South Brisbane Dry Dock


Presented by David Jones of the Qld Maritime Museum.

Saturday 6 August 2016, at the Ashgrove Library.



South Brisbane Dry Dock lies at the southern end of the Southbank Parklands and is the home of Queensland Maritime Museum and the historic frigate HMAS Diamantina.

SB Dry Dock originated as part of an attempt to make Brisbane a significant port.  In the early days of the Qld colony, shipping stopped at Sydney.  Brisbane was outside the mainstream of overseas shipping.  All trade was by sea – local, intercolonial and overseas.  The Brisbane River was dredged and SB Dry Dock was built to maintain dredges and service all shipping using the port.

Land was resumed in 1874 at an estimated cost from £25,000 to £40,000.  William Nisbet, and experiences port engineer, designed a dock with stone surrounds costing £80,000 and funds were voted by Parliament in 1875 by the narrowest margin.  The dock could hold any ship using the port and was due for completion in 1876.

Just 1 week later came the first fatality;  James Donald, a 23 year old labourer recently arrived from Galway, died of sunstroke within 2 hours of becoming ill.  13 horses broke down and died in the first 3 months in rigorous conditions.  Various setbacks included unsuitable material, failure of the cofferdam and flooding – all causing delays.

SB Dry Dock finally opened in September 1881, 3 years late.  First vessel was the barque Doon, which was dis-masted in a cyclonic storm 5 months earlier.  The dock had minimal equipment – man and horse power achieved everything.

The dock was 320ft in length and could handle the largest overseas ships coming to Brisbane.  Shown here is the mail steamer Waroonga on service to UK via Torres Strait in 1883.  But she filled the dock with only 2 ft to spare – just 2 years after first opening.

Ships were getting bigger and in 1887 the dock was extended by 100ft to a total of 420ft.  But steam ships were being built with a squarer bilge than the dock’s cross section and in 1895 a steamer could not be accepted because it would not fit into the dock.

The dock’s inadequacies became very public in 1909 when the British passenger steamer Waiparu ran into Smith Rock off Cape Moreton and was beached in a sinking condition.  She was too big for the dry dock and had to be sent to Sydney.  It was a hazardous trip, meeting a gale and she was almost lost on the way.  Agitation for improving the dock or building a new dock continued for decades.  The Government said such a dock would not pay its way so nothing was done.

Another subject for agitation was complaints about the chimney smoke when the dock was being pumped out.  The complaints almost began as soon as the dock was opened and continued for 4 decades before the steam engines driving the pumps were replaced by electric motors.

A sidelight in the early 1900s was the dock’s use for championship swimming.  It was the only place in Brisbane offering 100 yard length.  The world record for 100 yards was set in the dock in 1903 by Richmond Cavill.  Exhibition swims by Olympic champion Duke Kahanamoku and George Cunha were held in 1915.  Swimming in the dock finally ended with the opening of the Olympic-sized Valley pool in 1926.

 Proteus in the dock

Proteus lost a rudder and was adrift for 10 days – tow parted and tore the bulwark – lost steering and rammed Miner under the Hamilton wharf.

The dock was in regular use:  Australian coastal steamers, local shipping and Qld Government vessels, notably the dredge fleet.  Were given a ‘haircut and shave’, a term used by the dock workers to mean cleaning and painting the bottom, as well as repairing damage from groundings etc. and failure of equipment. Individual blocks were laid out for ships as seen here for Norwegian Proteus.


Docking a vessel was an art which did not change over the life of the dock.  Using the ship’s winches, a docking crew used ropes and sight to place it precisely on the blocks – within inches.  Much was done by man-power – the crane, installed in 1907, was hauled by hand.  Men coming to work on the dock were struck by how primitive the methods seemed to be.

These old methods were challenged when Japan entered the war in 1941.  The volume of work expanded as battle-damaged ships began arriving for repairs.  The first of these was HMAS Swan, battered underwater by a bomb blast and above the water by shrapnel and gunfire.  She spent all of March 1942 under repair with Australia under dire threat.

The Americans arrived in April 1942 and a squadron of submarines made their base in Brisbane for 3 years.  The SB dock was one reason that Brisbane was chosen for their base.  85  US submarines were docked at SB dock during the war including some that were badly damaged.  You could say that meeting the challenge of World War 2 was the dock’s finest hour.  298 vessels were docked in 3 years (July 1942 to June 1945) – a record for the dock.

Cairncross Dock

The war also saw Brisbane’s long-awaited larger dock built.  Cairncross Dock was built in under 2 years and opened in mid-1944.  It was 800ft long and could handle large warships and troopships.  These included 2 British aircraft carriers docked during the war – HMS Slinger and HMS Unicorn.

Blacksmith’s Shop

The blacksmith’s shop, also built during the war adjoining the dock, was the ship repair base.  This included a full suite of workshops, such as the blacksmith’s shop, also wharves and blockhouse.  A dockmaster said in relation to the dock’s repair capacity; ‘There wasn’t a thing we couldn’t do’.  One marine fitter described it as ‘and interesting and vibrant workplace’.  After the war, all these facilities were transferred to the Queensland Government.

Further improvements were made over the years including a 6 ton travelling diesel electric crane in 1955.


The vessel in the dock (in the photo) is John Burke’s Kuranda with repairs being made to her propeller and rudder – “tail end work”.  Fitters worked with painters and dockers shifting stages.  Union influence very strong and demarcations taken very seriously.

Wooden Boat Building

Another aspect of the work at the dock was servicing buoys, beacons and small craft and building wooden boats for Government service.  This image is of the 12.3 metre (40ft) pilot launch Dungeness built in the dock’s timber shed in 1957.

Morwong and Decrepit Wharf

By the 1960s the tide was turning against the South Brisbane dry dock.  South Brisbane wharves were deserted and dock facilities were out-dated.  There were changes to cargo carrying, changes in Qld Government’s fleet and the ships were larger.  Brisbane was also changing with the Wilbur Smith Plan and the construction of the Gardens Point Bridge. There was a Cabinet decision on 22 November 1965 on the clearance height of the Gardens Point Bridge and a deliberate intention of closing the dock and transferring activities to a new Cairncross slipway.

Submarine Tiru

Even though the dock’s days were numbered, it still had a useful role to play.  In 1966 there was a series of ocean rescues brought to the dock for repair.  The most important was US submarine Tiru, after running onto a reef in November 1966.

Cementco in South Brisbane Dry Dock

Delays in developing Cairncross saw the use of dry dock extended into 1972.  Cementco was the last commercial user of the dock in August 1972.  The dock closed a month later – on 91st anniversary of its opening.  Just over 5000 vessels were docked during its life.

 1974 Flood

Queensland Maritime Museum took over the property in 1973 and opened displays to the public in 1980.  Over the 40 years occupied since then, QMM has faced various challenges.  The first was the 1974 flood which caused major silting in the dock.  In 1981, the historic frigate HMAS Diamantina was gifted to QMM and docked as a major feature.

Expo 88

Then came Expo 88.  Half of the QMM property including the SRB had to be relinquished in 1984 and QMM had to mount a programme and displays to meet Expo’s standard.   The former Pavilion of Promise was bequeathed to the QMM.

 Goodwill Bridge.

The Goodwill Bridge opened in 2001 and passed right over QMM, between the display galleries and the dock itself. 

This image shows the dock flooded and Diamantina afloat.  This was caused by the failure of the caisson, or gate, rusting through in 1998.  This was a major setback which took 7 years to rectify.  It was replaced by a permanent river wall in 2006.

Carpentaria and Diamantina today

QMM overcame the setback of the 2011 flood.  The South Brisbane Dry Dock is home to Diamantina and Carpentaria light ship.  Secure and dry new access steps allow visitors to walk on the floor of the dock.

A history of the South Brisbane Dry Dock has recently been written and is published by Boolarong Press as “More Than a Haircut and Shave”, selling for $35.