enterprize sailing

Enterprize: The ship that founded Melbourne

By Steve Burnham

enterprise (-z) n. undertaking, esp. bold or difficult one, (FREE enterprise, PRIVATE enterprise); business firm; courage, readiness, to engage in enterprises.

On the banks of the Yarra River in the mid-to-late 1990s, in Melbourne’s Southbank precinct, the word “enterprise” was being put into practice in various forms.

Steel and concrete were flying at the new Exhibition Centre, but in one corner of this construction hot spot you could still hear the echoing sound of a hammer on wood, or the rhythmic rasp of a hand saw steadily cutting through solid timber.

By an old cargo shed on the river’s bank, in the grounds of Melbourne’s Maritime Museum, a ship was being built – a faithful replica of a 19th Century wooden sailing ship named the Enterprize.

Bicentenary fever hit Australia in 1988, and it appears that it was a contagious fever, as it was in that year also that the question of how to best celebrate the founding of Melbourne was put. The Australia Day bicentenary celebrations, although marking the beginning of the nation as a whole, were seen by many as having a large focus on Sydney. Of course such a focus was inescapable, given that the first settlement was made at Sydney, but in the south the need for a local focal point for Melbourne seemed to arise out of it.

The first landing of settlers at Melbourne occurred on August 30, 1835. One of that party was a fellow called George Evans, who later built the homestead called Emu Bottom, to the north west of Melbourne. The homestead survives to this day and is owned by Hedley Elliot. It was Hedley, following up on the history of Evans and of Melbourne generally, who first came up with an answer to the question of having a local focal point by suggesting – “why not build a ship to represent those first days of Melbourne?” And what better ship than that which brought those first settlers to the site of the city?

The ship would be the centre-piece to an alternative to Sydney’s founding day, and would be Melbourne’s very own tall ship. Appropriately, the keel was officially laid on August 30, 1991, by the banks of the Yarra River, not far from the site where the original ship must have first tied up.

This ship was the Enterprize, a 55 ton topsail schooner, 50 feet on deck, 15 feet two inches broad with a draught of eight feet three inches. The ship was built in Hobart in 1830 and was bought by John Pascoe Fawkner, credited as being the founder of Melbourne, five years later (see accompanying story below).

The then Governor of Victoria, Dr McCaughey, officially “laid the keel” and unveiled a plaque. The Archbishop of Melbourne blessed the undertaking in front of about one hundred guests and volunteers, including Irene Evans, the grand-daughter of George Evans.

Erik Eriksson was with the project from day one, and was the principal ship builder along with Tom Whitfield and Rick Mitchell. Tom, a Cornishman who served his five-year apprenticeship with Dixon’s boatbuilders in Exmouth, Devon, was there in the capacity of technical adviser as well as another pair of capable hands.

Erik has “messed about in ships” for years and is the grandson of Captain Sven Eriksson, the last master of the Herzogin Cecilie, one of the last sailing trading ships. Erik did not serve a formal traineeship, but could now be properly said to be one of the foremost shipwrights in the country due to his long association with this and similar projects, to the knowledge he has picked up from Tom along the way and from perhaps something more innate. But whatever the reason, the replica of the ship Enterprize would be nothing now were it not for the skilful and expert hands of Erik.

The launch: Tom Whitfield looks on as Enterprize readies to kiss the water

The keel was laid and the stem and stern posts and appropriate deadwoods were all assembled while the heavy keel was lying on its side. One inch manganese bronze bolts were used to fit these pieces together, some of the bolts up to three feet long. All of this was done even before the plans were finalised. “The keel, stem and stern posts were set up first to more or less give the public something to look at,” says Erik, “and to have something to officially begin the project with on August 30.”

Then the half model was made, with the dimensions of the already assembled backbone taken into account. The rest of the lines were taken off this half model. One quirk of the original ship, that the bows were not symmetrical but in fact one foot wider on one side, was be rectified in the new Enterprize.

The keel is one of the few pieces of new timber in the whole ship, and was cut from a grey ironbark tree on the north coast of New South Wales. The timber, when cut down to rectangular cross-section, was 375mm by 300mm by 14 metres long. The stem, stern and deadwoods are mainly ironbark and were donated by Nullarbor Timbers in the northern Victorian town of Echuca, on the Murray River. (An unusual name, given that Nullarbor roughly translates as “no tree”). A lot of this wood is believed to have come from old paddle steamer wharves that once dotted the Murray River’s banks. This same timber merchant supplied a lot of the wood for restoration of the Emu Bottom homestead.

It happened that one day Tom Whitfield was driving past Port Melbourne’s Station Pier and noticed that they were demolishing one of the old finger piers to make room for the new, and bigger, trans-Bass Strait ferry. A donation to the site foreman secured most of the good timber, all of it quality jarrah, which was later used to make some framing pieces for the new Enterprize. These are mostly twelve inches deep and six inches thick.

But there has been the case of a seemingly happy windfall of timber not in the end working out so well. Erik had been told that some lovely big trees had been felled in his area on the outskirts of Melbourne – big cypress trees and one huge oregon. The tree fellers were only too happy for anyone to take away the wood.

Erik went up and found some beautiful timber lying on the ground, and managed to get a couple of loads back to the ship, mainly pieces of the cypress, which were destined to become knees and such. He left the oregon trunk, 40 feet of straight grained timber, perfect for a topmast or spar, on the ground for the next day’s load. He would need some help with that one anyway. Erik arrived the next day just in time to see (through tears I imagine) the chain saw finishing off cutting the entire length into two foot pieces.

Rick Mitchell, who was an active volunteer from the outset and became a full-time member of the team, says that even actively chasing suitable pieces of new timber can be fraught with delays and difficulties. “We might find or be told about a tree or piece of wood that would be suitable, like a piece we heard about at Lavers Hill (90 miles from Melbourne) but by the time we got the lot back here we found that it was no good inside,” he says. “It was one of our constant problems – finding suitable wood.”

The frames would have originally been sawn, but apart from not really having the manpower or the time, Rick and Erik also did not have the trees available. Once again, a suitable second-hand source came to the rescue, this success stemming actually from another project’s failure.

A brewery had gone broke in Ballarat, north west of Melbourne, and was able to yield good New Zealand kauri suitable for the frames. This came from the staves of a huge brewing vat that was dismantled and sold off when the brewer went under. The frames (or they are really ribs) are built up to four by three inches from four laminates.

The ribs are housed into the keel, more than ninety in all, cut into the keel every fourteen inches along the sides. “The most I could manage was nine or 10 a day,” says Erik. Each housing is chiselled three inches into the hard keel, four inches wide and six inches up and down.

Although it certainly cannot be said that the job was rushed into, or that the project was started without advanced planning and forethought, there still arose odd little hiccups that one supposes besets any big boat project, be it a 19th century ship replica or even a modern cruiser’s construction.

In this case it came about that when the Enterprize’s backbone was set up and braced and the roof had been closed over the lot, the naval architect then came back with the final lines that showed six inches more freeboard than was allowed for.

The gabled roof, although a bit close, would allow access to the deck area alright, but this meant that the frame or rib endings would come too close to the lower outer reaches of the roof, or even end up touching it. Erik explains: “The regulations would not allow the ‘lean to’ to be higher than the shed it was next to, which is a converted cargo shed. After a fair bit of head scratching, there seemed to be only one solution, and that was to dig a hole under the stern and drop the whole lot down a foot or two.”

The solution proved adequate and kept everyone happy. When the ship was decked over, the shelter was taken down anyway, so as to be out of the way of setting up masts and general finishing up.

The planking stock, all of the above mentioned dimensions, came from an old wool store in Western Australia. Ironically, the all-jarrah shed was demolished to make way for redevelopment pertaining to the America’s Cup challenge races of 1987. Surely another case of a loss on one hand giving rise to a win on the other.

Each jarrah plank below the waterline required two hours in the boiler to bend adequately around the frames. The huon pine for the top planking (2500-odd super feet of it) actually comes from a dam building site of 15 years ago, on the Gordon River in south west Tasmania. Trees were cut down and left to lie where they fell. As the water level rose, the logs floated and found their way into an arm of the new water catchment, and it is from here that the logs for the Enterprize were retrieved, still like new after years of lying about.

Enterprize was built so that a significant part of Melbourne’s history would be preserved for the people of Victoria. The ship trust is a not-for-profit organisation.

The history (and why August 30)

enterprizepaintingbyrichardlintonBy about the year 1834, sheep and cattle numbers in Tasmania had increased to such an extent that fresh grazing land was being actively sought out.

The odd favourable account of suitable grazing land at and about Port Phillip, and the fact that one Edward Henty had already successfully set himself up at Portland Bay (the first permanent settlement in the future state of Victoria) spurred on John Batman to follow suit. (Painting by Richard Linton)

He sailed from Launceston on Tasmania’s north coast, entered Port Phillip Bay in May, 1834, and landed at Indented Head, on the western shore of the bay.

After a few days walking about the local district, getting as far as the mouth of the Yarra River, Batman met up with a party of Aborigines. For about £200 worth of goods (blankets, knives and the like) and the promise of more each year, Batman claimed to have bought about 600,000 acres by dint of the treaty the Aborigines had ‘signed’ with him.

Batman returned to his ship but could not sail at once due to bad weather, so he sent the ship’s boat up the Yarra, remaining at the river mouth himself. When the boat got back, the men reported good water and land six miles up. Batman’s famous line “This will be the place for a village” went into his diary, although the mark on his map was made on the south bank of the river, not where the city eventually grew on the north.

When Batman got back to Launceston, he swaggered into the Cornwall Hotel, owned by John Pascoe Fawkner, MLC, and proclaimed himself “the greatest landowner in the world”. George Evans, a frequent visitor to the Cornwall, listened to Batman’s narratives with keen interest. Evans had previously been a builder engaged with various government contracts, but by this time was the owner of 320 acres and a lot of sheep.

It didn’t take long for Evans and Fawkner to hit upon the idea of following up on Batman’s discovery, and soon after Fawkner found a suitable small vessel advertised in a Sydney paper. This was the Enterprize, and in a short space of time the ship was made ready for its voyage.

Evans, Fawkner, seven others (including a “ploughman” and a blacksmith) and two horses set off for Port Phillip. Not far into the voyage, however, Fawkner was persuaded not to flee from legal commitments in Launceston, so the ship was turned back and he went ashore under the pretext of seasickness.

After a few small adventures, the Enterprize eventually found the Yarra and, warping the ship upstream for a way, eventually moored at the same spot that Batman’s men had found. They chose this spot for the same reason as Batman’s party, for the fresh water that was available above some small falls (which have since disappeared).

On August 30, a plank was put ashore and the party set up tents and started clearing some land for growing vegetables. Some fruit trees they had on board went in as well. Evans, wanting a bit more comfort, set about building himself a hut, using mud and bricks from the ballast of the Enterprize.

So in actual fact, the credit for the founding of Melbourne, it seems, must surely go to those on board the Enterprize in that spring of 1835. Fawkner didn’t get there until October, and Batman didn’t show until November.

George Evans ended up being the only one that stayed, working first in Melbourne, then occupying a small run close by before moving out to what was to become Emu Bottom homestead.

So, as the passengers and crew of the Enterprize were really the ones who first settled there on August 30, this date has now properly become the day commemorated as the foundation of Melbourne.

The story first appeared in the British magazine Classic Boat