Fletchers Slip History
- Peter Roberts
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Fletcher’s Slip was an important asset to the people of South Australia. It was the site of the first slipway, enabling full repairs and maintenance of the local ships and ships visiting the colony. As a British outpost that was completely reliant on sea transport for communication, trade and travel, a functioning slipway was very important for the colony’s development.
Previously shipping at the port requiring repair had to go to one of the other colonies, or ships needing to be cleaned were pulled-up and leant over on the shore - an activity termed careening.
Henry Cruickshank Fletcher (1820-1912)
Henry Cruickshank Fletcher (1820-1912) was born Henry Cruickshank Flett at Strathness on the Orkney Islands in Scotland. Henry completed an apprenticeship as a shipwright while still in Scotland. In 1849, H C Fletcher arrived in Port Adelaide on the Camilla with his wife Robina, son John and daughter Robina.
The patent slip was brought to Kangaroo Island in 1837 by the South Australia Company, and was left at Kingscote until 1845, when it was shipped across to Port Adelaide, but again remained unassembled. Fletcher acquired and installed the slip. He leased a two acre piece of land from the South Australia Company at £10 per year for twenty-one years. The site was on the northern (Birkenhead) side of the Port River opposite the wharves at which many of the ships visiting the Port would unload.
The installation of the original slip and construction of the surrounding buildings began in September 1849 on reclaimed land built-up using the silt from the dredging of the river bottom. A thrifty Scotsman, Fletcher used ships ballast in the construction of the buildings, slip walls and slip floors. The slip was completed and functioning by 1851. Its winch was powered by an eight-man windlass and reducing gears.
The first boat to be launched from the slip after repairs was the Panama. The slip was very successful and H C Fletcher had a flourishing business. Soon he was able to stop using the man-powered winch and installed a steam-powered winch instead. The first support building on the site was a wrights and blacksmiths shed. This was followed with an engine house to which an extra storey was later added to serve as a storeroom and mould loft.
After a few years the tramway developed some faults, and the size of the vessels which could be taken up had to be reduced to below 1,000 tons. Increasing business and the fact that his slip was not able to work to full capacity led Fletcher in 1862 to purchase a patent Dunnikier Slip from the Dunnikier Foundry of Kirkcaldy, Scotland. It was designed to be able to take 2,000 tons. but trouble with the installation meant this was not available until 1867, when the first ship drawn up on this slip was the Edinburgh of 1,500 tons. The new slip extended 360 feet into the Port River along the river bottom, approximately to the middle of the Gawler Reach.
H C Fletcher was only willing to undertake the building of a larger slip because he was able to gain the necessary extra land from the South Australia Company. In the speeches at the opening of the Dunnikier Slip a great deal was made of the fact that such important maritime infrastructure had been completed by an individual without recourse to the government purse.
Fletcher's business continued to expand repairing sailing ships and iron steamers. The composite ship Torrens was one of the more notable vessels repaired at Fletcher's Shipyard. It had reportedly collided with an iceberg and its bow was severely damaged.
Although initially Fletcher was in the ship repair business, he later expanded into shipbuilding as well. In the early 1860s, Fletcher had constructed two stern wheel paddle-steamers for the River Murray trade. Settler and Lady Daly were not successful on the Murray because of their length which made negotiating the many twists of the river difficult.
At least part of the success of Fletcher’s Slip came from the fact that the Adelaide Steamship Company used it to repair and maintain its ships, although there were other slips at the port. It was only when some of the company’s boats became too big for either the original slip or the Dunnikier Slip that they began to send them to the other colonies for maintenance and repair, yet they continued to use Fletcher’s Slip for all of the boats which it would take.
Fletcher became a prominent member of the Port Adelaide community; he was consulted about the bridge across the Port River and was a member of the Port Adelaide Institute Committee. He became a very wealthy man, and was able to buy partnerships for his sons John and William in the Etna Iron Works. He also bought his son Henry Cruickshank jnr a farm at Clarendon called ‘Prior’s Court’. His fourth son Tom was employed as the secretary at Fletcher’s Slip. After living in a house at Fletcher’s Slip with his family, he bought a grand house called ‘The Brocas’ at Woodville in 1873.
Fletcher almost built a Graving Dock (a dry dock) as well. To resolve legal arguments with the Marine Board, which wanted to build its own, a parliamentary Act was passed in 1886 to allow its construction, and give Fletcher ownership of a small piece of the river bottom fronting his property. The Graving Dock was never completed due to a number of problems. Seepage from the striking of an underground spring was a major hurdle, and costs to seal this seepage and complete the Graving Dock would have been high. To make matters worse this problem was encountered just after the 1890 shipping strike and during the 1890’s depression. Both of these impacted on the business of Fletcher’s Slip, and Fletcher was forced to sell his son’s farm.
The Graving Dock was completed almost to the point of installing the end gates, when Fletcher abandoned the plan about 1896. It had to be stopped or he risked losing Fletcher’s Slip which had cost so much to develop and was the basis of his business. The site became a popular swimming spot, and was used as the venue for several swimming competitions. Later it was modified and used by Glanville Dockyards as a dock.
Fletcher retired to his house ‘The Brocas’ at Woodville, and died there in 1912 at the age of 91. His son William Fletcher took over the running of Fletcher’s Slip.
In 1917, Fletcher’s Slip was acquired by the Harbours Board, and three years later was leased to the Adelaide Steamship Company, who replaced the steam winch with an electric one in the 1950’s. In 1957 their subsidiary company Adelaide Ship Construction Ltd was established on the site. After this company closed down in 1973, use of the site lapsed. The mechanics of the slip no longer exist, but the slip-way is still in existence, and until recently was the property of the late Jaan Lindsaar. The site is now the property of the Land Management Coporation and is heritage listed with the Port Adelaide Enfield Council.
Source : Fletcher’s Slip, a case study. Ruth Jenkins: B Arch, B Ed (Secondary Arts), Honours Thesis, Department of Archaeology, Flinders University, October 2004.
The City of Adelaide and Fletcher's Slip
In general, the City of Adelaide survived very well with the dangers of wind, waves and rocky shores, but there were two disconcerting major mishaps in her years of sailing the oceans.
In August 1874, within a few hours of completing her voyage from London to Port Adelaide, she was beating up St Vincent’s Gulf at night in a very heavy storm with Captain Llewellyn Bowen at the helm fighting the elements. Despite all the crew’s efforts, she was driven aground on the soft sand at Kirkcaldy Beach near Grange.
Next day those on board were transferred to a steamer by small boats and taken ashore. The cargo was unloaded onto barges, and the ship was enlightened by removing some of the masts and yards. She was successfully towed off on the next high tide a week later, and taken into a Port Adelaide wharf. Later in September, the City of Adelaide was moved onto Fletcher’s Slip where the damage was assessed by the Harbour Master, and she underwent minor repairs.
The loss of her rudder in heavy weather south of Kangaroo Island in November 1877, eight days out of Port Augusta en route for London, was the second of the more dramatic events. The ship was in great danger and saved only by the superb seamanship of Captain Edward Alston, who was able to bring the City of Adelaide around by trailing chains overboard and, after a perilous voyage through Backstairs Passage, limp into Port Adelaide for repair on Fletcher’s Slip.
No single piece of wood large enough for the main piece could be found for the replacement, so it was made from two pieces of grey ironbark, scarphed together, and fitted with brass fittings. Captain E.D. Alston subsequently took the ship back to England via the Cape Horn without mishap. Like the ship, the rudder still survives, and represents a major accomplishment for the shipwrights of Adelaide at the time.
In 2005, Queensland Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries (DPI&F) scientists helped British archeologists to confirm that the surviving City of Adelaide rudder, much damaged by time and seawater, was the one built in Adelaide in 1877. The scientists were able to confirm that the rudder was scarphed and made from Australian grey ironbark proving it to be the 1877 rudder.
Source : Queensland Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries News release, 20 December, 2005.