterview Bay after the house Waterview was built on the Balmain grant by Roland Walpole Loane in 1830. [4]


In 1854 Captain Thomas Stephenson Rowntree, master mariner and shipbuilder, bought part of the Strathean Estate fronting Waterview Bay. [5] Set in the neck of the bay, the land had a sheltered, deep waterfront. With TS Mort and JS Mitchell, Rowntree formed the Waterview Dry Dock Company in 1855. [6] The dock opened under that name on 1 January 1855. [7] With the introduction of steam-driven vessels a dry dock was a necessity, because apart from the government's Fitzroy Dry Dock on Cockatoo Island, then under construction, there was no commercial facility south of Bombay. The first steamer entered the dock on 12 February 1855. [8]

Rowntree leased the Waterview Dry Dock for shipbuilding but the Peninsula and Oriental Company took it over in 1858, leaving him as a sub-lessee. His business began to decline when the Fitzroy Dock, contrary to earlier guarantees, began to undertake non-government work. Rowntree withdrew from the company in 1861 after his 1860 petition to the governor against this 'ruinous competition' failed. [9] Disappointing profits caused the dock to be leased to various shipping companies, ship repairers and engineers. [10] Mort's Dry Dock was the business name by 1863. [11]

In 1866 Mort took over the dock himself and later brought in the marine engineer Thomas Macarthur as a working partner, renaming the firm Macarthur and Co. Following Macarthur's death in 1869, Mort developed the general engineering side with his new manager James Peter Franki. Imported locomotives were assembled on the site, and in 1870 the works put into service the first locally produced locomotive.

On Mort's death in 1878, James McDonald, the Mayor of Balmain, persuaded the local council to rename the bay Mort Bay in honour of the industrialist. [12] The dock expanded its operations and became the colony's largest private firm. In number of employees, it was second only to the New South Wales railways. [13]

Later owners

Labour unrest and other factors during the postwar recovery led to the closure of the dock on 12 November 1958. [14] On 16 January 1959 liquidators sold the site. The merchant Albert G Sims bought the land, excluding the iron foundry, intending to conduct his scrap metal business there. [15] He subsequently withdrew from the sale when his lawsuit against Leichhardt council's rejection of a development application, though successful, imposed stringent conditions.

In March 1963 Australia National Line (ANL) successfully proposed the use of the site to build vessels to service a ferry service to Tasmania. ANL bought part of the northern waterfront from Sims who retained the remainder of the site intending to build a motel to be used in conjunction with the passenger service. In 1966, Associated Steamships unsuccessfully requested approval for a steel-handling wharf and terminal. However ANL successfully applied for a second berth in the same year. [16]

With scant regard for its heritage, Sims demolished the main buildings and had the debris bulldozed into the dock. [17] Between 1968 and 1969, the dock site was completely paved with bitumen. [18]

Container-based shipping

In 1966 the Maritime Services Board drew up a ten-year plan for the development of new container berths at Balmain. [19] Leichhardt council had refused an application for a container wharf in 1965 but the Maritime Services Board had been given the power to override local concerns. [20] The dock buildings were demolished and bulldozed into the dry dock as filling to create graded areas for a new container wharf. The Mort Bay container wharf opened in 1969 but, as with the larger facility at neighbouring White Bay, the wharfage lacked back-up space for truck movements. Those restrictions contributed to the government's decision to build a major terminal at Botany Bay. [21]

Public housing and open space

The site was earmarked for public housing, with some private dwellings, in 1985. [22] Despite strong objections from local property owners, the government proceeded to build 210 dwellings on 3.5 hectares with 3.8 hectares set aside for open space. [23] The complex, and Mort Bay Park, opened on 16 September 1989.

The buried dry dock was outlined with low stone walls in the central parkland area as a reminder of past use.


[1] BH Fletcher, 'Grose, Francis (1758–1814)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 1, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1966, pp 488–89; Register for the County of Cumberland and Elsewhere: 1792–1808, State Records New South Wales, 7/444, p 45; 'Collins, David (1756–1810)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 1, Melbourne University Pres, 1966, pp 236–40

[2] Collins Papers, State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library manuscript 700, vol v; PL Reynolds and PV Flottmann, Half a Thousand Acres, Balmain. A History of the Land Grant, Balmain Association, 1976, pp 96–98

[3] State Records New South Wales, SZ97, Colonial Secretary, Register of Land Grants: 1795–1800. Land and Property Information Centre, Old System Register of Grants and Leases, 7 February 1800–8 April 1809, series 3, p 38

[4] E Young, 'Rowland Walpole Loane, Esq., His Presence on the Balmain Peninsula', Descent, Journal of the Society of Australian Genealogists, vol 35, pt 4, December 2005, pp 151–56

[5] Land and Property Centre, Old System Title, book 27, no 513

[6] GP Walsh, 'Rowntree, Thomas Stephenson (1818–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 6, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1976, p 69

[7] Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Jan 1855; Sydney Morning Herald, 2 April 1855, p 5a

[8] L Lynch, 'TS Mort, His Dock and Balmain Labour', M Kelly (ed), Nineteenth-Century Sydney; Essays in Urban History, Sydney University Press in association with the Sydney History Group, Sydney, 1978, p 83

[9] G P Walsh, 'Rowntree, Thomas Stephenson (1818–1902)' Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 6, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1976, p 69; Sydney Morning Herald 6 Oct 1855, p 3c

[10] A Barnard, 'Mort, Thomas Sutcliffe (1816–1878)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 5, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1974, pp 299–301

[11] Sands Sydney Directory, 1863

[12] J Flower, 'James McDonald, Architect of Balmain 1814–1902', BArch thesis, University of New South Wales, 1976, p 82, citing Balmain Council Minutes, vol 5, p 205

[13] M Solling and P Reynolds, Leichhardt: On the Margins of the City, A Social History of Leichhardt and the former Municipalities of Annandale, Balmain and Glebe, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1997, pp 137–38

[14] Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Nov 1958, cited in L Bignell, 'Mort's Dock and Engineering Co Site – Balmain', report prepared for the Heritage Council of New South Wales, Sydney, 1984, p 12

[15] Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Jan 1960, cited in L Bignell, 'Mort's Dock and Engineering Co Site – Balmain', report prepared for the Heritage Council of New South Wales, Sydney, 1984, p 12

[16] 'Balmain residents against Cargo Trucking from Mort Bay', unpublished report, June 1975, cited in L Bignell, 'Mort's Dock and Engineering Co Site – Balmain', report prepared for the Heritage Council of New South Wales, 1984, Sydney, p 13

[17] L Bignell, 'Mort's Dock and Engineering Co Site – Balmain', report prepared for the Heritage Council of New South Wales, Sydney, 1984, p 13

[18] The Link (Balmain), 7 Oct 1968

[19] Maritime Services Board, A Ten Year Port Redevelopment Plan, September 1966, p 32

[20] Cumberland County Council, Planning Scheme Ordinance, Section 31 (b), 1963

[21] J Bach, A Maritime History of Australia, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1976, p 407

[22] New South Wales Department of Housing, Mort Bay Housing, 1985

[23] Sydney Morning Herald, 20 July 1985; Sydney Morning Herald, 4 September 1985