Inside the Collection

Sydney’s public transport – Ferries

Model of the Sydney ferry, Lady Woodward, of 1970
Model of the Sydney ferry, Lady Woodward, of 1970. Powerhouse Museum collection. Gift of State Transit Sydney Ferries, 1993. 93/373/1


The ferries of Sydney are as synonymous to tourists and locals alike as the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House. Ferries provided Sydney with its earliest public transport system. Over 20 years before steam railways began here in 1855, Sydney was using steam ferries to carry passengers, goods, vehicles and livestock across and around the harbour. Ferry services enabled suburban development on the harbour foreshores by taking Sydneysiders to and from work during the week and to picnic grounds on the weekends.


They were used to inspect the latest ship entering Port Jackson, took prospective land buyers to inaccessible harbour locations and became the unofficial symbol of Sydney before construction of the Harbour Bridge. Once the Bridge opened in 1932, the inner-harbour fleet virtually withered overnight. However, petrol shortages and transport restrictions during the Second World War extended the life of the ferry services for a short time. Even old, laid up ferries were used and larger ones were even taken over as substitute warships. After the war years the ferries were in trouble with competition from private cars and buses. In 1951 the government took over inner harbour services followed by the Manly run in 1974.


Drawing of Manly ferry
Manly ferry

Crossing The Heads in a Manly ferry as the swell rolls through from the open sea is always the most memorable part of a trip to Manly. My brother was a ferry commuter in the 1970s. He says that you could always tell the regulars from the tourists as the former had their heads buried in the Sun or the Mirror as the sea water washed over the decks, casually lifting their feet to keep dry while the tourists were terrified. This was taken to extremes however one night in 1923


… the Burra Bra was dipping and rising, then burying her nose into the swells, spray flying over the bridge and water running all over the lower deck. She was halfway across The Heads when one mighty wave slammed into her on the port quarter, a massive wall of solid water, disintegrating with an explosive roar… Dozens of windows were broken, seats with passengers on them, were wrenched from their fastenings and slid across the rolling decks, the sliding doors on the port side were stove in and shattered, leaving the sea to pour into the lower decks… four people were injured, one badly.

Photograph upper deck and loading ramp of the Many ferry, Baragoola
Upper deck and loading ramp of the Many ferry, Baragoola, by Hamish Stewart, taken during the last months of its operation, 1983. Powerhouse Museum Collection. P3379.


Graeme Andrews in his book “Sydney Ferries” tells of other Sydney commuters  travelling on the Manly ferries in the 1930s:

On the business hour ferries there were often twenty or more men balanced along the lower rail as the ferry eased to her (Sydney) berth. A whole ‘boarding party’ made the leap from ferry to wharf. Occasionally someone ‘went in the drink’. ‘Jumping for it’ was less popular when the ferry was leaving Sydney. The five minute bell clanged, and deckhands cried out ‘hurry on please’ as the upper gang plank was removed. The lines were taken away as the bottom planks were removed – telegraphs tinkled and the screw frothed – then a whir of turnstile, running feet, a flying leap and success – or not! Sometimes a briefcase went to Manly and back in the care of a deckhand while its owner waited, sheepishly, for that ferry to return – having baulked at the last second.


Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator, Transport

6 responses to “Sydney’s public transport – Ferries

  • Your pictures are as beautiful as your words! I live in Sydney and this inspired post made me see it through new eyes.

  • Hi have been going through all our things stored “my daughter says she wants die before me and not clear our house
    I found 2 posters from the Sydney Ferries 1992 and would like send them down to the archives .
    One is “Mums thrown in free when kids trip on harbour = valid 13 th January to 30th April

    The other is
    Lunch in Millionaire”s Playground $2.50 BYO Sandwiches

    Can you tell me where to post them so they are not lost
    Lorraine Hemming

  • Can you advise me if a poster-painting or photgraphic- of frameable size is available of one of the Manly Ferries–“South Steyne” would be preferred..Many of my younger and later working life days were spent on daily travel between Manly and Circular Quay on the then steamships==and a suitable reminder hanging on my wall
    would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you in anticipation of reply.

    • Hello Arthur,
      I’m really pleased that you enjoyed the post and that it brought back memories for you.
      We have a small selection of photos of Sydney ferries in the collection. I’ve forwarded your request onto our Photo Library who will contact you via email soon to explain the printing options and associated costs.
      All the best,
      Tilly Boleyn, Curator

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