Manning River – A Portrait

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From the 1860s until 1913 when the train came through to the Manning Valley, all goods came and went by ship through the Manning River.

Ships came under sail and later boats from the North Coast Steam Navigation Company were guided by tugboat through the entrance of the river at Harrington. Sometimes three or four boats were linked by tow rope to the John Gollan tugboat, which kept them clear of sandbars and the breakwater-wall. Once the ships were inside the river mouth, they made their own way up river.

The pilot, in charge of the station, was boss of the boatmen and kept a logbook with daily information about the signals, how far the channel was open up river, the put down markers and the sounding of the bar. All this was done by rowboat, though on odd occasions he used the tugboat. The logbook included the latest weather report. The bar was very difficult and dangerous to cross.

Many ships, 40 or more, had been wrecked between Crowdy Head and Old Bar. When a ship was in trouble, the pilot and crew skilled in rocket practice went out to fire a rocket with a light rope of about finger-thickness to the stranded ship. People on board hauled it in. Fastened across the top of the boat, that line pulled out a heavier line with the so-called breeches-buoy.

This was no more than a lifebuoy with a pair of shorts, wherein people slipped their legs and were pulled ashore. Hundreds of lives were saved that way. The ships that had safely entered the river at Harrington then sailed on to moor at Coopernook, Croki, Scott’s Creek and Taree, to tie up at the Wingham wharf where the rest of the goods were unloaded and local produce taken to be delivered by return trip to Sydney or other ports of call.

Stores and goods were transferred to droghers (flat-bottomed boats for shallow water) that plied river and creeks to provide the Manning Valley people with their needs. Horse-drawn carts at Wingham wharf, waiting to be loaded up with goods, were handled by the wharfinger and stock and station agents who also handled shipping. Ship’s crews did the unloading, and casuals worked the wharf. If their boat happened to arrive at Wingham on a Friday, the men could look forward to the town’s late night shopping, when hotels were open and the band played on the corner of the street. Friday night was brawl night in Wingham, when there was some fight between the locals and some sailors, who slugged it out at the corner of the pub to everyone’s enjoyment – until the sergeant of police showed up. He would ask for assistance from two or three bystanders and break up the brawl with following arrests. Come Monday, the ship, with the crew back on board, left its mooring, and the town was peaceful again.

The outgoing freight of produce and timber dominated the import, and there was always the coming and going of passengers. Women in particular preferred the boats with first and second class, giving a clean and smooth trip compared to the dusty and cramped one by coach. Sometimes the boats had to stay berthed for a day or so at Harrington, waiting for the sea at the bar to go down to make a safe crossing.

When railway engines and rails were brought in as ship’s cargo, a special wharf was built for this purpose about a mile further down, where they were lifted off and transported on railway trucks. The railway started its regular service in 1913, which reduced the coming and going of the ships. By the 1930s the railways offered contracts, which the ships, unable to guarantee arrival-times, could not match. Rail lines ran directly to Darling Harbour and Cooks River, where goods were handled and processed.

This was the end of the era of shipping, and the building of boats ended. One hundred and thirty four boats, registered as ships, were built on the Manning. About the same number, including boats from elsewhere, were lost in the river and between Tacking Point and Cape Hawke. Grounded ships, not turned into wrecks, were dragged out, and recovered bits and pieces were sold for a few pounds.

Ships had been built as far up the river as Wingham, where the flat-bottomed punts and droghers suited the shallow water conditions. On the road between Wingham and Taree is a paddock, still known as ‘The Shipyard’. A gully runs to it and was used to slide the boats in the water. On the opposite side were two or three shipyards, with many more down-river. The building of ships used to be spread as far as Coopernook and Harrington. None were left by the 1940s.

The Manning River is the only true delta in Australia with two distinct river mouths. Lack of water could not keep both entrances open at the same time. The southern passage, a short cut, more direct than the one via the Harrington inlet, was often used in the early days, depending on the size of boat. Boats of 50 and 60 feet weighed as little as 12 tons; larger boats weighed from 50 to 60 tons. With enough water over the bar, this short cut was popular until the late 1860s, when this southern entrance shoaled up and became known as Old Bar.

By 1867 parties on board the boats became a popular diversion. Entertainers kept the passengers amused as they travelled along. People went for picnics to Crowdy Head, and where the boat picked them up at the wharf, their carts, buggies and sulkies were left in the big paddock next to the wharf and the horses, unharnessed, could feed till their owners returned. In Harrington they got off the boat and hired the rock carting train to Crowdy’s quarry to walk up to the Head to spend the day. The ladies were in their long, white dresses, with hats and parasols. The men wore cream shirts, ties and waistcoats with panama hats.

Internal river trade made all boats available come New Year’s Day, when the North Coast Steamship boat was chartered to take the picnic party of 300 people from Wingham to Farquhar Park on the northern side of the southern river entrance. Other ships and droghers would pick up at all the wharves and swell the crowd to 400-500. In the same way, crowds of people could attend Taree and Wingham shows.

People’s daily needs were attended by a butcher’s boat, a baker’s boat and the grocer’s boat and as the industry became more sophisticated, butter-factories came into being. The large butter factory on Mitchell’s Island eventually shifted its machinery to Taree, and the school kids from Wingham went on the cream boats to the only high school in Taree.

The early cattle industry had developed and provided more beef than there was need. The nearest railheads at Maitland and the lack of freezing and boiling down works made the sale of surplus beef difficult. Wingham built its own abattoirs, which in itself created a great way to steal cattle. They killed and skinned them and boiled them down to tallow. Even the bones burnt to ashes. Collected for lamp black, they were also used in the making of dyes and printers’ ink. Nothing was overlooked. Left over pieces and hooves boiled to a residue, became industrial glue that was put in casks and rowed to a boat on standby.

Timber was shipped directly from Wingham wharf to New Zealand. A valley under the southern escarpment had exceptionally tall, borer-resistant turpentine trees. They were cut to a length, too long to be slung on-board ship. When the boat headed out to New Zealand, a couple of very long logs were seen down one outside. Another couple down the other side was added for balance. Boats got overloaded and tipped. No doubt ‘sweet words’ were spoken when the men had to take the cargo off and start all over again.

Then there was a time that the ships entering the river got bigger, and the shoaling of the river had to be under regular control. Where the banks were wide and the river broad, bucket dredges and suction dredges and cutting dredges were needed to dig out the variable mud, sand or gravel bottom. The shipping trade gone, both river and creeks have silted up and weed is consolidated.

The forever changing panorama of life makes it instructive to look back and reflect sometimes.

Re-written for Manning Valley Historical Society by Mieke van Werdt.

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