In April 2023, unbeknown to us, author Vanessa Berry visited our museum and left this comment on our website. With Vanessa’s permission, we are sharing it with our many subscribers.
On display in the City of Canada Bay Museum is a model of the car ferry that crosses the Parramatta River between Mortlake and Putney. Although officially known as the Mortlake Ferry, it is more familiarly known as the Putney Punt. The service has carried traffic across the stretch of river between Mortlake, on Wangal land to the south, and Putney, on Wallumedegal land to the north, since 1928.
Among the varied collection of the museum, the model of the ferry can be found in between a glass case with a wedding dress inside of it, and another with a model of one of the gasometer tanks that used to dominate the Mortlake peninsula when it was a gasworks. The model of the ferry is long and narrow, bracketed by a wharf on either end, with a track between, on which the ferry moves once you press the green button on the side of the case. It’s meticulously made and specific in its details, the little round lifebuoys labelled with DMR (Department of Main Roads, which became RTA, now RMS) and a box of life jackets, as well as some very 70s-looking Matchbox cars parked on the ferry itself, and little reflective road signs at each wharf showing the timetable.
I press the button and the motor starts up. The ferry begins to move across the painted river, slowly advancing towards the Putney side. The motor hums as it makes its slow way, before stopping with a click once it reaches its destination. At first I had thought the model had been built specifically for the museum, but in fact, it had been made by the DMR for display at the wharf, alongside where the actual ferry plies its route across the river. It had been housed inside the waiting room on the Mortlake side as a curiosity, demonstrating the ferry’s mechanism – how it operates by two cables, one which pulls, and one which guides, conveying it from one side to the other.
When the model was displayed at the wharf it was thought the ferry would be decommissioned. By the late 1980s, when plans to remove it were afoot, the punt was regarded as a relic of Mortlake’s industrial past, in operation as it was for the convenience of the employees at the gasworks, who would come across from the north side to go to work.
It was the last of the car ferries in metropolitan Sydney: others, at Ryde, Tom Ugly’s Point, and The Spit, had all long before been replaced by bridges. Recognising the Putney Punt’s significance, there were protests about its removal and about the proposed $1 toll if it did remain. The National Trust listed the ferry and although the gasworks was redeveloped into the residential suburb of Breakfast Point, the ferry has continued to operate. The model did not fare quite so well at the time, falling into disrepair, before being retired to the museum. Here, it was restored back to working order by the local Men’s Shed.
Mortlake is only a slip of a suburb now, a mixture of houses, apartments, and a few remaining small factories along the road that leads to the wharf. After the road passes by the factories and apartment buildings, all of a sudden there is a sharp turn to the right. Then there’s the unusual sight of the road extending all the way to the edge of the riverbank, beyond the boom gates where cars wait to cross.
It is a quiet day, a public holiday, and there are no other cars waiting behind the stop sign. I’m the only one, and I get out to step closer to the gate, to look across at the ferry, which is over on the Putney side, with a few cars slowly driving onto it. To either side of the wharf the headlands curve in and out around the water, which is a pale silvery blue on this overcast day. In the distance, over in the east, the city skyline looks smaller than I expect it to, its high-rise buildings more spread out from this vantage point.
The ferry is making its way across now, painted cream and green, familiar from the model, slowly advancing and enlarging as it draws closer. It reaches the wharf and stops with a thunk as the lip of the ferry aligns with the road, and the cars drive off. Then it’s my turn. The ferry master beckons and I drive forwards, stopping in the front middle of the three lanes. It doesn’t feel unusual until the ferry gets going, away from the wharf and out across the river, and I have the sensation of the car moving while being stationary, a more fluid, buoyant motion than driving.
It’s fun to traverse the river this way, a change of perspective, suddenly afloat, in what was described in an article about the punt from 1954, as ‘a moment of leisure’, and ‘four minutes of enforced inaction, as refreshing as a summer shower’. At that time, in the 1950s, with industry in full operation, the river was polluted and its beaches choked with piles of rusting debris, and the water, so the article describes it, was a ‘drab maroon with the noisome effluent from the gasworks’. It has come a long way towards repair since that time.
For all its shift in perspective, it’s only a quick journey, and after a couple more minutes the punt comes in at an angle to the Putney wharf, working with the resistance of the tide. It swings into place at the last minute, pulled in by the thick metal cables. The boom gate opens and the ferry master beckons me to drive forward, and suddenly I’m on the north side, among the suburban streets, driving past houses with bright purple tibouchina flowers in their gardens, back on solid ground.
There were several comments posted, to which Vanessa replied:
annabella bray33 – May 1, 2023 at 9:57 am
Thanks for this lovely post! I was recently apartment-sitting in Breakfast Point and could see the punt slowly going back and forth during its allotted hours every day, I loved it! Although I don’t have a car, it is a great way to cross the river by foot and continue a walk on the opposite bank. I must check out the museum when I’m back in the area.
To which Vanessa replied: Thanks Annabella – how lovely to watch the punt making its trips across, what a nice thing to watch as the day goes by. The museum is worth a visit – has objects related to Yaralla and also a display of Victa mowers (invented in Concord!)
John Tipper – May 1, 2023 at 10:19 am
Excellent article, Vanessa. Although I worked with the DMR for 24 years, I wasn’t aware that the punt was still in operation, nor was I aware that the model still existed, so I’ll post the page link to our DMR ex-employees’ FB group.
To which Vanessa replied: Thanks John – isn’t it excellent (and rather surprising) the punt’s still going. I imagine that you’ll have some interest in your DMR group, thanks for sharing.
Jan Rhoades – May 3, 2023 at 6:31 pm
Whilst I’ve never been on the punt, I was aware of its existence because I attended St Mary’s school at Concord (I lived in Five Dock) in the 50s. Mortlake was indeed an industrial suburb and I was very familiar with it and its surrounding suburbs as most of my schoolmates lived in the vicinity. I was always fascinated with the way the gasometers rose and fell according to supply and demand. I learned to swim in the Cabarita baths. I also have very happy memories of catching a launch from the banks of the river and lit into the harbour for our annual launch picnic to Nielsen Park. A day of fun and friendship, swimming safely in the enclosed swimming baths. Thanks for the memories.
To which Vanessa replied: Thank you for sharing these memories Jan, in such an evocative way – it must have looked so different in the days of the gasworks. Nice to think of the baths as being important places for so many children – I saw that swimming has started up again at Bayview Park as of last year, so the tradition continues.
(Ed: Thank you Vanessa for allowing us to reproduce your post. Artist and writer Vanessa Berry started the blog Mirror Sydney in 2012, which focuses on the overlooked, forgotten, secret or unusual places in the city and its suburbs. It has now been turned into an illustrated book.)