The one form of Sydney public transport that is loved – something that will never be said about the buses or trains – is the ferry. Hurtle Duffield catches a ferry twice in Patrick White’s The Vivisector, once to Kirribilli, once to Manly. He’s looking for relief from paintings that have ‘died’, and he finds it.
Alan Waddell, with a more prosaic destination, used to catch the ferry to work.
I occasionally took the Mosman ferry from Longueville wharf. The owner/skipper, Charlie, never missed a morning, no matter how thick the fog. He used to say “the thicker the fog, the less other ferries are out to run into.” He was still doing the run in peak hours well into his 80s.[i]
The water has always been an important means of transport for the people of Sydney, as well as an important source of food. Late in 1788, Watkin Tench records with his usual humility that he undertook a survey of the harbour:
in order to compute the number of canoes and inhabitants which it might contain. Sixty-seven canoes and 147 people were counted. No estimate, however, of even tolerable accuracy can be drawn from so imperfect a datum, though it was perhaps the best in our power to acquire.[ii]
When the colony extended to Rose Hill – renamed Parramatta in 1791 – transport by boat was preferable to the road. For the farms on the Hawkesbury River – the first 15 colonial farms were established on the east bank in 1794 by lieutenant-governor Francis Grose[iii]– communication between the little settlements that sprang up on both sides of the river was generally by boat, and boats were used to transport the agricultural goods that the colony soon came to depend on. On Port Jackson the boat was also the preferred means of transport, even a century after Tench’s ‘imperfect’ survey. Balmain became a popular place to live largely because of easy access to the city via the steam ferries. In 1900 there were ten different ferry wharves servicing Balmain, from Elliott St on the north side of the peninsula, round to Reynolds St on the south side.[iv]
Traffic to the north of the colony was by boat, to ports like Morpeth, until the large-scale release of land in the Hunter Valley. Land had been held back while there was a penal settlement for secondary offenders at Newcastle, but after its closure in 1822 the governor started to distribute large grants in the area, encouraging wealthy settlers to establish farms. The Great North Road was built between 1826 and 1836 by convict labourers. At its full length, it ran from its current turn-off at Parramatta Road, Five Dock, to Abbotsford, where there was a punt to take you across the Parramatta River. You can chart its course from where it comes back out of the river into Punt Road in Gladesville, onto Victoria Road as far as Ryde, then north-west up to Dural. From there it joins the Old Northern Road (the original road north) and you can follow it all the way up to Wiseman’s Ferry where there is still a punt to take you across the Hawkesbury River, and further north.