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The building of Launceston's Kings Wharf

Cargo on the newly completed Kings Wharf in 1918 (Weekly Courier image)

In August 1912 the Hunter Report on the future of shipping services on the Tamar River recommended the construction of a new wharf in Launceston.

With cargo and passenger ships getting bigger and an expanding apple and pear industry the Launceston Marine Board had engaged English civil engineer W. H. (Henry) Hunter to provide a plan for the port of Launceston.

At the time, the wharves of the Launceston port were in the North Esk River but bigger ships needed deeper shipping channels and better facilities with access to rail services.

Henry Hunter (1849-1917) had been involved in the design and operation of the Manchester Ship Canal and was the British government’s nominee on the panel of consulting engineers for the Panama Canal.

He spent a month examining the Tamar River and its existing infrastructure.

In his history of the Port of Launceston Authority in 1983, R. A. Ferrall, summarised Henry Hunter’s recommendations:

  • The development of an overseas trade area with a deep-water port at Long Reach or Bell Bay connected to Launceston by rail.

  • The construction of new wharves at Home Reach, Launceston, to provide for interstate trade.

  • The removal of rocky obstacles in the river.

  • The excavation of a canal at Haystack Point extending to Ti-Tree Bend, thus eliminating Stephenson’s Bend.

  • The building of a dry dock at Launceston.

  • The purchase of a powerful bucket dredge and other equipment.

  • The acquisition of as much foreshore land as possible by the Marine Board.

  • Sewage discharge into the North Esk should cease and a method of sewage treatment begun at once.

Henry Hunter apparently noted that the Launceston City Council was “dumping up to 20,000 tons of sewage solids into the river every year and the Marine Board had to dredge it out again!”

Kings Wharf photographed from Trevallyn in 1928 (Weekly Courier image)

R. A. Ferrall (later Sir Raymond) was the port authority’s longest serving master warden and was able to note in his history the wisdom of many of Henry Hunter’s recommendations:

“The first is the remarkable accuracy of his forecasts, the soundness of his suggestions, and the speed and relatively low cost of his work. But secondly, the

Marine Board itself acted boldly and courageously.”

The Examiner of August 2, 1912, said Mr Hunter strongly favoured Launceston remaining as the main shipping port but this would require “a re-arrangement of the whole of the present wharf accommodation.”

“Mr Hunter therefore recommends that the main wharves should be erected on the Inveresk side of the river, facing Home Reach, and near the site of the present cattle jetties.”

Backed by broad community support for the Hunter Report the marine board moved quickly to implement its recommendations.

Dredging work started and the marine board ordered a bucket dredge, to be called Ponrabbel, from a Scottish shipyard.

The declaration of war in Europe understandably slowed progress on the wharf and sadly the newly completed Ponrabbel was sunk by the German raider Emden on its way to Australia.

Henry Hunter was apparently concerned about the voyage and had told the Marine Board that the dredge, not designed for crossing oceans in wartime, was “a craft that can neither fight nor run away.”

In November 1914, HMAS Sydney, accompanying the convey of ships carrying Australia’s first contingent of troops for the war in Europe, disabled the Emden near the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean.

A replacement Ponrabbel was ordered and subsequently arrived in 1921 and went on to serve the Marine Board for 60 years.

Work on the new Launceston wharf started in 1915 with the driving of 1000 piles. Construction of the framework took 2200 cubic metres of timber even before the decking was installed.

It was intended that all interstate ships would berth at the new wharf from 1916 and there were calls for a tram service and a railway link.

The loss of the convenience of the North Esk wharves for the business community was a subject of considerable discussion and the move to the new wharf was criticised by some people.

There were also concerns at the cost of the new wharf.

The construction of another bridge across the North Esk, at the bottom of Charles Street, was not foreseen by Henry Hunter but was judged as crucial in providing access to the new wharf.

At the October 1916 meeting of the Launceston Marine Board it was decided that the new facility would be called Kings Wharf. Other names were canvassed, including Hunter’s Wharf.

The Marine Board reported that it had completed construction of the wharves “the main portion of which were 1000ft (300 metres) in length.” Two sheds, 450ft (137 m) in length and 60ft (18m) in width had also been completed.

But there was conflict over the new wharf, the planned Charles Street bridge and connecting the railway and municipal tramway.

There were a number of inquiries and even a Royal Commission before the new wharf came into full use in 1917.

It was a new Kings Wharf that greeted returning World War I soldiers from Launceston and Northern Tasmania. A generation later it was be the farewell place for servicemen and women going off to World War II.

Over 40 years Kings Wharf was extended and redeveloped as it became the centre of maritime cargo handling in Northern Tasmania.

And for four decades it was the passenger terminal for the Bass Strait ferries and other ships that carried Northern Tasmanians to Melbourne, Sydney and other destinations.

Kings Wharf’s role as a passenger terminal ended in the late 1950s when the State Government decided to move the Bass Strait service to Devonport.

The advent of roll-on, roll-off ships and large container vessels saw the bulk of cargo landed at new facilities at Bell Bay.

(Published in the Sunday Examiner on 13 January 2019)

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