The Polly Woodside has been a Melbourne icon for many years. The ship has a rich history that dates back to 1885 but it had been left to rot by the mid-1960s. Sold to the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) for one cent in 1968, Polly was painstakingly restored to its former glory by a group of dedicated and hardworking volunteers over the next decade.
The Polly Woodside is a three-masted, iron-plated wood-hulled barque launched during a time when sailing ships were on the decline. By the end of the nineteenth century, most new ships were made out of iron and were steam-powered, either fuelled by coal or oil.
Built in Belfast, Ireland, the Polly Woodside was named after its owner William J. Woodside’s wife, Marian “Polly”. She conducted the christening ceremony by smashing a bottle of champagne across its bow.
The Polly Woodside spent the first fifteen years of its life transporting goods between England and the United States. It made its first trip to Australia in 1900 and shortly after was sold to New Zealander Arthur Hughes Turnbull’s company. In 1904, the ship was renamed Rona and over the next twenty years it carried loads of wood between New Zealand and Australia.
In 1922, Rona had yet again changed owners and found itself in the services of the Adelaide Steamship Co. It was transformed into a hulk, a floating storage facility that held coal for steam-powered ships.
Rona was moved to Melbourne in 1925. Besides a brief period during World War II where it was towed to Papua New Guinea to stockpile coal for the war effort, Rona was the last of twenty coal hulks left in Port Phillip Bay by the 1960s. The ship was in poor condition and there were plans to sink it in Bass Strait.
The ship held a special place in the heart of Melbournian neurologist Dr Graham Robertson. He approached famous American maritime historian Karl Kortum, who had a lot of success managing the restoration of classic ships around the world. In 1970, Kortum played a big part in getting the funding together to restore the SS Great Britain. Launched in 1843, it was the first screw-propellered ship to travel across the Atlantic to the United States.
Working with Kortum, Robertson, who was a member of the National Trust of Australia (Victoria), pitched a proposal to restore Rona and preserve it as a museum ship. The plan was accepted.
Rona was handed over in 1968 but it would be a few years before any progress was made. There was a lot of planning going on and budgets were drawn up. Some of the earliest decisions made were to change the ship’s name back to the Polly Woodside and restore it to its 1885 configuration.
Captain G. H. Heyen was part of the team that first surveyed the ship back in the mid-1960s. Now he was tasked with returning the Polly Woodside to its former glory. To get a hold of the original blueprints, he reached out to Harland and Wolff—the shipyard responsible for building some of the most famous vessels of all time, including the RMS Titanic. Unfortunately, they’d been destroyed in an attack during the war. Luckily, Heyen had spent nine years of his career on a ship, called the Rothesay Bay, that was very close in design to the Polly Woodside. It’s been estimated he spent over 5,000 hours painstakingly drawing up and recreating every aspect of the ship.
While Heyen worked on the design, others at the National Trust raised funds for the project. One successful endeavour was the “71 Seaman Appeal” where a model of the Polly Woodside was given out when someone donated $100*. Over five years, more than $150,000* was raised. The Victorian Government matched the amount when the milestone was reached.
In 1972, volunteers began cleaning out the hull. They discarded over 100 tonnes of rubbish, coal dust and rotten wood. Many were local ship enthusiasts and professionals and gladly gave up their free time on weekends and public holidays. Many craftspeople, such as welders, were vital and helped to keep restoration costs low.
In 1978, the Polly Woodside was officially opened to the public in its new home at Duke’s and Orr’s Dry Dock. It became an immensely popular tourist attraction. In 2006 when construction on the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre began, the Polly Woodside was closed and moved. It returned to its spot in 2010 and continues to grace the city’s riverfront to this day.
*No figures have been adjusted for inflation.
Photo Credit: Thank you to the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) for allowing me to use their image. (https://www.nationaltrust.org.au/educationprograms/welcome-aboard-shipmates-and-learn-the-ropes/)
A Time Line for the Polly Woodside (https://www.nationaltrust.org.au/educationprograms/welcome-aboard-shipmates-and-learn-the-ropes/)
Barque Polly Woodside (Rona) by Vin Darroch (Book)
Brief History of Polly Woodside (https://www.pwva.org.au/history.php)
Fascinating History of the Polly Woodside, The (https://melbournecitytour.com.au/blog/the-fascinating-history-of-the-polly-woodside/)
Heritage Council Victoria – Polly Woodside (https://vhd.heritagecouncil.vic.gov.au/places/14368)
Polly Woodside Scores Top Heritage Listing (https://www.theage.com.au/lifestyle/polly-woodside-scores-top-heritage-listing-20070309-gdpmuk.html)
Polly Woodside – South Wharf, Australia (https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/polly-woodside)
Polly Woodside Tall Ship and Museum (https://www.nationaltrust.org.au/places/polly-woodside/)