History of the Ship & Docks

The enchanting 1885 tall ship, the Polly Woodside, is a tangible reminder of Australia’s rich maritime history and of the importance of such ships to the settlement and development.

Did you know?

  • The main mast is as high as a 10-storey building
  • The estimated size of the sails is 1110 square metres (about the size of an Olympic swimming pool!)
  • She was noted for her beautiful lines and speed, being both fast for its size and class and capable in good conditions of travelling at up to 14 knots (c 26 kilometres per hour)
  • In 1988 Polly was awarded the World Ship Trust Medal for supreme achievement in the preservation of Maritime Heritage, the first merchant ship in the world to be awarded this prestigious award. This is recognition of the international importance of the Polly Woodside and the quality of the restoration. She is in the company a select number of famous ships such as the Mary Rose and the SS Great Britain.

History of Polly

History of the Polly Woodside

The most beautiful ship built in Belfast

The Polly Woodside was launched in 1885 in Belfast, Ireland by Workman Clark & Co Ltd - one of the largest of the British shipbuilders. The owner was William Woodside, a Belfast ship owner, and the ship was given his wife Marian’s nickname, 'Polly'.

Between 1885 and 1904 the ship made 17 trips to all parts of the world, including South and the US, Africa and Australia, and rounded the infamous Cape Horn 16 times.

In 1904 she was sold to a New Zealand firm and renamed Rona and operated mainly between Australia and New Zealand. Eventually the increased competition provided by steamships meant that the ship had the mast and yards removed and was towed to Melbourne to be used as a coal lighter.

In 1943 the Rona was temporarily requisitioned by the Royal Australian Navy and towed to New Guinea waters for use as a refueling barge for naval ships.

After the Second World War, the ship was towed back to Melbourne, and for the next 20 years was again used for supplying coal to other ships.

Her Restoration

The survival of the Polly Woodside is in part due to her having been noticed by the US sailing ship enthusiast, Kark Kortum, during a visit to Melbourne in 1946. In 1961 he aroused the interest of E Graeme Robertson, a Councillor of the Trust with a particular interest in and great knowledge of wrought and cast iron, who was mainly responsible for saving the ship.

By 1968, Rona was the last square-rigged, deep water, commercial sailing ship still afloat in Australasia. In that year the then owner, Howard Smith Industries, sold it to the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) for one cent, for restoration under her original name.

Extensive and meticulous research was undertaken and from 1972-78 the Polly Woodside was restored: not to sail again, but to be a museum ship where visitors could discover and understand both the technical aspects of a 19th century sailing ship and the experience of life aboard for the crew. Much of the work of restoring the ship was done by a dedicated band of volunteers, many of whom are still involved with the continued hard work of keeping Polly ‘ship shape’.

For more that 40 years Polly has been a much loved source of joy to the hundreds of thousands of visitors who have climbed aboard to experience life about a true ‘Cape Horner’.

In 2007, the ship was added to the Victorian Heritage Register and now enjoys the highest level of State Heritage Protection.

Duke's & Orr's Dock

The History of the Dock and Surrounding Area

During her years as a coal hulk, the Polly Woodside was dry docked numerous times at the Duke’s & Orr’s Dry Dock. In 1978, the Victorian Government allocated it as an appropriate permanent home for the ship.

The dock is one of the few surviving relics of a once extensive shipbuilding and repair industry that stretched along the south bank of the Yarra River for 5 kilometres, ending below the Queen Street Bridge. The dock was built in 1875 and was reconstructed in 1901 with a new pump house, plant and machinery.

The dock, gates, machinery and pump house are largely intact, although the basin of the dock has been partially filled and reduced in length. The dock is now approximately 107m long, 24m wide and 7m deep.

Its location is a reminder of the once close proximity between the CBD and its port facilities - a proximity that was interrupted by changed cargo handling methods and larger ships.

At the time of its closure in August 1975, it was the oldest and longest operating privately-owned dry dock in Victoria, having been in almost continuous operation for 100 years.

Duke's & Orr's Dry Dock also has a unique steam plant. The steam plant includes the oldest known surviving installation of Victorian-built, under fired tubular boilers in the metropolitan area, and the only existant pair of Victorian-built tandem compound vertical steam pumping engines.

The Duke's & Orr's Dry Dock Today

Recently there has been a $13 million restoration of Polly Woodside's home berth at Duke's & Orr's Dry Dock in Melbourne's riverside precinct, South Wharf.

This project enabled the Polly Woodside to be periodically dry docked, providing the National Trust of Australia (Vic) with the opportunity to undertake restoration works on the ship's hull. This will ensure Polly survives into the future as a reminder of Melbourne’s maritime history and tourist attraction.

Polly was relocated to a mooring on the nearby Yarra River to conduct work on its 107 metre-long dock, before a temporary dam wall was built and the water pumped out.

A new dock wall, gates and base slab with keel supports for the ship were built prior to the Polly returning to Duke's Dock following the 10-month restoration. The water was drained to test the keel supports before the ship was finally refloated.