Darwin Harbour

Shipping in Darwin Harbour

Barques, barges, ferries, boats, ships, dinghies and wooden canoes have come and gone from Port Darwin over the years. The harbour was the hub of movement in and out of the town since its earliest days. The coastal routes and rivers were our supply lines in the days before good and reliable land transport and roads to travel on were established.

SS Brisbane at Port Darwin, June 1879 
SS Brisbane at Port Darwin, June 1879
Margaret Widdup, NTRS 259, glass plate 64

Stokes Hill and Jetty, 1887 
Stokes Hill and Jetty, 1887
Paul Foelsche, NTRS 3420/P1, item 9

In the late 1800s and early 1900s Port Darwin was alive with shipping activity. In 1882 the Government Resident’s Report stated that over the year 51 vessels had called into Port Darwin (that would average one a week year round). These were both passenger and cargo ships. And in 1926, 65 ships berthed in Darwin Harbour. General cargo, and coal were shipped out and 6833 head of cattle exported overseas by boat. During that year 41 coastal boats berthed in the harbour.

MV Koolinda, Darwin Harbour 
MV Koolinda, Darwin Harbour
Patrick Murphy, NTRS 1685, item 34

Jetty and cattle yards 
Jetty and cattle yards
Charles Wilson, NTRS 3335, item 363

Hazel Mackey has recollections of travelling on the Marella in 1937. 

“We left Melbourne on the Marella, ...we called in at Sydney and Brisbane, Thursday Island, before we got to Darwin. It took us about ten or twelve days. It wasn't an enormous big ship, it was about the size of an ordinary interstate passenger ship at that time. And it was very, very well appointed because it had been the Kaiser's yacht, and I think Burns Philp bought it from I don't know where Burns Philp bought it from, but it was originally the Kaiser's yacht, so that it was very well appointed and very artistically decorated. It was a very pleasant ship to travel on.”

NTRS 226, TS 625

SS Marella at the jetty, taken from baths side (of jetty) 
SS Marella at the jetty, taken from baths side (of jetty)
Harry Breckenridge, NTRS 3206, item 2

Patrick McDonald also has recollections of travelling on the Marella. 

When asked about the activities onboard, he replied “Oh, really there was only the usual, you know playing quoits. Really nothing, just running around playing cards, ... See, being second class all the gaiety was up in the first class, where the swimming pool was. But we weren't allowed up there. But it was fantastic, because it was all Chinese crew, and they'd bring in your morning tea and biscuit. Then they'd tell you your bath was ready. Oh, you were waited on hand and foot. It cost twelve pound ten, or eleven pound ten I wouldn't be certain. That was second class; that was Sydney to Darwin.” 

NTRS 226, TS 655

WA Government MV Koolinda 
WA Government MV Koolinda
Charles Wilson, NTRS 3335, item 3

Rosa Drage recalled travelling on the Koolinda from Perth to Darwin. 

“It was good fun. I suppose the trip took about a fortnight—ten to twelve days, anyway. ...There was always plenty of entertainment. We pulled in to all the ports along the way, and were always allowed time to go into whatever town it was, and shop or do what we wanted to do. That was before the Koolama started. That came in later, the Koolama, and started to do the trip, and they did alternate trips. But in those days it was only the Koolinda. Every now and again she’d go to Singapore to be dry-docked and what-have-you, so it was always a very good cheap way of getting across to Singapore to shop.” 

NTRS 226, TS 1107

MV Koolama New Year Dinner Menu, 1942 
MV Koolama New Year Dinner Menu, 1942
Robert Pritchard, NTRS 1398, item 1

Rosa Drage recalls the transportation of food and freight. 

“The Koolinda used to go up to Darwin and back, and that was the only way that the perishables and things got to Darwin in those days. There was no air freight or anything like that—it was all taken up on the boat. There was no train or anything through, no way of getting through from Alice Springs to Darwin—a very rough old track. So all the stuff went up on the boats from Western Australia, mostly; all perishables went up on the boat to there.”

NTRS 226, TS 1107

WA Government MV Koolinda 
WA Government MV Koolinda
Charles Wilson, NTRS 3335, item 4

Naval and government vessels from other countries often visited Darwin Harbour. Japanese training ships were regular visitors to Darwin Harbour during the 1930s. Japanese naval officers were received by the Administrator and the District Naval Officer. One of these vessels, the Hakauyo Maru was described as the Agricultural and Forestry Department's Fishing Institute training ship. Her commander, Captain Nakagaoa, said although the vessel was owned by the Japanese Government, it was not a naval ship.

Northern Standard, Tuesday 30 November 1937

Japanese Training Ship, ca 1935
Japanese Training Ship, ca 1935
Phillips, NTRS 1673, Items 4 and 5

Japanese Training Ship, ca 1935
Japanese Training Ship, ca 1935
Phillips, NTRS 1673, Items 4 and 5

The Darwin Mobile Force also travelled by ship to Darwin. Franklin James Johns recalls:

"...we came back to Darwin on the Marella - I can remember leaving the Marella just under the [Sydney] Harbour Bridge somewhere the wharf was and all these soldiers came aboard and they were the Darwin Mobile Force."

NTRS 226, TS 68

French frigate Cassiopee anchored at Darwin jetty, June 1925 
French frigate Cassiopee anchored at Darwin jetty, June 1925
Charles Wilson, NTRS 3335, item 365

Darwin Mobile Force arriving in Darwin by ships, 1938 
Darwin Mobile Force arriving in Darwin by ships, 1938
Betty Humble, NTRS 1168, item 47

Maroubra, ca 1938 
Maroubra, ca 1938 
Historical Society of the Northern Territory, NTRS 1854, item 2621

Ray Tyrell worked on the Maroubra which transported freight around the Northern Territory.

Ray described how the Maroubra “went down to the Daly River, Victoria River, over to Cape Don, to Point Charles, to the Apsley Straits between Melville and Bathurst Islands – wherever there was cargo to be delivered the Maroubra delivered it. They had government contracts for these jobs and we did quite a number of trips backwards and forwards. [The Maroubra] was sixty five feet long, eighteen feet beam; it carried fifty tons of cargo on a five foot draught. It was very, very flattish bottomed."

NTRS 226, TS 394

Images used have been selected from the following collections:

  • Margaret Widdup, NTRS 259, Photographs, postcards and glass slides relating to the top end including Paul Foelsche photographs and maps of the Northern Territory, 1871-1922
  • Paul Foelsche (Inspector), NTRS 3420, Reference digitised copy of photographs (images only) relating to Northern Territory views, ca1870-ca1888
  • Patrick Murphy, NTRS 1685, Copyprints of Darwin including aircraft and the aftermath of the 1937 cyclone, ca1934-ca1937
  • Charles Wilson, NTRS 3335, Reference digitised copy of images relating to the Top End, ca1924-1932
  • Harry Breckenridge, NTRS 3206, Digitised copy of images relating to the Darwin region, 1931-1936
  • Robert (Bob) Pritchard, NTRS 1398, Merchant Vessel Koolama New Year Dinner Menu, 1942-1942
  • Elizabeth (Betty) Humble (nee Hayles), NTRS 1168, Photographs of Darwin scenes and activities, ca1935-1939
  • Mrs Phillips, NTRS 1673, Copyprints of Darwin including aftermath of 1937 cyclone, ca1935-ca1937
  • Historical Society of the Northern Territory, NTRS 1854, Photographs of the Northern Territory, 1860-1982.

Full references to the oral history interview transcripts which have been used are listed below.

Northern Territory Archives Service, NTRS 226, Typed transcripts of oral history interviews with "TS" prefix 1979-ct

TS 625, Hazel Mackey
In 1937, Hazel, her husband George and daughter Ruth came to Darwin where George became head of the Bureau of Meteorology.
TS 655, Patrick McDonald
Patrick sailed on the S.S. Marella in 1936 to join his father and brother in Darwin. Patrick's father was Jack McDonald, Secretary of the North Australian Workers' Union.
In 1939 Patrick joined the Darwin Mobile Force.
TS 1107, Rosa Drage
In 1939 Rosa travelled to Darwin on the Koolinda to nurse at the hospital.
TS 68, Franklin James Johns
Frank was born in Darwin in 1924 and grew up in Darwin. In 1939 he took a trip south by ship.
TS 394, Ray Tyrell
Ray came to Darwin in 1928 and worked for many years in the pearling and trepang industries and on the Maroubra.

The following are examples of other archival material about shipping in Darwin Harbour:

  • Charles Reginald Stahl, NTRS 2389, Photographs relating to the passengers and crew of MV Koolama during the Second World War, 1942-1942
  • Herbert George Gray, NTRS 989, Copy of diary recording journey by steamship from Adelaide to Darwin, 1884-1884
  • Ada Mumford (nee Curnock), NTRS 2591, Invitations and ship's menu, ca1935-1992
  • Bertram Sydes, NTRS 1389, Photographs of the sinking of merchant ship SS Macumba in Arafura Sea, and newspaper report, 1943-1943
  • Police Station, Darwin, F510, Wharf journal covering visit of Royal Yacht 'Britannia', 1963-1963

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Last updated: 24 March 2020

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