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HomeHistoryThe history of Manly Wharf

The history of Manly Wharf

Manly Wharf, a Heritage-listed transport hub with a dining and beverage quarter, was first built by Henry Gilbert Smith in 1855 to service excursion ferries from the city.

Incidentally, Henry Smith was no relation to Howard Smith, the Victorian industrialist from which Manly Wharf’s new owners (June 2023), Howard Smith Wharves (HSW), drew their name.

Smith, the chairman of Commercial Banking Company (now NAB), was known as the ‘Father of Manly’ for developing the seaside town as a tourist resort from 1853. He oversaw construction of The Corso, Pier Hotel (demolished 1925), Hotel Steyne, St Matthew’s Church, a school and multiple cottage dwellings, as well as planting Norfolk Pines on the beachfront and constructing swimming baths in the cove.

Henry Gilbert Smith (1802-1886) + Fairlight House (1856-1939) his home on Delwood Beach, Fairlight. Photos: Wikimedia

Smith’s original Manly Wharf, ‘Ellensville’, at 61 metres long, 3.4m wide, was installed to enable ferries carrying tourists travelling from Sydney Cove to safely dock. Previously, Smith had chartered a paddle-wheel steamer for occasional maritime ventures from the city, which anchored in Manly Cove, the passengers transferring to row-boats to reach the shore.

The first commercial ferry arrived at Manly Wharf on 6 October 1855, bringing day-trippers and holiday-makers to the ‘Brighton in the South’ seaside suburb Smith almost single-handedly created.

After building Sydney’s first steam-powered ferry (the Surprise, which ran between the city and Parramatta), Smith then purchased an interest in the Phantom steam-powered ferry that commuted between Sydney Cove and Manly Wharf. By 1859, Smith had established a regular ferry service between Manly and the city.

Approaching Manly Wharf, 1856. Illustration: S.T. Gill (c/o State Library NSW)

In 1868, Smith received permission to extend Manly Wharf 50 metres. In 1873 he sold the lease on the wharf and his share in the steam-powered Manly ferries to new operators. Two years later, the founder the Daily Telegraph newspaper, John Carey, bought the business, and with three other businessmen formed the Port Jackson and Manly Steamship Company (PJ&MSC), which was incorporated on 23 January 1877.

The name ‘Manly’ was officially adopted for the popular seaside destination when Manly Council was constituted on 6 January 1877.

In 1878, the ferry operators extended the wharf further for the double-ended Fairlight ferry, a paddle-wheel-driven steamship, specifically designed for the Manly-City route.

Then in 1883, the decking was lengthened by another 45m to allow docking of their new, larger steamer, the PS Brighton, at 67 metres, the largest paddle-wheeled steamer to operate on Sydney Harbour. The same size as contemporary Freshwater ferries, the PS Brighton had a ‘summer’ capacity of 1,137 passengers utilising her exposed upper deck (reduced to 885 passengers indoors in winter and inclement weather).

‘Brighton’ paddle steamer ferry, Sydney Harbour, c1883-89. Photo: Mort family (c/o Mitchell Library, State Library NSW)

In 1888, catering to a burgeoning tourist trade, tea rooms and a bookstall were established on the wharf at the shore end, with a camera obscura above.

Camera obscuras, popular from the mid 16th century to the late 19th century, were darkened rooms with a small hole and lens on one side from which scenery outside was projected inwards for spectators. The image was typically directed onto a ceiling mirror, then reflected down onto a table around which viewers could gather. (This concept eventually evolved into the portable film camera – hence how the name came into being.)

According to the archive in the State Library of NSW, Port Jackson and Manly Steamship Company “during the 1890s depression and, in a dispute with Manly Council in 1893, lost its access to the main Manly wharf.

“In the same year a group of disgruntled Manly residents formed the Manly Co-operative Steam Ferry Company Limited. The rival operators engaged in a fare cutting war until the new co-operative was absorbed by the Port Jackson company in May 1896.”

Manly Wharf with the camera obscura building, 1900 (shortly before its demolition). Image c/o State Library NSW

Unfortunately, during enforced social distancing triggered by the 1900 bubonic plague, the camera obscura and tea rooms below were demolished. The plague pandemic, aka ‘Black Death’, started in northern China in 1855 and was spread worldwide by infected fleas brought in by black ship rats.

Eventually it arrived in Sydney via a vessel docked at Central Wharf in the city and the first casualty was an infected delivery worker on 19 January 1900. Because Australian health experts anticipated the plague’s arrival, authorities were quick and ruthless in their response, and during the process, wharves were modernised or demolished, slums cleared and a massive rat extermination program enacted.

In 1911 Manly Wharf was upgraded and lengthened again to 75m, then in 1916 a wooden clocktower was added amidst other improvements.

Manly Wharf, 1928, showing the clocktower and the new MV Dee Why ferry, and the East Pier just prior to its conversion into an amusement arcade. Photo: Northern Beaches Library

In the 1920s, the cargo wharf – now known as the East Wharf – was experiencing a loss of maritime trade due to the increase in trucks carrying goods, facilitated by the opening of the Spit Bridge (December 1924).

In 1927 it closed. With the impending opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (March 1932), then under construction, the ferry operators were given permission to convert the old cargo wharf alongside Manly Wharf into a funfair and an aquarium.

It reopened as Manly Amusement Pier with the slogan, “Built for Fun in ‘31” (although it opened to the public on 19 December 1930 – and the aquarium opened earlier, in May 1930).

The aquarium featured a stingray, a wobbegong and a grey nurse shark. However, the aquarium managers decided a tiger shark was a bigger attraction than the docile nurse shark and its two floor-dwelling companions. That was a misguided tactic; within a week (as is the nature of apex predators) the 5m tiger shark devoured its new tank-mate, the grey nurse.

An old postcard from the 1970s featuring Manly Fun Pier and the aquarium alongside.

The amusement pier, which included dodgem cars, a merry-go-round, a ferris wheel, mini golf, and vaudeville performances, was run by Richard Smith, who operated speedboat joy-rides around Manly Cove from alongside the wharf.

According to Wikipedia: “During its life, the Fun Pier saw a number of renovations (including a substantial renovation in 1980/81). It was eventually demolished in the late 1980s when the passenger wharf was extended and redeveloped in 1989.

“The new complex opened in 1990 and had an amusement centre in the basement level which was operated by the American company TILT. The amusement centre closed when the wharf was again substantially redeveloped in 2000.”

In 1928 ferry operators PJ&MSC introduced two identical new vessels to their fleet, the steam-driven Curl Curl and Dee Why, the first to be built overseas (in Britain) since the paddle-wheeler PS Brighton. Replacing two elderly vessels in their seven-ferry fleet, the Ku-Ring-Gai and Binngarra, the larger, 1587-passengers-capacity duo proved to be worthy investments.

Manly Harbour Pool in the 1930s.

In 1931 PJ&MSC opened a new attraction to ensure the new ferries, which could cross Sydney Harbour in a speedy 25 minutes, brought more thrill-seekers to Manly: the new shark-proof Manly Harbour Pool, on the western side of Manly Wharf.

The 3.6 hectare free-to-use pool was sheltered behind a 335 metre long, 3.4m wide timber promenade, which featured a lower level for bathers to sit or jump into the water as well as a diving platform, a slide and two additional slides on a floating pontoon.

The timber promenade was eventually washed away in the catastrophic 25-26 May 1974 ‘Sygna’ storm that caused major structural damage throughout North Harbour, including Manly Wharf, which had to be closed for repairs.

On 7 August 1939, a massive fire consumed Manly Wharf, starting in a milk bar and spreading rapidly through the timber structure. Causing £10,000 worth of damage ($460,000 in contemporary currency), the main wharf had to be substantially rebuilt as a result.

Manly Wharf, 1941, after the devastating fire. Photo: NSW State Records

In 1941 it reopened, but the silver lining saw new attractions installed in the amusement pier alongside, including a mirror maze and a ghost train.

Manly Wharf has undergone further adaptations and improvements over the years.

For example, when PJ&MSC introduced the premium-service fast hydrofoils in 1965, which halved the cross-harbour 10km journey time to 15 minutes, a pontoon had to be attached to the east side of Manly Wharf to facilitate their docking. This was to enable passengers to board and alight the smaller vessels, and prevent the massive steel foils from damaging the wharf.

Eight hydrofoils were employed during their 25-year operating period. The last two commissioned, MV Manly IV and MV Sydney, were capable of carrying 225 passengers.

Manly Wharf, January 1981, with MV North Head Ferry docked and a Hydrofoil approaching. MV North Head was previously the steam-powered MV Barrenjoey (one of the six Binngarra-class Manly ferries built between 1905 and 1922). In 1951, she was converted to diesel-electric power, completely rebuilt and renamed North Head. She was replaced by the Freshwater-class ferries in 1985. Photo-John Ward/Wikimedia

However, the last hydrofoil to cross Sydney Harbour, the MV Curl Curl II on 18 March 1991, was subsequently decommissioned and returned to Italy (where it was originally built) and renamed Spargi. It then saw service in Sicilian waters.

She is currently sitting in a dry dock in Messina, its service life complete. New owner, British entrepreneur and hydrofoil restorer, Andrew Heighway, who lived in Manly in the 1980s, is keen to bring it back to Australia, perhaps for a permanent museum exhibit.

The last four operating hydrofoils were replaced by three 268-seat JetCats, the less-popular high-speed catamarans, which coursed the City-Manly route for 17 years until their final voyage on 31 December 2008. One of them, Sea Eagle, renamed Sprinter, ended its days in Kazakhstan, irreparably destroyed by arsonists on 24 November 2019.

On 10 February 2009, the Manly Fast Ferry replaced the JetCats and today operators NRMA Insurance run a fleet of nine vessels on Sydney Harbour under the new name My Fast Ferry.

Manly Wharf was added to the New South Wales State Heritage Register on 18 April 2000.

Port Jackson and Manly Steamship Company tourist poster for Manly, c1945. Image: National Library Australia