After its completion in 1901, there was steady maritime activity in the area for 50+ years. The site was later occupied by the Army, who used it as a base for their marine transport operations until 1997.
The meeting of the rivers
Woolwich is located at the junction of the Parramatta and Lane Cove Rivers. For this reason, the Traditional Owners – the Wallumedegal People – know the area as Moocooboola meaning ‘the meeting of the rivers.’
While the area is the country of the Wallumedegal People, years of industrial activity disturbed the environment, erasing a great deal of evidence relating to their habitation. However, nearby Kelly’s Bush and Clarke’s Point are lush with native vegetation, and First Nations artefacts have been discovered in these relatively untouched areas.
Morts Dock and Engineering Company
In 1883, the Atlas Engineering Company established a shipbuilding yard at the eastern end of the peninsula (now Woolwich) after acquiring land from the Clarkes, a family of cabinet makers. In 1888, a floating dock was imported from England, and slipways created on reclaimed land.
After Atlas went into liquidation in 1893, the land was subdivided to create an industrial village with workers’ cottages, workshops, and a hotel. In 1899, Morts Dock and Engineering Company purchased the site and excavated 85,000 cubic metres of sandstone to construct a dry dock.
An all-Sydney affair
Woolwich Dock was officially opened on 4 December 1901 when the first ship, the Neotsfield, was serviced. The opening of the dock was considered an all-Sydney affair because the Neotsfield was the only deep-sea ship registered in Sydney and the vessel had entered a Sydney-owned dock powered by fuel from the Balmain coal yard.
Woolwich Dock also provided a big fish haul on its opening day as lots of mullet, flathead and whiting were left stranded once the dock had been pumped dry.
At the time, Woolwich Dock was the largest of its kind in Australia, and a pump-house was shipped from England to operate it. The dock was designed to accommodate vessels of any size up to the class of the White Star liner Suevic, which weighed over 12,500 tonnes and was 172.6 metres in length with a beam of 19.3 metres.
While under the operation of the Morts Dock and Engineering Company, Woolwich Dock was modified and lengthened several times.
The First and Second World Wars
By 1917, the dock had been used to build and repair many ships. This included the construction of 39 steamships and 7 Manly ferries. During the interwar years, an iron foundry, a slipway and floating dock were installed.
During the First and Second World Wars, the dock aided in the conversion of passenger vessels into troopships as well as repairs to damaged ships. This industrial activity led to new housing developments, as well as the construction of the Woolwich Pier Hotel.
The Morts Dock and Engineering Company ceased operating in 1959 and, as a result, the Woolwich Dock site lay idle for some years.
Army operations at Woolwich Dock
The Army purchased Woolwich Dock in 1963 for its water-based transport operations. The Army demolished the three oldest buildings in the area and built several prefabricated buildings, as well as adding piers, wharves, a travelling crane, and concreting the area around the dock.
The dock was used for launching watercraft, and the workshops that had been built there previously were used for repairs and maintenance. Eventually, the Army units based at Woolwich moved their operations to Townsville in 1997.
Honouring the area's maritime legacy
In 1998, the Australian Government announced it would establish the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust (Harbour Trust) to rehabilitate prominent former Defence sites on Sydney Harbour, including Woolwich Dock and Parklands, and return them to the people of Australia.
The announcement followed years of advocacy by community groups, including Foreshore 2000 Woolwich, adamant that surplus Defence sites on Sydney Harbour should be maintained as public spaces and kept safe from redevelopment.
The Harbour Trust formally commenced its role in September 2001. Since this time, the agency has provided public access to Woolwich Dock, which received Commonwealth Heritage listing in 2004, and ensured the landmark’s maritime legacy is honoured.
Indeed, the privately operated Woolwich Dock continues to offer boat owners a full range of repair and maintenance services, and lucky visitors can watch vessels being worked on in the historic dry dock by skilled tradespeople.
Meanwhile, the Harbour Trust maintains Goat and Horse Paddock, located to either side of Woolwich Dock. Dotted with Port Jackson Figs, and affording harbour views encompassing Cockatoo Island, these green spaces are popular venues for picnics, weddings, barbeques and quiet contemplation. Further, the area boasts several walking tracks that link back to the Sydney Harbour Foreshore walk.