Mort's Dock | NSW Environment, Energy and Science

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Mort's Dock

Item details

Name of item: Mort's Dock
Other name/s: Mort's Dock & Engineering Company; Mort Bay Park
Type of item: Archaeological-Maritime
Group/Collection: Maritime Industry
Category: Boat Building
Location: Lat: -33.8535762586 Long: 151.1842890440
Primary address: Thames, Mort, College, McKell, Cameron, Yeend Streets, Balmain, NSW 2041
Parish: Petersham
County: Cumberland
Local govt. area: Leichhardt
Local Aboriginal Land Council: Metropolitan
Hectares (approx): 7.5
Property description
Lot/Volume CodeLot/Volume NumberSection NumberPlan/Folio CodePlan/Folio Number
LOT22 DP1031154
LOT23 DP1031154
LOT26 DP1031154
LOT17 DP748753
LOT18 DP748753
LOT20 DP748753


The area containing the Lot/DPs described below and bounded by Yeend St, McKell St, Cameron St, College St, Mort St, Thames St, and Mort Bay
All addresses
Street AddressSuburb/townLGAParishCountyType
Thames, Mort, College, McKell, Cameron, Yeend StreetsBalmainLeichhardtPetershamCumberlandPrimary Address
McKell StreetBalmainLeichhardt  Alternate Address


Organisation NameOwner CategoryDate Ownership Updated
former Leichhardt Municipal CouncilLocal Government 

Statement of significance:

Mort's Dock was the largest shipyard an engineering workshop in Australia in the latter half of the 19th century. The site developed into the colony's largest private enterprise and in many ways helped establish the colony and Sydney as Australia's premier maritime port. The archaeological remains are possibly the only remains of a dry dock of this size preserved in situ.
Date significance updated: 21 Feb 11
Note: The State Heritage Inventory provides information about heritage items listed by local and State government agencies. The State Heritage Inventory is continually being updated by local and State agencies as new information becomes available. Read the OEH copyright and disclaimer.


Designer/Maker: Thomas Sutcliffe Mort (originally)
Builder/Maker: Private labour
Construction years: 1853-1867
Physical description: The archaeological remains of the dry dock and wider site remain buried beneath what is now Mort Bay Park. The top of the stone walls of dry dock remains visible on the ground in the park. The caisson, and stone retailing walls remain in situ as do the ships bollards, and remants of the patent slips and later container wharf.
Physical condition and/or
Archaeological potential:
As reflected in the physical condition above, both the archaeological and research potential of the site are high.
Date condition updated:23 Sep 10
Modifications and dates: The site has been modified over time, with the major alterations as follows:
1853 the dry dock commenced construction;
1854 stone building (to be used as an office between 1877-1898) was constructed;
1855 dry dock completed; 1866 extension of the engineering and blacksmtihs works to include a patternmakers shop and brass and iron foundaries (Brignell 1984: 5);

1870 a dam at the Cameron St end of the dry dock was constructed;
1874 dry dock extended to 390 feet;
1868 the first patent slipway was built (Brignell: 1984: 5);
1898 dry dock exteneded to 640 feet (Brignell 1984: 19);

1959 the company went into liquidation and was sold to SIMS;
1963 ANL container line bought part of the site to create a container facility. The elements retained by Sims were earmarked for a motel development which would be used in conjunction with the container terminal (Brignell 1984: 12);
1966 ANL added a second berth;
1967 Sims demolished buildings on the northern side of dry dock with disregard for items of historical interest (Brignell 1984: 13);
1968-1969 ANL filled in the dry dock, raised and levelled the site and covered with bitumen. The site was then used as a container depot unitl 1975 when resident protests resulted in its closure (Brignell 1984: 13);

1980 NSW Cabinet proposed threat ~7ha of the site be redeveloped as open space park and housing;
1985 development of park commenced with the demolition of the former NAL passenger terminal, associated warehouse and office buildings, concrete slab and supporting structures (Land Systems 1989: 3);
1986 the first stage of redevelopment was completed;
1986 the second stage involving the residual of the park was commenced;
1989 the second stage was completed with the Department of Housing to complete the residual of park construction adjacent to its site boundaries later the same year. (Land Systems 1989: 3).
Current use: Open space (park) for recreation, school/scout activities and special events.
Former use: Shipbuilding, ship repairs, container facility, manufacturing/engineering works


Historical notes: Balmain and Mort Bay:
The two influences accelerating Balmain's growth were building of Mort's Dock (1855) and opening the Pyrmont Bridge (1857).

The whole peninsula was once virgin scrubby bush and tribal land of the Wangal clan of the Dharug people. In early colonial years 'gentlemen sportsmen' hunted deer, kangaroo and other game onto and on this peninsula. Mobs of kangaroos were driven from the plains of Leichhardt and Ashfield to the narrowest part (Yurulbin - see Birchgrove below). Timber-dealers, grass-cutters and woodmen denuded much of the land of its trees.

Colonial surgeon Dr William Balmain was granted much of Balmain in 1800 (550 acres - today's Balmain and Rozelle). Balmain's grant was subdivided in 1836, 24 years before the older, adjoining Birch Grove estate. Land at Ballast Point on Waterview (now Mort) Bay was sold in 1839 but not until the early 1840s depression did a surge of subdivisions carve up Balmain's grant.

The district started suburbanising as skilled and unskilled workers found lodgings close to town, and transport improved. In 1846, 19.6% of Sydney's population lived here, the largest residential area in the colony. Its deep waters attracted the maritime industry. By 1851 the population was 1397, a mix of middle-and working-class, some in elegant houses, others in cottages. Balmain Municipal Council formed in 1860 and by 1871, the population was 6272, then one of Sydney's largest. The Illustrated Sydney News of 11 July 1889 declared it the "working men's' paradise", with a population of 27,000, in 5000 houses (Read, 2011, 1).

Mort's Dock:
The Mort's Dock site has an industrial heritage spanning more than 100 years (1842 - 1979).

Mort Bay was originally known as Waterview Bay, and at the corner of the bay was the mouth of a small stream which rean down from Balmain Hill through the valley of Strathean. On its way to the harbour, the stream collected in small waterholes known as the 'Curtis Waterholes' after the then landowner James Curtis.

In 1842 James Reynolds purchased from Curtis an area of land bounded by what is now Curtis Road down to the water front between Mort and Church Streets, dammed the stream, built a stone house called 'Strathean Cottage' and sold fresh water to the ships anchored in the deep calm waters of the Bay (EP NSW 2004: 12).

The land was then sold to Captain Thomas Rowntree in 1853, who recognised the site as a prime location for a patent slip. To finance his venture, Rowntree sold his ship the 'Lizzie Webber' and in doing so, met Auctioneer, Thomas Sutcliffe Mort. With partner, merchant J.S.Mitchell, Rowntree had formed the Waterview Bay Dry Dock Company. Rowntree had arrived in NSW in 1852, owning much land. He'd built the 'Lizzie Webber' to carry English passengers to the goldfields and for Australian coastal trading. Mort further recognised the necessity for Sydney to provide docking facilities for ships needing repairs in the Colony, as at that time there were no such facilities south of Bombay (modern Mumbai), India. The location was ideal.

Proprietor and landlord T.S. Mort had a flair for money-making. Building a dry-dock here, he created a building boom and large-scale development. Born in Bolton, Lancashire and comfortably raised, he'd arrived here in 1838, working as a clerk and rising rapidly. By late 1843 Mort was organizing wool auctions (the first to held solely for wool), later of livestock and property. Organising wool sales in London, we was one of our first exporters and laid a pattern for future wool brokers. Mort's Wool Store at Circular Quay was designed by Edmund Blacket, on the site of today's AMP centre. By 1850 Mort was Sydney's leading auctioneer with a fortune from land speculation in search of port space for his wool vessels.

Rowntree and Mort formed the Waterview Bay Dry Dock Company (later Mort's Dock & Engineering Company) in 1853 and built Australia's first dry dock and patent slip on the site. The dock was operational by 1855, one year before Cockatoo Island. The company soon become the largest private employer in the colony, a cornerstone of the union movement and the birthplace of the Australian Labour Party (then the Labour Electoral League, later the Political Labour League), founded in 1891 by Balmain Unionists at the dock, who fielded 4 candidates in the State elections.

Mort recognized the need (there was no such facility south of Bombay) and despite the Government building a dry dock at Cockatoo Island, he started. He offered incentives: on completion, workers got a freehold block of land. Subdivisions and sales of Waterview Bay land followed, values spiraling in 1855 when it opened. Mort had bought large tracts and as needs arose, sold. When the dock needed extensions (1866 and 1875), he met costs with more sales. By 1877 80% of the estate was settled by a working class population. The elite who'd settled the area from the 1840s objected to pollution and industrial impediments to 'their' marine views.

In 1867, Mort's Dock became principally an engineering facility, manufacturing steam locomotives, ships and ship machinery, mining equipment, bridge-iron, steel pipe for the Sydney Water Board. Mort had ceased partnership with Rowntree and taken another partner in Thomas McArthur, superintendent engineer of the Australian Steam Navigation Co. When McArthur died, Mort sold his shares to his foreman and his manager, possibly to guard against growing unionism, or improve flagging productivity. Balmain had become a focus for activity because of the dock, where at least two unions were busy.

The company become the largest private employer in the colony, a cornerstone of the union movement and birthplace of the Australian Labor Party (then the Labor Electoral League), founded at this dock in 1891 by Balmain Unionists, who fielded 4 candidates in State elections. Having bought a copper mine in Queensland and a coal mine in Newcastle, Mort added an iron and brass foundry, boiler-making facilities and a patent slip at Balmain. In 1870 the dock assembled the first locally-produced locomotive.

In 1901 the company opened a second dry dock and slipway at Woolwich to cater for increased demand and by 1917 the Dock has built 39 steamships, 7 Manly ferries, pumping engines for the Waverley and Crown Street reservoirs, and the ironwork for the Sydney GPO. During the interwar period, an iron foundry was constructed, a slipway and floating dock purchased, and a virtual monopoly on industry in the area was obtained.

Mort bought a property near Bodalla on the Tuross River to produce dairy products. He financed French engineer E.D.Nicolle's experiments in refrigeration. Together they formed the NSW Fresh Food and Ice Company. Mort sunk 100,000 pounds into it, making negligible profit. In 1877 to his bitter disappointment, the first attempt to transport refrigerated meat by ship failed. Mort died before seeing the first successful cargo of frozen meat leave Australia in 1879, dying the year before.

Five days after his death, Mort's employees took up a collection to raise a statue in his honour. Sculpted by Pierce S.Connolly, it l was unveiled by the then Governor, Lord Loftus before a huge crowd. It still graces Macquarie Place in the city, opposite the Royal Exchange and Lands Department buildings.

The T.S.Mort Memorial Church remains in Bodalla, family mausoleum in the nearby cemetery and his flamboyant home Greenoaks survive at Darling Point - the latter renamed Bishopscourt and housing Sydney's Anglican bishops since 1910. It is listed on the NSW State Heritage Register. As Greenoaks it was famed for its 7 acre garden (to a 1865 Horticultural Magazine : 'the leading and model private garden of NSW'). Mort was an ambitious horticulturist, giving patronage, land and employment to nurseryman Michael Guilfoyle and his son, William (something alone for which Australia owes him gratitude). He was president of the NSW Horticultural Society in the 1860s pursuing cacti hybridization. The Anglican Church subdivided and built flats immediately south of Bishopscourt and is currently considering selling the mansion block itself off.

In 1901 the company opened a second dry dock and slipway at Woolwich to cater for increased demand and by 1917 the Dock had built 39 steamships, 7 Manly ferries, pumping engines for the Waverley and Crown Street reservoirs and the ironwork for the Sydney GPO. In the interwar period an iron foundry was constructed, a slipway and floating dock purchased and it had a virtual monopoly on local industry (Read, 2011, 2-3).

The outbreak of World War II proved to be a boom time for Mort's Dock. The 1920s and 1930s had seen a decline in the Royal Australian Navy with few vessels constructed and older ships sold off or scrapped. Japan's entry into the war led to a sudden demand for coastal protection and increased offensive power in the Pacific Ocean.

Between 1940 and 1945, Mort's Dock constructed 14 of the 60 Bathurst class Corvettes built in Australia, 4 of the 12 River Class frigates, and a 1000 ton capacity floating dock.

The dock's death knell was introduction of container shipping in the 1960s. Mort's company fell into liquidation in 1959. The site was purchased by ANL in 1960, its buildings demolished, the dock filled in for new wharves in 1965 to create its newest container facility. The backfill preserved the dry dock and other in situ remains providing a high archaeological potential and fabric integrity.

The first container ship berthed here in 1969, but the site was redundant ten years later, moving to Botany Bay.

Controversy raged over redeveloping the site. The NSW Government proposal for a large public housing development was vigorously opposed by resident groups who wanted it landscaped as open space. Groups such as the Balmain Association had formed in 1965, reflecting a changing mood concerning urbanization and loss of heritage. In 1986, in what it claimed to be a compromise, the Department of Planning and the Environment announced 211 Housing Commission flats would be built, with plans for parkland and a harbor-side promenade. The park was developed in stages (one: 1985; two: 1986-9) (Read, 2011, 3).

Historic themes

Australian theme (abbrev)New South Wales themeLocal theme
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Industry-Activities associated with the manufacture, production and distribution of goods Boat Building and Shipwrighting-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Industry-Activities associated with the manufacture, production and distribution of goods Managing industrial relations-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Science-Activities associated with systematic observations, experiments and processes for the explanation of observable phenomena Researching archaeological relics and landscapes-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Transport-Activities associated with the moving of people and goods from one place to another, and systems for the provision of such movements Building and maintaining jetties, wharves and docks-
5. Working-Working Labour-Activities associated with work practises and organised and unorganised labour Working in ports and on shipping-
5. Working-Working Labour-Activities associated with work practises and organised and unorganised labour Workers organising workers-
7. Governing-Governing Defence-Activities associated with defending places from hostile takeover and occupation Naval establishment or involvement-
9. Phases of Life-Marking the phases of life Persons-Activities of, and associations with, identifiable individuals, families and communal groups Associations with Thomas Sutcliffe Mort, merchant, philanthropist, horticulturist-

Assessment of significance

SHR Criteria a)
[Historical significance]
The site is historically significant as a key industrial site to the State, Sydney's first dry dock (1842) in continuous operation till 1979.
SHR Criteria b)
[Associative significance]
The site has an historical association with Thomas Rowntree, Thomas Sutcliffe Mort and latterly (as they both completed apprenticeships at the site) John Storey who became Premier of NSW and William McKell who became NSW Minister for Justice.
SHR Criteria c)
[Aesthetic significance]
The site has a high level of aesthetic achievement becoming a distinctive landscape feature, with landmark qualities, apart from its engineering and industrial/maritime heritage value. The site represents significant technical achievement in the building of the first dry dock in the colony, opening one year before that Cockatoo Island. The site was further responsible for a number of engineering/technical innovation including the alleged development shipboard refrigerated transport.
SHR Criteria d)
[Social significance]
The site is socially and culturally significant and is subject to a high level of communtiy esteem. Mort’s Dock was the largest private enterprize in the colony, contributing to the development of Balmain as a working class area. The site is unique for its contribution ot the trade union movement with the establishment of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union in 1872, and the formation of what is now the Australian Labour Party 1891. It is further significant in providing a detailed picture of production and workplace relations issues at this time.
SHR Criteria e)
[Research potential]
The site has the potential to yield scientific and archaeological information that will further contribute to an understanding of NSW cultural, industrial and maritime history. This high research potential is due to the survival of extant remains of the dry dock, caission and patent slips. The structural remains have a high degree of integrity and intactness as a result of the ANL backfill which preserved the remaining fabric in situ. Mort’s Dock is an important reference site, provides evidence of past maritime and industrial activity that is unavailable elsewhere in NSW.
SHR Criteria f)
The site is rare as it is thought to be one of only three surviving Australian examples of an in situ dry dock of that period. The site provides evidence of a defunct custom, process and way of life in NSW, shows unusually accurate evidence of past shipbuilding, engineering and manufacturing activity, that is important to the archaeological, engineering, heritage and trade union/labour communities in NSW.
SHR Criteria g)
The site is representative of shipbuilding, ship repair, engineering and manufacturing works of that period, of the development of the colony and of Australia as a maritime nation. By 1917, 39 steamships, and 7 Manly Ferries, had been constructed on the site, and significantly between 1940 and 1945, Mort's Dock constructed 14 of the 60 Bathurst class Corvettes built in Australia, four of the 12 River Class frigates, and a 1000 ton capacity floating dock, without which Australia would have suffered during the war effort. Furthermore, the site is outstanding because of its setting, condition, integrity and esteem in which it is held.
Integrity/Intactness: The site has a high degree of integrity and intactness as a result of the infill in the 1960s
Assessment criteria: Items are assessed against the PDF State Heritage Register (SHR) Criteria to determine the level of significance. Refer to the Listings below for the level of statutory protection.

Recommended management:


Management CategoryDescriptionDate Updated
Recommended ManagementProduce a Conservation Management Plan (CMP) 
Recommended ManagementPrepare a maintenance schedule or guidelines 
Recommended ManagementCarry out interpretation, promotion and/or education 

Procedures /Exemptions

Section of actDescriptionTitleCommentsAction date
57(2)Exemption to allow workStandard Exemptions SCHEDULE OF STANDARD EXEMPTIONS
Notice of Order Under Section 57 (2) of the Heritage Act 1977

I, the Minister for Planning, pursuant to subsection 57(2) of the Heritage Act 1977, on the recommendation of the Heritage Council of New South Wales, do by this Order:

1. revoke the Schedule of Exemptions to subsection 57(1) of the Heritage Act made under subsection 57(2) and published in the Government Gazette on 22 February 2008; and

2. grant standard exemptions from subsection 57(1) of the Heritage Act 1977, described in the Schedule attached.

Minister for Planning
Sydney, 11 July 2008

To view the schedule click on the Standard Exemptions for Works Requiring Heritage Council Approval link below.
Sep 5 2008
57(2)Exemption to allow workHeritage Act - Site Specific Exemptions 1. All Standard Exemptions.
2. Site Specific Exemptions:
(a) General maintenance and repair:
(i) Tree surgery where considered necessary for the health of a tree;
(ii) Removal or pruning of trees considered a danger to the public or staff;
(iii) Minor works to improve public access, provide disabled access and to eliminate or reduce risks to public safety;
(iv) Maintenance, repair and resurfacing of existing roads, paths, fences and gates;
(v) Routine horticultural maintenance, including lawn mowing, cultivation and pruning;
(vi) Installation, maintenance and removal of waste bins;
(vii) Routine horticultural curation, including development and management of displays; and
(viii) Installation, relocation, removal and maintenance of park furniture.

(b) Management of temporary events:
Temporary use of a section of the site, the installation of temporary buildings, structures, fencing, facilities, exhibitions, artworks, crowd control barriers, stages, lighting, sound and public address equipment and signage for a period not exceeding 6 months where Leichhardt Council is satisfied that the activity will not materially affect the heritage significance of the site as a whole or the area in which they are to be undertaken.
Jan 14 2011

PDF Standard exemptions for works requiring Heritage Council approval


Heritage ListingListing TitleListing NumberGazette DateGazette NumberGazette Page
Heritage Act - State Heritage Register 0185414 Jan 11 249
Referred to State agency for listing on s170 registerNSW Department of Plannnig S.170 Register 01 May 99   
Regional Environmental PlanSite and remains of former Mort's Dock Site and1213 Oct 10   
National Trust of Australia register   09 Oct 98   
Register of the National Estate  31 Jan 83   

References, internet links & images

TypeAuthorYearTitleInternet Links
Archaeological ReportArchaeology and Heritage Pty Ltd2004Archaeological Assessment: Stone Wall, Mort Bay Park, Balmain.
ElectronicAustralian National University2010Rowntree, Thomas Stephenson (1818-1902) in Australian Dictionary of Biolography - Online Edition View detail
Archaeological ReportDon Godden & Associates Mort's Dock and Engineering Company Co Pty Ltd: Significant Artifacts on Site. A report for the NSW Department of Housing View detail
Archaeological ReportEdward Higginbotham1988Second Report on Further Archaeological Excavation at Morts Dock, Balmain, NSW. View detail
Archaeological ReportEdward Higginbotham1987Report on the Further Archaeological Excavations at Morts Dock, Balmain, NSW. View detail
Archaeological ReportEdward Higginbotham1986Report on Archaeological Investigation of Morts Dock, Balmain. Trenches 13-17. View detail
Archaeological ReportEdward Higginbotham1986Morts Dock, Balmain, NSW. View detail
Management PlanEnvironmental Partnership (NSW) Pty Ltd2004Mort Bay Park: Revised Plan of Managmenet View detail
MapEnvironmental Partnership (NSW) Pty Ltd2004Mort Bay Park Master Plan View detail
WrittenFrancis Pollon1988The Book of Sydney Suburbs View detail
WrittenIssy Wyner1983With Banner Unfurled: the early years of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union View detail
WrittenJohn Jeremy2005Cockatoo Island: Sydney's Historic Dockyard (2nd edn.) View detail
Management PlanLand Systems Pty Ltd1989Mort Bay Prk Management Plan and Maintenance Specification
WrittenLand Systems Pty Ltd1985T. S. Mort Park: Landscape Development. Working Paper no. 1. Opportunities and Restraints
WrittenLJ Hooker Limited1959Mort's Bay, Balmain, Sydney, NSW
WrittenLyn Brignell1984Mort's Dock and Engineering Company Site - Balmain
WrittenMark Hearn2007Sifting the Evidence: Labour History and the Transcripts of Industrial Arbitration Proceedings View detail
WrittenMort's Dock and Engineering Company1908Mort's Dock: Fifty Years Ago and To-Day: Historical - Descriptive - Illustrative View detail
WrittenPaul Davies2009Managing Active and Redundant Industrial and Engineering Heritage Sites View detail
WrittenRosemary Broomham2004Origin of the Stone Wall, Mort Bay Park, Balmain: Mort's Dock & Engineering Site

Note: internet links may be to web pages, documents or images.

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Data source

The information for this entry comes from the following source:
Name: Heritage Office
Database number: 5061224
File number: S90/04325-014

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