Hobart's busy ferry wharf, right, c 1910 (W.L. Crowther Library, SLT)

Ferries in Tasmania have varied from dinghies and punts to double-ended steamers able to carry 600 passengers. Ferries were used at first to cross rivers on routes all round the island. Until King's Bridge opened in 1864, one crossed the South Esk at Launceston to gain access to the West Tamar and, upstream, punts were used at Perth (on the north-south route) and Longford. The Derwent, an early transport obstacle, was crossed by 'watermen' who braved rough weather and upset by whales to row passengers to Kangaroo Point. Upstream, James Austin's ferry to Old Beach was running by 1817 and a dinghy service was still operating in the 1930s. There were ferries to Green Point from Hestercombe, from near Black Snake and across the gap from the end of the Bridgewater causeway for thirteen years until the bridge was finished. A hand-operated punt crossed the Derwent at Risdon. With various vessels, later motorised, it ran until 1976.

Best known were the steam ferries to Bellerive and Lindisfarne, the first being Surprise. Derwent ferries were dominated by the O'May family. They started with open boats and the novelty of a regular timetable, and built their first steamer, Enterprise, in 1870. They started a service to Lindisfarne and took over Kangaroo in 1903. Later ferries were the larger Derwent (1905) and Rosny (1913). In 1926 the government's vehicular ferry Lurgurena replaced the venerable Kangaroo. The Hobart Bridge of 1943 terminated the Lindisfarne ferry and the Bellerive vehicular ferry, but Derwent and Rosny served Bellerive until 1963. Only Emmalisa remains on the Derwent run.

The Tasman Bridge accident in 1975 saw the rapid introduction of ferry services to Bellerive and Lindisfarne, using vessels ranging from two Sydney Harbour ferries to smaller cruisers. Landing barges conveyed ambulances, fire engines and prison vans. Wrest Point Hotel had a ferry and a helicopter for guests. Robert Clifford gained prominence with his 'bushranger' fleet, including a hovercraft and his first catamaran.

Bruny Island had passenger ferries to Dennes Point (Gayclite) and Simpsons Bay (Taruna) before the first vehicular ferry Melba, a converted river steamer, ran to Barnes' Bay in 1954. The purpose-built Mirrambeena now sails the shorter route to Roberts Point, established in 1983.

Elsewhere ferries operated at Arthur River, from Port Huon to Wattle Grove (for school children) and from Franklin to Cradoc through the canal across Egg Island. A recent attempt to establish a vehicular ferry near the mouth of the Tamar failed, but passenger ferries ran from Beauty Point to George Town for many years, and the summer-only Shuttlefish still runs. Other survivors are the Fat Man vehicle barge at Corinna and the smart little trans-Mersey ferry at Devonport.

Largely distinct from ferries were river steamers such as Rowitta, Dover, Excella and Cartela which carried both passengers and cargo for longer distances along the Derwent, to D'Entrecasteaux Channel, Bruny Island, the Huon, Tasman Peninsula, the east coast and along the Tamar. Several remained in this service in the 1950s. In their heyday they were immensely popular.

Further reading: G Cox, Ships in Tasmanian waters, Hobart, 1971; D Hammond, Maritime Australia 1, Lucaston, 1996; E Guiler, Gone and almost forgotten, Hobart, 1998; A Alexander, The eastern shore, Rosny Park, 2003.

Graham Clements