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Manly Wharf

Gateway to the peninsula since 1855

From the 1850s to the 1920s, Manly Wharf was the gateway to the northern beaches – a status that was only broken by the construction of The Spit and Roseville bridges.

Manly Wharf in the 1870s.

From the 1850s to the 1920s, Manly Wharf was the gateway to the northern beaches – a status that was only broken by the construction of the Spit and Roseville bridges. And the man behind the construction of the first wharf at Manly was the founder of Manly – Henry Gilbert Smith – who applied to the state government in August 1855 for permission to build a wharf at Manly.

He wanted to build a wharf that was 61m long and 3.4m wide. Anyone who opposed Smith’s plan was given a month in which to lodge their objections but no one did, so the wharf was built by the end of September 1855 and the first ferry berthed there on October 6.

But while Smith owned the wharf, he wasn’t asked to pay rent for the space over which the wharf was built. Smith leased the wharf to Edy Manning, who ran the first boats to Manly, although it was not until 1857 that a daily service was commenced. From 1862, Smith leased the wharf to Samuel Skinner and Spencer Wilson, to whom Smith had sold his shares in his ferry, the Phantom.

After the deaths of Skinner and Wilson in 1867, Skinner’s interest in the ferry business passed to Smith’s business associate, T. J. Parker, although Smith retained ownership of the wharf.

In 1868, Smith received permission to extend Manly Wharf. Again, the public was invited by the government to make objections but none were made, so the permission was granted without conditions and there was no lease – the wharf was there on sufferance.

In the same year, operation of the ferry service was taken over by Captain Thomas Heselton, who in 1873 bought the rights, title and interest in Manly Wharf from Smith, although Parker still had shares in the business.

In 1875, John Carey bought the Manly service from Heselton, along with five boats and the rights, title and interest in Manly Wharf. Carey was a founder of The Daily Telegraph and was its chairman for 40 years until his death. In late 1876, John Carey, John Woods, John Watson and Jenkin Collier founded the Port Jackson Steam Boat Co, the forerunner of the Port Jackson and Manly Steamship Company.

The new company owned Manly Wharf but in December 1876 the State Government introduced a five-year lease on the land over which the wharf stood and felt the owner of the wharf should pay rent. The Port Jackson Steamboat Company offered to pay rent of £25 a year for five years from January 1, 1877, on the understanding that the company would get a renewal for another five years in consideration of money the company had already spent on the wharf.

The department agreed to the terms of the lease proposed by the ferry company. The wharf was still recognised by the department as belonging to the ferry company and the lease was for the land and water over which it was built. Manly Council was incorporated in 1877 and immediately endeavoured to gain control of Many Wharf.

The residents who petitioned for the incorporation of the municipality had long wanted the wharf but the lease between the State Government and the ferry company was signed before the council was incorporated. In 1878 the ferry company extended the wharf.

A public meeting at Manly on August 20, 1880, led to a letter being sent to the Secretary of Lands, asking him to terminate the ferry company’s lease when the five-year lease expired on December 31, 1881.

In 1881, the mayor of Manly, Alfred Hilder, wrote to the Secretary of Land, urging him to hand the lease of the land on which the wharf was built to the council upon the expiry of the lease.

The ferry company agreed to waive its right to a renewal of its lease upon receiving from the council of a sub-lease of the land and water over which the wharf was built on condition that the council grant it a lease of 12 years.

But because the government could only lease the wharf to the council for five years at a time, the council would be unable to sub-let it to the ferry company, which therefore withdrew its waiver, so in October 1881, the ferry company transferred its interest in the wharf to Manly resident Robert Pitt. The council agreed to the leasing of the wharf for five years to Robert Pitt.

Also in 1881, the Port Jackson Steamship Company was formed to take over the assets and business of the Port Jackson Steam Boat Company.

The Port Jackson Steamship Co agreed to the lease of the wharf being granted to Robert Pitt on condition that he sub-let the wharf to the ferry company for £118 per annum for five years and on condition that Pitt apply for a renewal after five years for another five-year lease and a further two-year lease, totalling 12 years.

Other conditions were that no other wharf be built at Manly, that the ferry company build or have built a 600-seat ferry for the Manly run, that it keep fares at a specific level, that it allow the public to use the wharf, that the ferry company run 11 services in each direction each day, that if the council erected a new wharf on the site or nearby, the cost of the new wharf would not exceed £2500 and that ferry company would pay the council, on top of its rent, 10 per cent per annum of the cost of building the new wharf, and that the council not build another wharf nearby that another ferry operator could use. The new lease was signed on October 25, 1881.

In 1883, the wharf was extended by 45m to accommodate the new steamer Brighton, the cost of which extension the ferry company had to pay over 10 years. In 1888 a bookstall and Camera Obscura and tea rooms were opened on the wharf. But tensions between the ferry company and the council were never far below the surface, so when a new ferry company – the Manly Co-operative Steam Ferry Co – was formed in 1893, the council backed the new company, which promised to cut ferry fares.

In 1894, the council authorised the new company to use Manly Wharf and transferred the lease of the wharf to the new company. In response, the Port Jackson Steamship Company then used the wharf it owned on the eastern side of Manly Cove, called the Brightside Wharf, and cut its fares to match those of the new company.

The State Government was not impressed by Manly Council’s behaviour concerning Manly Wharf and in 1895 began undermining the council’s lease. The government said it would build a second wharf at Manly and the Lands Minister decreed that the Port Jackson Steamship Company would use the old wharf and the Manly Co-operative Steam Ferry Company would use the new wharf and that in the meantime both companies would use the Brightside Wharf.

In 1896 the Manly Co-operative Steam Ferry Company collapsed, after which its interests were taken over by the Port Jackson Steamship Company, which was renamed the Port Jackson Co-operative Steamship Co. The council was able to reassert its authority over the leases of the two wharves – the old one and the new one – and asked the ferry company to initiate a cargo service to the new wharf.

In 1900, during the Bubonic plague, the Camera Obscura and tea rooms were demolished. In 1907, the ferry company was reincorporated as the Port Jackson and Manly Steamship Company and in 1907, 1908 and 1911, Manly Wharf was improved, during which the wharf was lengthened to 75m.

In 1915, Manly Council tried to squeeze more money from the ferry company when the three-year sub-lease came up for renewal and it was only a threat from the Sydney Harbour Trust to take over the lease that the council was forced to back down. The company’s offer was £2050 a year plus a subsidy of £1000 a year for three years, rising to £1500 a year for the next three years.

In 1916, the accommodation on the wharf for passengers was improved and a half-timbered facade and clock tower were added.

In 1924, the Spit and Roseville bridges were built and the land route to the northern beaches become a viable alternative to the maritime route to Manly and the northern beaches, eventually leading to a reduction in passenger numbers as ownership of private cars increased.

By 1929, the ferry company had a virtually unconditional lease on the wharf and was able to cut its annual subsidy due to the council’s failure to provide recreational improvements in Manly.

Also in 1929, the ferry company asked the government if it could convert the cargo wharf to an amusement pier, motorised transport having wiped out the use of boats to ferry cargo to Manly.

On August 7, 1939, a fire broke out in a milk bar on the main wharf and spread throughout the wooden structure, causing £10,000 worth of damage, leading to the wharf being rebuilt.

By 1940, the lease of Manly Wharf was transferred to the direct control of the Sydney Harbour Trust’s successor, the Maritime Services Board. As part of the rebuilding of Manly Wharf, the facade was altered and more shops were added.

Since that time, the wharf has been modified several times, more businesses have been added, including two restaurants on a second storey, and the cargo wharf-come-amusement pier has been demolished and a concrete wharf built in its place.

Story by John Morcombe,

Manly Daily March 2021.

Published by lostmanlylisa

Social Scientist and Local Historian in training with a life long passion for history, culture, communication and the arts, and most of all the study of the human species in all its glory. My life now, after walking many roads that lead me to where I'm at, is turning dreams into realities for myself and others, whatever that looks like, along the way. Won't you join me?