Jetties in the Eyre Peninsula

The wild weather last week was nothing more for many of us than an excuse to play cards by candlelight for a few hours. For some people, especially on the Eyre Peninsula, the storms were much more destructive. After seeing pictures of the battered Port Germein jetty on the news, we’ve been thinking about Jill Roe’s memories of the area from Our Fathers Cleared the Bush


Jetties have played an important role in the history of Eyre Peninsula. Between the 1860s and the 1920s, some 39 jetties were built along the Peninsula’s estimated 3200 kilometres of coastline, from as far west as Fowlers Bay to Port Pirie on the eastern side of Spencer Gulf and on nearby islands. This may not sound a lot, but, as will be evident from a glance at a map of the peninsula, by the early 20th century the region was well served by coastal shipping – mainly ketches and schooners – and it should be remembered that some stretches of the coastline, especially the majestic limestone cliff faces of the west coast but also some of the sandy eastern bays, were not suited to jetty building, or necessitated the building of very long jetties, as at Port Germein – until recently the longest jetty in South Australia. A telling instance of how tricky the approaches could be is the early pastoral port of Elliston, halfway up the west coast, where it was sometimes impossible for ships carrying essential supplies to enter Waterloo Bay, with its narrow entrance and uncertain tides. The misery that attended the turning back of ships is only too easily imagined.

Our Fathers Cleared the Bush

Many older residents of Eyre Peninsula can recall when the arrival of ‘the boat’ was a main event of the week. At Tumby Bay, where I watched it most frequently, you had to be there at the right moment to see it come in. This meant on a Tuesday at about 2 pm, and thus for me in the early 1950s, during school holidays. There I’d be on the beach, with the small east-coast township at my back, squinting towards Port Lincoln, past the estuary of a mangrove-fringed creek and a then uninhabited rocky headland, hoping to see the Adelaide Steamship Company’s MV Morialta appear on the horizon and watch it berth at the town’s main jetty. There was something exciting about the way it suddenly bore down on you, and the Scottish-built ship had a certain style, due in part to a painted funnel.

There were always people on the jetty to welcome the Morialta, in addition to the wharfies busy loading and unloading cargo. Indeed, on most days you would find people scattered along the jetty, fishing, chatting, and otherwise relaxing. For them, as for many people living on Eyre Peninsula, jetties had become an integral part of life by the 1950s. The regular arrival of shipping at the small ports along the coast provided a focal point for town and country folk alike.

There were two jetties at Tumby Bay at that time. The older, shorter one, which was finally demolished in the 1990s, dated back to the 1870s, when it was built to serve various mining ventures in the hills to the west of the town, and it was still being used a century later for recreation and shade on hot days. It even had a diving board. The main jetty, a longer and stronger construct a few hundred metres to the south, dates from the early 1900s and thankfully still survives. Only just, however. In 1972 the body responsible for the state’s jetties decided that Tumby’s days as a port were over and, with costly maintenance needed on one section of the jetty, prepared to demolish it. When work was about to begin, appalled residents formed a picket line at the town end of the jetty, and the demolition was called off. Since then, with extra funding from local sources, the jetty has been strengthened and is as popular as ever. It features in all the town’s advertising, and is part of its not inconsiderable tourist appeal.

It is no wonder jetties were popular. They enlivened many small coastal settlements and, with many parts of the wheat-growing areas far from the coast, were a godsend to farmers. Prior to the building of jetties, farmers had had to get their grain harvest to the beaches by horse and cart, load it onto small boats and row the boats out to deeper water to be re-loaded onto the waiting ketches – when they turned up, that is. Even after the coming of rail, it was still cheaper in some places to use what was called the ‘mosquito fleet’ in the 1930s. (As a student at the University of Adelaide in the mid-1930s, the historian Russel Ward once worked on ‘the mosquito fleet’ during the long vacation.) With the jetties in place, produce could be brought to storage sheds at the base of the jetty, sent on trolleys up the jetties and loaded straight into holds.

Windjammers at Port Germein

By now, however, the future of these historic constructs is far from secure because, as the story of the Tumby jetty may suggest, they are costly to maintain. In an attractive publication entitled Jetties of South Australia: Past and present published in 2005, compiler Neville Collins warns that, while major bulk-handling ports such as Port Lincoln and Thevenard are flourishing, as maybe some recreational sites are also, the smaller jetties are under threat. Indeed, some have already gone, such as the jetty at the historic port of Lipson near Tumby, which was demolished as early as 1935. Collins does not spell it out, but it seems clear from his outline that the economic underpinning is slipping away and that there will need to be strong community support and a profitable tourist industry to sustain them.

It must have been some subliminal awareness of this situation that caused me to decide, on a journey back to the Peninsula in January 2007 as a preliminary to this project, that I would walk the surviving jetties. And, with a couple of regrettable omissions – of the tiny village of Haslam on Anxious Bay, south of Ceduna, of which I was unaware at the time, and Port Neill, north of Tumby Bay, where I missed the turnoff – I more or less did just that: from Fowlers Bay, baking in the hot sun way out west, to as far as the fish nets piled up on the Cowell jetty at Franklin Harbour, halfway up Spencer Gulf. Admittedly I was not brave enough to walk the entire length of the narrow jetty at Elliston on a chilly Sunday morning by myself, and it seemed enough at the time to find that the now somewhat shortened jetty at the lovely but solitary Louth Bay was still there, but overall it was an enriching experience, and one to be recommended to visitors.

Perhaps it was on one of the jetties fronting Spencer Gulf that I was reminded of the once-ubiquitous advertising slogan, accompanied by the ringing of ships’ bells, ‘It’s time YOU went on the Gulf Trip’. Introduced before World War I by one of the three shipping companies then competing for the coastal trade, the Gulf Trip became a standby of the Adelaide Steamship Company, which had gained a monopoly on the coastal trade by 1915, and proved popular in the interwar years. There were two main variants on offer: a short trip from Port Adelaide to Port Lincoln with a brief stay there (three to four days), and a longer trip from Port Adelaide to Port Augusta with calls at Port Lincoln, Cowell, Whyalla, Port Pirie and the old copper port of Wallaroo (six days). Travel up the west coast was never such an enticing prospect, with long stretches of towering cliffs and some dangerous bays along the way. The most worrisome was surely Elliston, where bad weather and rough seas meant shipwrecks sometimes occurred. Safer harbours further west, at Ceduna in Denial Bay for instance, made things easier, but these remote and not especially productive parts had their own problems. There was even an occasional mishap in the normally placid waters off Tumby Bay, and the waters near ‘the Althorpes’ between Kangaroo Island and the western tip of Yorke Peninsula had a reputation for roughness.

It may sound as if the maritime history of Eyre Peninsula is an uncertain story, for all its variety and interest. It was undoubtedly rough-and-ready at times, and it is true that its most colourful aspect – the great grain races that saw mighty sailing ships arrive in Spencer Gulf from Europe until as late as 1949 – was already becoming a thing of the past by the onset of World War II. But local and coastal shipping still seemed sound after the war, with several larger passenger/cargo ships in operation in the 1950s. MV Moonta, built in Denmark in 1931, lasted until 1955, when its cargo side became unprofitable and it was sold off; it had offered six-day trips from Port Adelaide to Port Augusta and back which took in Kangaroo Island. It ended up being used as a casino on a beach on the South Coast of France. The Morialta, purpose-built pre-war but not brought into service until after World War II, lasted only a year longer, until 1956; a comfortable ship, it was advertising cruises to the smaller ports of the lower Gulf, from Adelaide to Cowell and back via Tumby Bay, Port Neill and Arno Bay in 1950. Three years later, in 1960, the queen of them all, the MV Minnipa – another Danish-built ship which began its 33-year service to Eyre Peninsula in 1927 – was finally withdrawn from service, due to a decline in patronage. With that, the coastal shipping that dated back to 1839 seemed to come to an end.

Read more from Our Fathers Cleared the Bush by purchasing the book here.