State Dockyard ~ Last of the Big Ships

I saw the first boat launched at Walsh Island, the Stockton ferry Mildred, and now I’ve come to see the last boat launched at Newcastle. I am sad, very sad.” ~ R. Lindsay of Carrington, former dockyard apprentice pattern maker.

Selwyn Range was a 25,000 tonne bulk carrier built for the Australian National Line (ANL). Launched on the 5th of March, 1977, it was the NSW State Dockyard’s 96th vessel and the last big ship made in Newcastle. The vessel’s christening was harbinger of end times in Australian shipbuilding - a complex and vital industry whose disappearance added to a long series of national losses: skills, independence, pride, and (most importantly) jobs. 

Australia, more than any other country, seemed to suffer for its tariff-reducing honesty, or naivety, pushing agriculture, industry, and manufacture onto a world “playing field” against covertly subsidised foreign competitors.

Selwyn Range shortly after launch still carrying protest banners. Photograph by Doug Brown. By kind permission of Greg & Silvia Ray's 

The story of any state or commonwealth enterprise of last century too often reads as a tale of political short-sightedness, false economy, and lost opportunity. Newcastle’s two government dockyards - Walsh Island and Carrington - exemplify it. Walsh Island Dockyard, though awkwardly sited, was a profitable industry when shut down in 1933 which merely exacerbated the depression’s effect on the city. Skilled staff scattered and vital equipment was sold. Three years into World War 2 the government tried to unbreak the egg, and rebuild an enterprise that had always been essential to a steel-making city, a primary produce export port, and a shipping-dependent sea-bound nation. 

The Final Launching

Workers have long memories, and those were some of them. So, to the surprise of no one, an unofficial ceremony preempted official formalities while the Selwyn Range lay patiently for its moment. Retrenched shipyard workers cut power to the public address system and, perched on a crane with loud hailers, warned the supportive crowd that more sackings would come, fault of the Liberal federal government - in particular Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and transport minister Nixon.

 Effigies dressed as dockyard workers hung from deck rails of the ship that bore a huge banner declaring “Nixon, Fraser guilty of killing shipbuilding.” More banners read “Fraser, Nixon two destroyers” and “Save the dockyard, oust the Fraser Government.” Whereupon the hapless ship was launched by Mrs. I. Butler, wife of the dockyard’s managing director. But not before a state politician’s emotional swipe at an intransigent commonwealth coalition government’s decision to send contracts overseas for four Australian coastal ships.

The responsibility for this disgraceful state of affairs lies with the federal government which has become so hell bent on reducing expenditure that it would rather throw 2500 people out of work than provide a subsidy of $11 million towards the cost of two ANL ships.” ~ NSW Deputy Premier and Minister for Works and Ports, Mr. Ferguson.

As with any large industry, for each lost worker, another or more lose their jobs in a local businesses - all the way down to the corner grocery store. So, as Selwyn Range settled into the Carrington basin, scaling down the dockyard workforce would cascade to a loss of 3500 jobs in a region already carrying an almost 9% burden in 14000 unemployed. This day was effectively the final chapter of major shipbuilding in the port. Not exactly helped by competition from innovative privateer Carrington Slipways, the state dockyard lingered on for a decade on life support, building small ferries, doing ship repairs, and making anything from power station condensers to prefabricated houses. 

By 1987 competitiveness in the fields of repairs and heavy engineering had the dockyard on a knife edge, turning losses year after year. Even with the 1978 arrival of Muloobinba, a new floating dock, ship repairs failed to be the promised staple attractor. It, too, fell to disuse and left port in 2012. In 1987 yet another government ultimatum to “reform or perish” was put to the unions. Soundly rejecting it, their bluff was called, and in went the final rivet.

Happier Days

It was a time of optimism, the 1960s. At least, for the dockyard. In 23 years following its 1942 resurrection, 75 vessels - naval frigates, tugs, tenders, dredges, barges, and ferries - had slipped into the basin and two oil tanker keels were to be laid for British Petroleum (BP). The port was already celebrated birthplace of famous Australian pioneers: roll-on/off ferries Princess of Tasmania (1958) and container-only Bass Trader (1960), container ships William Hollymand (1961) and Kooringa (1964) and the much beloved lighthouse tender Cape Don (1962). 

After the tankers BP Endeavour and BP Enterprise would be Australian Trader, a 200 passenger, 110 vehicle ferry, Darwin Trader, a bulk container ship, the 108 meter dredge WDA Resolution, and two ANL cargo ships, Lysaghts Enterprise and Endeavour in 1973 - culminating in the floating of the Selwyn Range. The city was alight with talk of a new 75,000 ton capacity dry dock to replace the locally-built 1929 “Walsh Island” floating dock, and plans to expand by 4 times the fabrication shop to 1,000 feet (300 meters) with a new 50-ton crane to speed handling of 100 ton ship sections. Originally with 4 building births, later three, by 1965 - to enable building ships up to 25,000 tons - the three were reconstructed into two wider and longer ones. 

At its peak, about 2000 Novocastrians worked at the dockyard. Its cumulative output over the two happy decades since inception had reached 1.25 billion (2020) dollars (A£47 million in 1966). As the 19,000 ton BP Endeavour - in 1967 the “biggest ship built on the eastern seaboard” - slid into Carrington Basin to the cheers of over 10 thousand people, unbeknownst to the euphoric the dockyard was effectively on death row, despite contracts signed for big ships to follow.

A ruthless federal government, self-harming trade unions, and a litany of small but cumulatively fatal management mistakes would doom the NSW State Dockyard to an eventual spiral to closure. But for now the city and the dockyard were having their day in the sun.

The NSW Minister for Public Works, Mr. Davis Hughes, said after the (BP Endeavour’s) launching that as far as the present Government was concerned, the State’s shipyards would not only continue but would expand. He Hoped that with Federal Government financial help Newcastle State Dockyard would have a graving dock in the not far distant future. A toast to the BP Endeavour was proposed by the Federal Minister for Shipping and Transport, Mr. G. Freeth.

In March of 1964, British Petroleum had asked the Australian Shipbuilding Board (ASB) to call tenders from Australian shipbuilders for two 19,000 ton tankers. In the interim it got permission from the federal government to operate imported tankers under the names of the tankers to be locally built. The first was former British Cygnet (aka BP Explorer) operating as BP Endeavour.

Parcels containing drawings and specifications of the two proposed tankers were given to the ASB on the 5th of March. The Sydney Morning Herald photograph was captioned “From left, Mr. W.D. Hohnstone, secretary of BP Australia, Mr. Stuart Clarke, ASB general manager, Mr. W.C. Millar, ASB assistant GM, and Mr. D.A. Golder, BP NSW branch manager.”  

A USB thumbdrive would handle all it nowadays! One shouldn’t underestimate how big a deal these two ships were. Four very senior British Petroleum executives attended the keel-laying ceremony for the first ship, BP Endeavour, on 20th August 1965. They were the Managing Director of BP Australia and director of BP Tankers P/L, J.S. Fox, joined by L.R. Gascoine, Managing Director of BP Refinery at Kwinana, W.D. Johnstone, Secretary of BP Australia, and the NSW Manager, D.A. Golder. BP Endeavour launched 17 months later on the 28th of January 1967.

BP Endeavour, first of two British Petroleum Australian-built and crewed coastal supply tankers, in Carrington Basin after launching. Photograph by Ron Morrison. By kind permission of

Following sea trials on 22nd of August, BP Endeavour was handed over to British Petroleum P/L on the 13th of September that year. The Sydney Morning Herald on October 10, 1967, published a photograph of the BP Endeavour sailing beneath the Harbour Bridge with a caption:
The BP Endeavour (19,000 tons), the largest ship yet built on the east coast of Australia, sailed into Sydney Harbour with a small cargo of fuels.
At the same time, and into the following year, another “BP Endeavour” (aka British Cygnet) was moving refined petroleum products from BP’s Kwinana refinery to Australian ports. Adding to research confusion, a sister tanker, a “BP Enterprise” - bridge amidships and also class of ‘62 - collided with a sheep transport near Fremantle on 17 November, 1967.
The 15,496-ton Australian tanker BP Enterprise and the 3200-ton stock carrier Al Kuwait were holed in a collision in Gage Roads, four miles from Fremantle Harbour. The BP Enterprise, carrying 14,000 tons of crude oil, has a 10ft gash in its port side and has spilled some oil. It continued on to the BP refinery at Kwinana to unload.

This vessel was originally the British Merlin, renamed BP Enterprise for her temporary gig down under, and resumed the original moniker when it was over in 1968. The report above clearly says it was carrying crude. The locally-built replacement ships are described as “refined products tankers.” It would be instructive to learn the ins and outs of these operations. Such as, where was the ‘Merlin’ crude coming from? Can a refined products tanker carry crude? The two '”hired” tankers had been working the Australian coast since 1964/5 while their replacements were planned.

BP Enterprise

In September of 1967, when the new BP Endeavour joined Australia’s coastal oil trade, her sister, the half completed BP Enterprise, sat on Newcastle’s No.1 building berth beside the month-old keel of the Australian Trader. Which brings us to the heart of this photo essay that is based on a set of 50 year-old negatives taken on or before launch day by NBN Channel 3’s photographer. But his subject was not the ship, rather the equipment setup for a live launch telecast. In the first decades of NBN3’s stills photography a constant emerges: attention was invariably on staff and equipment producing an event, rarely the event itself. This fortunate brief provided many detailed sets of images that document television crew operations, both within the studio and out in the field. 

In the case of the BP Enterprise (the ultimate subject of this article) the images record the setup of an outside broadcast for live telecasting of the ship’s launch. Yet no pictures of that launching accompany the collection. That was either the purview of Channel 3’s news department - perhaps too fully occupied shooting newsreel to take stills - or, most likely, left entirely to the local newspapers. Therefore, the set of photographs that follow show in fine detail the operations of what was surely one of the Channel 3’s OB television crew’s most complex and physically arduous tasks ever: a ship launch. And please take note that informed speculation is the rule for what follows. NBN’s outside broadcast van and crew arrived at first light and began unpacking for the station’s first try at a live ship launch. It shouldn’t be any harder than a football match, surely?

The crew arrive at the OB truck near the Eastern Wharf’s 6 ton crane to survey the task.

It’s unknown which photos are on the day of the launch or the day before. Images of the cameras near the bow and the platform nearby don’t look busy enough for a 6:30pm ceremony. There was a practice ceremony at night, so we must assume these are taken on the day before launch. And if so, cameras positioned as shown further below risked toppling by wind gusts and would need moisture protection overnight. This would certainly have been on the mind of NBN’s Chief Engineer. 

The first curiosity an observer might notice below is a chair and television set atop the van, replete with TV aerial. That might well be the technical director’s chair for the night time launch. His monitor is likely attached to a broadcast tuner and the antenna (visible) is pointed at Mt. Sugarloaf, so he will be viewing the live to-air pictures as seen by the viewers. The program director would more likely be inside the van switching cameras to line, and communicating with the camera operators.

Above ~ Unpacking the gear. A microwave antenna reflector dish lies face down. Nearby is one of two TK-31 camera heads and it sun roof. And a whole lot of cables. The team is about to build a television studio on site at a dockyard.

Cameras at that time used thick and very heavy multicore cables, typically 3 or 4 cm thick. These had to be run from the truck to its two cameras, one located nearby on a platform at the bow to capture the ceremony, the other more problematic for an overview. 

They chose to site it on the deck of the partly built Australian Trader on No. 2 berth, but getting there would be a trial. 

Fortunately, and rather surprising considering the complex signals travelling in them, RCA cameras could handle cable lengths up to 300 meters (1000 feet). It’s not known if NBN hired such long cables or used their own for this event. Ones of that length would have been very expensive accessories. 

The question is raised by the scale of the venue, made quite clear in the images that follow.

Above ~ In an industrial setting, those very expensive cables can easily be damaged by a heavy vehicle or even some falling debris and so are covered by channelling.

Below ~ OB technical director George Brown (later to become NBN’s GM) using a telephone handset inside the OB van. He might be talking to one of the far-flung crew at the end of an intercom, or via 2-way radio to the studio. Maybe the truck is connected to a nearby telco line, a common operation for remote radio and television events in those days.

Above ~ Dogman/rigger “Poppy” (or Pappy) hooks up a scrap bin (skip) loaded with TV equipment (camera, microwave dish, cables) for crane lift to the Australian Trader’s deck. In shirt & tie is Mick Turnbull, Dockyard publicity officer, and in overalls NBN’s George Brown. Thanks to the crew at State Dockyard on Facebook for names!

Below ~ looking down on the OB van from the skip.

Above ~ The techies earn the ride of their life. A camera will be placed on the northern side of the ship under construction. A microwave link transmitter will be on the other side, aimed towards the studio. See further below**.

Below ~ Choosing the ideal camera location from the deck of Australian Trader. Former Latec House near the Bank Corner is visible in the distance at far right.

Above ~ Just beneath the cabin of the 50 ton (?) crane a technician prepares the microwave transmitter link.

Below ~ Chosen position for the second camera.

Above and below ~ Some images were scanned at hi-resolution and zoomed in just to confirm that the crew were teasing the photographer - and seriously in breach of yet to be formulated OH&S rules. Not to mention future site induction rites.

Above ~ Scaffolding near the launch stand shows the cine-camera beside the television camera.

Below ~ Cable is attached to the camera but none of the following views clearly shows the camera cable leaving to the truck. Pretty sure it eventually was!

Above ~ If he’s seeing something then the camera is connected to the truck.

Above ~ Presence of NBN news Mini confirms the cine-camera is NBN’s and not a national news outfit like Movietone. Stockton in background. Lack of activity supports the notion that this is not launch day, but rehearsal day.

Below ~ One wonders... if this is rehearsal day, was the cine camera also for a trial shoot. Or was this particular photo on launch day? After all, the news camera and accessories would only take 30 minutes to set up. 

Above and Below ~ **These two are on the same film negatives strip as the preceding batch, but they have no confirming visual context.

Possibly part of a microwave relay to Mosbri Crescent studio, as the dish on the Australian Trader points in that direction. But line of sight to the studio from the dockyard passes over the hill just west of Newcastle East Primary School so the path is problematic. Also, the studio building is surround by hills on three sides. And while we’re on the subject, that is one high narrow construction, and the poor techies have to shin up and down with death-defying agility, then haul the leaden gear to the top with a rope. 

Above ~ View towards State Dockyard from Carrington Basin’s eastern wharf with bulk carrier World Nature at right, BP Enterprise at distant left sitting high on slipway.

BP Enterprise’s moment arrived at 6:30 pm, high tide, on 10th May 1968, floodlit against the darkened harbour. Though a cause for celebration and optimism, she and her sister ship, BP Endeavour, had together accumulated delays of eight months between keel-laying and launch, according to the BP engineer A.J. Orpe, who for the previous 30 months supervised their construction. He had no complaints about the workers, the shipyard, or quality of the finished product, but nevertheless reflected:
Shipyards in Australia are capable of building very good ships but are continually held up by industrial strife and management problems. Many of the advantages gained by good workmanship are annulled by disruptions due to labour disputes. The tradesmen are pretty good, but... there are too many unions involved.
The night launch was about to make history, being the first after-dark for the shipyard. And despite the time, it would be NBN’s first live telecast of a ship launch. Television cameras in the 1960s fortuitously used a second-generation pickup tube called the “image orthicon” as developed by NBN’s camera manufacturer, RCA. Fortuitously, because in 1975 with the introduction of colour television in Australia, the colour tubes (colour needed three) did not like dark scenes, and noise was quite a problem in colour television’s early days. Despite huge progress, modern digital cameras can still produce noisy pictures in poor light. But the “old” orthicons could happily work by candlelight, and they output highly detailed images.

This newspaper photograph refers to a rehearsal that in all practicality could only have occurred on the previous night.

One gathers the discussion in the technical staff room would have mixed feelings about the night ceremony, and many “yes, but..” scenarios. For example, just how does one light up 162 meters of ship? Worse, if it’s out of the water and standing at full height. And will we see it entering the water? What will be the point of a telecast in the dark? These questions were not without merit. As you can see above, the ship was nicely lit for the ceremony. Siemens Industries generously (with an eye to further contracts) provided a 20,000 watt light that was attached to one of the heavy cranes, about a third the way along from the bow. A smaller 2 kilowatt lamp lit the bow region for the christening ceremony. In today’s parlance, benchmarked against modern energy-saving lamps such as LEDs, that single 20 kilowatt lamp is equivalent to several thousand household room lights. In the ‘light’ of all this, Mrs. R. Weir, wife of the Chairman of BP Australia, set the BP Enterprise on her maiden journey - albeit a brief one, drifting around the Carrington Basin while the harbour tugs prodded the darkness until she could be found and towed to the fitting berth. To end this potted history, Wayne Ward in his book The Last Seaman paints a vivid and nostalgic scene that so well captures the community of this great port and its seaboard city, Newcastle upon Hunter.
The BP Enterprise, on an evening tide, sped down her greased slipway into the dark and still waters of the Carrington Basin, greeted by a fanfare of whistles and sirens from every ship, tug, and small craft in the harbour. For the gala event the evening foreshores of Newcastle filled with spectators, children, babies in strollers, elderly couples watching the spectacle in the comfort of folding canvas chairs. Some came prepared with thermos flasks of tea, coffee, soup, homemade biscuits to munch on. City lights of Newcastle glittered on the waters of the harbour as she came under the influence of her attendant tugs, the twinkling radiance reflected on her glossy black hull, her dazzling white accommodation. As if seeking its own grandeur, floodlights powered by portable generators illuminated her tall red and black funnel and the British Petroleum shield. Never again would she look as magnificent as she did now, as she would when she eventually sailed from her fitting out berth, a young unblemished lady of the sea.
May she rest in peace, along with the many hundreds of ships now gone, all of which proudly bore an undeclared signature: “Made in Newcastle.” Photograph by Ron Morrison.

This article will be corrected or added to as information becomes available, and those better informed tear pieces of it apart. Readers can add information or corrections in the comments section below.

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