The NSW State Government Dockyard and Engineering Works was established in 1913, at Walsh Island on the Hunter River. The site was selected by the first state Labour Government as a replacement for Sydney’s Cockatoo Island Dockyard, that had been taken over by the Commonwealth Government in 1913. It was also an opportunity for a significant demonstration by the McGowen Labour Government of its grand designs to use the political economy to encourage the greater industrialisation of NSW as a means to advance the socialist ideals of organised labour.
Walsh Island a mile long mud and sand spit at the junction of the north and south arms of the river, was one of seven islands in the Hunter River which were gradually reclaimed and now forms the eastern end of Kooragang Island. Dredging commenced in 1897 by constructing a rock wall and pumping silt dredged from the river, to raise the ground level 8 feet above high water. Continuous dredging and pumping by the NSW Public Works Department had by 1912 created enough land to build on.
Preparatory work by 113 workers commenced in early 1913, the keel of the first vessel was laid in June and the central workshop buildings were completed by October 1913. When the works were officially opened by Minister for Public Works Arthur Griffin on 27 November 1914, the Dockyard was spread over 32 acres. During World War 1 the works were limited by shortages of material, labour and money, and almost closed, but by the early 1920’s Walsh Island had become the centre of Newcastle’s Shipbuilding and Engineering industry.
The workforce grew to 2500 in 1920 not only producing ships but tons of pipes, buses, bridges, weapons, munitions, government rail carriages and rolling stock and steam tractor trucks.
In all, forty-seven vessels ranging from small wooden and steel punts, tenders, dredges, ferries, a pilot boat, several 6,000 ton steamers and a 15,000 ton floating dock were built. Newcastle’s first large vehicular ferry the SS Mildred was launched there in 1914 for the Stockton-Newcastle run.
The dockyard fabricated almost anything from bolts and castings, to general structural steel fabrication. With diversification it was able to compete effectively on the open market, without Government assistance. Unfortunately, no effort was made to help the Dockyard over the difficulties it faced as a result of the Depression.
The considerable cost of and the delays involved in transporting men and materials, damage done to submarine electric power cables laid across a busy waterway, and the cost of supplying such a large engineering complex isolated by water undermined the profitability. A change of government resulted in gradual loss of political support for the Dockyard, and many attempts to sell the site were unsuccessful.
The Dockyard was eventually abandoned in 1933 after the great Depression and finally dismantled when most buildings and much machinery were relocated to the Dyke End, Carrington between 1938-41.
In 1943 the Floating Dock was towed down river to Dyke Point to repair damaged wartime ships. In 1977 it was cut up for scrap.
The new Carrington Dockyard became an invaluable war asset, repairing 600 ships by 1945 and building 24 others of varying size.
Steve Ford, Ross Craig & Bob Cook Jan 2008
Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association