The link below will take you to a story about Edward Higgs, my Great Grandfather who immigrated to Tasmania, settled and became a boat builder of Tasmanian Ketches.
ROMANCE OF THE MERSEY ESTUARTY
Boat and Ship Building
“Edward Higgs was born in London in 1848, and came to Australia with his father Joshua Higgs about the time of the gold rush. The family came to Tasmania in the late fifties or early sixties.
Born in London in 1820, Joshua Higgs, a professional Architect and Surveyor, of London and Cold Ash, Thatcham, Berks, came to Melbourne in 1852, where he supervised many public works under Governor Latrobe. He moved to Northern Tasmania in 1857, with his wife and family of six (later increasing to twelve) children, including Joshua, the well-known Artist, and Edward, the Shipbuilder. They came to Torquay, and lived at ‘Arnwood’, which was built about 1870, or earlier. The house is situated on a rise overlooking Pardoe Beach.
Joshua Higgs was later Inspector of Roads for Northern Tasmania, and Surveyor of Trevallyn in Launceston, where he died in 1897. The late Mr A. Brodie Hunt owned ‘Arnwood’ for many years. The present owner, Mr J. W. Cowan, said it is to be demolished before long, to make way for a road and more small houses for the Housing Commission, at Pardoe Downs.
Edward Higgs was the second eldest son of Joshua and Mary Higgs. Joshua, a gifted artist and surveyor, emigrated with his young family to Australia in 1852 sailing from Liverpool on 22nd July on the passenger ship “Delta” of 971 tons under the command of Capt. John Dennis. It was “Delta’s” maiden voyage arriving in Melbourne on the 15th October. He then sailed on the “S.S. Lady Bird” to Launceston in December 1857.
Edward was just 4 years old when he arrived in the new colony and the experiences of the long sea voyages were to have a lasting impression on the young lad. His determination to become a shipbuilder did lead Edward to become a master craftsman and seaman establishing his shipyard on the banks of the Mersey River in the exact spot where “Spirit of Tasmania” berths today.
Ships were in vital need for the young colony as they were the main means of transport, the lifeblood for Tasmania’s growing population and were relied upon as sole means for survival. Many great ships crafted by Edward Higgs were servicing this ever expanding colony as both Tasmanian Coastal traders as well as what were known then as Australia’s Inter-Colonial traders. As Inter-Colonial traders Edwards ships traded as far west to Esperance W.A. and north to Townsville Qld. and many ports between. The main ports of call were Port Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.
During their time in Spreyton Joshua jnr. and Edward rowed down river to the yard of John Drake, a Scotch shipbuilder. John was constructing the schooner “Lucy Drake”. After some discussion Edward secured an apprenticeship with John and eventually becoming the foreman of the Drake boat yard until he set out on his own as a journeyman ship builder.
Edward completed his apprentice with John Drake in the sixties, and went to New Zealand and New South Wales where he built vessels also. When Mr Drake began building “The Anthons” Edward returned to help him, and as soon as this vessel was launched he went to live at ‘Arnwood’, a residence which was owned by his father. It was situated on high ground overlooking the sea and Pardoe Beach, about a mile and a half east of the Mersey.
On a gravelly shelf situated at the western end of Pardoe Beach, and at the beach end of the road leading from the main highway, Ted set to work to build the ketch “Manuka”. She was completed and launched on September 8th, 1876, into a pool that was quite deep on a full tide. He had to be sure that when he launched her the weather was good and that no easterly wind was blowing, and he had to remove her quickly and get her along the coast and into the Mersey while the sea was calm. She was built of well seasoned stringy bark with Kauri deck, and was ketch rigged. Her length was 56 feet at keel and her size 60 tons burden. This vessel was purchased by Captain D.C. Urquhart who registered her under the new name of the “Peerless” and not under the name Mr Higgs had given her. Captain W. Noake became master of her. She was wrecked on King Island in September, 1878, when Tom Holyman was in command of her.
As Charles Ramsay wrote; “This honest shipbuilder”, displayed many talents during his career, which enabled him to diversify in the construction industry. After his apprenticeship with John Drake he was employed by John Griffiths. He married Mary Graham of the Mersey in 1873, they lived in ‘Arnwood’ overlooking Pardoe Beach, the home of his father Joshua Higgs. It was here he decided to take up the challenge of entering into the shipbuilding industry on his own, in 1876 he set about to build his first production on Pardoe Beach. The vessel was called “Manuka” later named the “Peerless”.
The business and family expansion forced Edward to build his own home on the Esplanade at the foot of Oldaker Street, (so named after his sister’s husband) the new home in 1897 which was also called ‘Arnwood’. Across from the home the shipyard was built, where the Bass Straight ferry terminal now stands. The home was dismantled and re-erected in a property near Port Sorell to make way for the terminal.
It was appropriate to have his new yard as one of his sisters married Francis Oldaker, a son of Charles Oldaker after whom the street was named.
Here Mr Higgs built the ketch “The Twins” of 60 tons and had her launched on July 20, 1880. When she was ready for sea she was taken over by George Bennett as master.
His next ship was the ketch “W.J. Taylor” of 80 tons which he built for William J. Taylor who also became her master. She was launched on January 3, 1884. This little vessel was lost in December, 1984 at Point Lonsdale.
The ketch “J.C. Taylor” of 33 tons, was launched by Mr Higgs early in May, 1885, for John C. Taylor. Some time later she became the property of Mr Bishop of Adelaide who lengthened her and renamed her the “Priscilla”. She
was passed on to Mr Bishop’s son, and then to the grandson, and was so carefully looked after that she was still afloat during the last war (WW2) when she was again sold and sent to the northern parts of Australia.
This honest shipbuilder then left the Mersey for a time but in 1891 he came back, re-erected his shipyard at East Devonport, and at the beginning of 1892 laid down the keel of a large ketch for Captain J.C. Taylor of Penguin. She was launched on September 10 of that year and named the “Lizzie Taylor”. Her length was 82 feet on keel, her size as 120 tons, and she cost 1,900 pounds. The “Lizzie Taylor’s” maiden voyage was from Ulverstone to Brisbane, a journey which was completed in nine days. She was sold to a New Zealand firm about the end of the century, and ended her days toward the close of 1915 when she was wrecked on the Namukau Reef in the Pacific.
In June 1891 the schooner “Enterprise”, owned by Captain J. Thompson, went ashore on the west side of the Forth breakwater and was thought to be a total wreck. She was put up for auction and bought by Mr T. Scott of Forth for eighty two pounds, the cargo being bought by Norman Cameron for forty two pounds. The wreck could not have been in a very bad state as in October Edward Higgs purchased it, succeeded in re-floating the vessel, and having it towed to the Mersey. She was never rebuilt and a couple of years later was being cut up for firewood.
During the early part of the first world war Edward Taylor had the “Annie Taylor” built for him at Port Albert Victoria, by Edward Higgs and his eldest son Ernest.
It is difficult to trace the full operations of that well-known builder, E. Higgs, documentation of the same is scant. He, one account shows, for about 60 years (to 1930) had his yards at the ferry bridge at old Torquay. (The settlement of Torquay and Formby were united and became on town, now known as Devonport.)
In 1885 he left for Western Creek, where he constructed a sawmill, returning at times to carry on his profession back at Devonport on the Mersey River, shipbuilding.
His principal productions were:
Vessels that Edward worked on before starting his own business.
There are many other small craft Edward worked on over the years, which records have been lost. He worked on barge construction at the Don River for John Drake during his apprenticeship and Harry Wood some time after his apprenticeship. At one stage Edward was invited to build small fishing boats at Bridport Tasmania as a tourism industry was being established there. He successfully built several small fishing boats at Bridport.
In addition to the above mentioned ships Edward Higgs built many fishing craft in Devonport and at Lake Macquarie, NSW.
Died 1928, buried at the Western Creek Cemetery with his wife Mary.
Edward Higgs was one of the unique pioneers, not only with the design and construction of vessels, but was one of the first to recognise the cheap power available from inland streams to operate plant. Edward and Joshua Jnr. who was apprenticed to a flour miller, Mr Kelcey, in Spreyton. The power for the flour mill and an adjacent saw mill was secured by impounding and harnessing the tides. When released the water powered the Spreyton flour and saw mill. This methodology, modified as it was not tidal at Western Creek, was reused later by Edward Higgs when he established his saw mill at Western Creek, at the foot of the Western Tiers!
Edward Higgs served his apprenticeship at John Drake’s shipyard, located on the Mersey River, during the 1866s. It was here Edward was given a wide grounding in ship construction, including an in-depth knowledge of timber technology, and the design of sailing vessels.
Tasmania was under economic pressure from the 1870 into the 1900s, effecting employment opportunities. It was exacerbated through the increase in population by migration from BRITAIN, even the mining boom could not absorb the influx of the new settlers. The settlers influx caused that ambiguous drift of the work force to the Mainland which had been a constant threat to the State for decades.
Edward Higgs was concerned with this drift away from Tasmania, therefore his interest was directed toward the welfare of his young family, all of which could not be absorbed into his shipbuilding activities. So his prime consideration to move into the timber industry was economic. Firstly, to allow himself the freedom to pursue his chosen profession, the shipbuilding industry, and the liberty to choose his own timber for the construction of his vessels. Secondly, and just as important, to provide employment for his sons, thus keeping the family unit intact. Edward also built the school in Western Creek in which some of his daughters taught the young residents of Western Creek.
It was in conjunction with his brother Sidney, an export woodsman; Edward explored the eastern slopes of the Western Tiers for a suitable site to purchase land, that would be suitable for a homestead and a timber mill. During their search they were appalled by the ring barking of beautiful trees by the settlers, who attached no value to their worth. The trees they noted were, blackwood, myrtle, sassafras, native pines, honeysuckle and stringy bark gums, all suitable for shipbuilding.
The property selected was at Western Creek, below the Tiers where abundant timber and water was available. Building began 1884, and Edward designed a water turbine, and constructed it from timber, which was to be operated by the velocity of water passing over paddle buckets, it was controlled by a head gate located in the flume. The main flume or water race was to be fed from waters of Western Creek taken into the system about 800 meters up stream from the mill, the controlled pressure of water would give constant speed to the plant saw blades. The mill was in full production the following year.
Though the Western Creek property was in operation Edward Higgs did not abandon his slip on the Mersey River, fulfilling orders for any tender he received for vessels, one well known in Devonport for the “Lizzie Taylor”.
During 1888, Edward Higgs was commissioned by a private company to construct swimming baths at Torquay between Thomas Street and Police Point. The Baths were subdivided into male and female apartments with nine dressing rooms each. The total cost of the project when completed was $619.30.
Due to the shortage of shipping during and after World War I, barges were conscripted to operate between Tasmania and Melbourne ports for the shipment of cargo to and from the Mainland. In between his workload Edward Higgs would volunteer as helmsman on the barges while under tow by the tug across Bass Strait. It is worth recording on stormy night the tug lost its tow, and it was three days before Edward and his barges were found. This ended the days of the volunteer helmsman!
This quiet achiever and pioneer with his wife, now lie buried in the Western Creek Cemetery, with the eternal headstone of the Western Tiers standing sentinel.
The Taylor and Higgs family bond or relationship.
Again, there is little documented about the apparent bond or business relationship between the Taylors and Higgs, pioneering families of the NW of Tasmania. One such incident that would have helped this bond occurred in Torquay, Tasmania when John Taylor was attending to the families business matters the Taylor family suffered a major set back when fire destroyed John Taylor’s home and shop. Edward Higgs was a neighbour of John Taylor and Edward amongst others were involved in saving a number of furniture items and some stock.
As well, once Edward moved to Western Creek he did not sever ties with the people of Torquay. Much of the timber he milled was transported to Torquay for building construction, ship building and the intercolonial trade. The latter was trade the Taylor family were heavily involved in.
Members of the Higgs family often visited members of the Taylor family in the Torquay area. One such visit was documented when The Bishop (Mr Styant Brown) and The Laird (Joshua Higgs Jnr.) visited Edward and Mary Higgs at Western Creek, 1889 for an extended visit. At the end of the visit it was suggested they then visit Mr J Taylor as follows; “The next day the two left Western Creek, stopping first at Mr J Taylor’s property, Somerford”.
The common theme for the Taylor and Higgs families was that of their maritime interests. The Taylor family interest was in crewing and/or being Masters aboard ships of the Tasmanian Coastal trade and the Australian Inter-Colonial Maritime trade. The Taylor families interest also grew into the commercial side of the maritime trades. However, for the period of the 1880’s through to the early 1900’s there were no less than seven Taylor brothers who were masters of vessels trading on or around the northern Tasmanian coastline and Bass Strait Islands as well as, on the Inter-Colonial routes including the Port Esperance W.A. , Port Adelaide S.A , Melbourne Vic. , Sydney, N.S.W. and Townsville, northern Qld.
From a very early age Edward Higgs goal in life was to become both a designer and builder of ships, this he achieved to a high level of competence. As mentioned, Edward was apprenticed to John Drake renowned Formby boat builder. Following his apprenticeship Edward completed his trade papers as a journeyman in the Griffiths family boat yards at Torquay and Port Sorell. After this he established his own boat yard at Torquay after building his first boat at Pardoe Beach. During the course of his Torquay yard Edward built or re-built in 2 instances eight ships that the Taylor family owned, crewed and or were the Masters of.
At that same time in the Formby and Torquay districts worked the following, well respected, shipwrights John Drake, The Griffith family and Harry Wood all of whom Edward Higgs had worked for or with. This group of North West shipwrights built a total of 14 ships for the Taylor family with 8 of them being built by Edward Higgs. Those being;
As life progressed and Edward and Mary’s family grew they agreed to settle in Western Creek and establish a timber mill. Ultimately, this was to gainfully employ his sons during the difficult times Tasmania was then experiencing. However, a second goal was to saw and mill first class boat grade timbers for his own ship and boat building, that of others and for the Inter-Colonial timber trade.
Edward had earned the following reputation “This honest shipbuilder”, displayed many talents during his career, which enabled him to diversify in the construction industry. This was also verified, in writing, by other customers. It is my belief that the foregoing clearly demonstrates a bond of mutual trust and respect, at both a professional and personal level, between the two families acknowledging, each other’s skills and knowledge, be it in the maritime industry as Master Mariners, managers of commerce and that of the design and building of worthy inter-colonial trading ships.
The structure and build of a typical Tasmanian Trading Ketch
The building of ketches in the early days was hard work for man or beast, generally horse or bullock. There were no power tools simply shaping, rebating and scarfing by axe, broad axe and adze after the logs and scantlings had been fallen and then roughly cut in a saw pit. Before cutting could commence a pit had to be dug and the keel log set up on blocks so it could be moved over the pit for full length cutting. As by way of “necessity being the mother of invention” there are records of some long keel logs being drill centrally at equal distances and then loaded with gelignite and roughly split with gelignite before pit sawing.
The Tasmanian method of ketch construction was known as “frame built”, that is solid frames although some were laminated at the turn of the bilge only if suitable grown frames, known also as “crooks” could not be found in the bush. Generally the shape of frame at each station would have been taken off a ½ model of the ketch enabling the finding of and then shaping of the solid frame to occur in the bush and then transported back to the yard. Once stood up and fastened to the keel floors were installed to support the frame. Sometimes double frames were used for additional strength. At this stage some internal longitudinal stringers and shelving were fitted, thus strengthening and bracing the frame of the vessel for both the build and once at sea.
As time moved on it became common for frames to be sawn to shape at the boat yard. Once the frames were in place planking could commence and often was done by fixing one plank, then missing a plank and fixing the next. This was known in Tasmania as “bird caging”. It had the distinct advantage of allowing the first set of planks to dry and harden before the intermediate planks were then fitted tightly and caulked. In early days “trunnels” or treenails were used to fix planks. Trunnels were basically a wooden dowel from 1” to 1.5 “made in a variety of ways. The plank and frames were drilled accordingly and the trunnel driven in hard. Once in the water the trunnel would swell and basically become part of the wood in the frame and the plank proving one of the strongest fixtures. However, by the 1940’s all fixings had changed to iron, steel or other metals.
Once planked the deck would be laid followed by deck structures such as cabins, focastle companion ways, hatches and coaming, plus the deck hardware of Samson Posts and bollards. Then the masts were stepped using blocks, tackle and shear leg with a horse or bullock doing the pulling to step the mast. Following this, the rigging was seized to the blacksmiths hardware that had been appropriately fixed to the ketch.
The research into the build integrity of the Tasmanian Trading Ketches.
As confirmed in Rick Bullers thesis, the Tasmanian Trading Ketches as “Australian-built vessels did not have a markedly different attrition rate to foreign built vessels operating on the Australian coast. It has been stated that Australian-built vessels, rather than being poorly-built, were cheaply built, and that these vessels were built relatively lightly.”
The following is an account of the construction of a Tasmanian Ketch built in Port Albert, Victoria. The ketch was the Annie Taylor built in 1920 by father and son shipwrights, Edward and Ernest Higgs, both ex Tasmanian shipwrights, and owned by the Taylor Brothers which served Tasmania well up until 1924 when she was wrecked at Rheban Beach due to having to leave the wharf in high winds laden with timber, after which she foundered and was lost on Rheban beach.
She was a wooden (the last known trunnel built ship in Australia) ketch with the following details; O.N. 132437, wooden 2 masted ketch, round stern, clipper bow, 103.25/95.75 gt, net 88.0X22.5X8.0ft. She frequented Melbourne, Sydney, Wollongong, Adelaide and many Tasmanian ports trading timber and general cargo.
“The memories now of a small boy then at Fathers Port Albert boat building yard.”
Firstly, the rough log about 90’ [long] was hauled to the yard by bullock wagon with a tough whip swinging, “multilingual bullocky” depositing some tons of the log into the desired position to be squared and shaped 12” X 12” its full length before being rolled over, raised and aligned on the building stocks. The 2” thick (off the saw) planking arrived next, this almost flawless beautiful timber quarter cut with one sawn straight edge, the other side had the bark left on, this allowed the plank to naturally pull edge-wise into a slight curve as the timber dried out, a great help to those who planned the vessel. As these planks were unloaded they were laid with a gap between on battens on the flat ground and turned over each day. The other framing timber arrived within a few days, these pieces (scantlings) were for stem and stern, framing, gunwales, stringers, shelves, deck beams, bulwark-stanchions, rail capping, sampson posts, cavils etc. The main frames solid and some laminated, especially at the bends at the turn of the bilge were cut in the bush from natural ‘knees” and to the shape of the templates taken from the model [half] then full sized by Grandfather. These knees and curved pieces were brought back to the yard by dray or sledge.
Framing construction was done on a rough planked platform square across the keel now in position on stocks, each frame 2 layers laminated to full size (mould) template was fastened through with 1’ diameter trunnels (tree nails) and after the stem and stern framing was shaped and fixed in position the solid frames were hauled up vertically, one after the other working from forward to stern, and hauled by the willing “Bonnie” through blocks, tackle, shear leg and all correctly positioned, this almost human white draught horse understood exactly what was required, start and stop, and carefully avoided as much as possible stepping on timber. Decking timber was imported [from Tasmania] a quarter cut 2” thick Celery Top pine had come through Melbourne via the coastal steamer Moonah and unloaded at a wharf not half a mile away. Just a few miles away at Alberton a farmer known to Dad had each side of his entrance to the farm house an avenue of fine pine trees , not the usual pine these were Douglass Fir or similar, straight and small limbs and sound quality however, Dad and Grandfather visited this farmer often and finally persuaded him that a couple of the trees on the south side were sticking out of line and the Avenue could be vastly improved, so they were sold a couple, that’s where the main and Missen Masts came from and apart from a few cracks on drying out they were sound “sticks”. The top masts and booms and yards were from timber yard Oregon. Bow Sprit, cross trees also Oregon. Cat’s heads and hounds were from strong hard wood as were the Samson post, fwd and Bollards aft and at breast hooks grown knees.
As time progressed and various parts and pieces were shaped to bevel and with adze, axe or broad-axe, cross curt saws- the yard became covered with wood chips, these were not gathered up in the winter as they kept away the wet mud underfoot.
A rough vertical boarded shed to the north housed the tools, trunnel making machine (hand operated), Oakum Stockholm tar etc. Trunnels’ were made on wet days and too talkative visitors to the yard when hanging around would be asked to turn the handle at a large wood “flywheel” with a rope belt connected to the iron hollow-head, it was fitted with two hand plane blades which on rotation would shave the square stock timber to round trunnels.
The square wood was held in a two handle stock and inserted in the rotating iron head, pushed in about 18” and pulled out a clean full 1” dowel like “tree nail”. The square wood was very special good stock and straight grained. These, when being used, were dipped in Stockholm tar. Planking was carried out after being set out stem and stern and amidships by what was then called the “bird cage” method, Sheer strake (wide) fitted and fixed full length [at the top of the frames]. Garboard strake next [adjoining the keel] then every second one through-out the hull, full length fore and aft. This enabled all planks to dry out and season with enough moisture content for bending purposes and 2nd or intermittent planks were fitted as late as possible and driven home tight and fixed prior to caulking, hull planed off by hand before the hardwood became too hard to plane. The laying of the celery top deck came soon after spiked down with galv. “E.W. Bank” spikes, caulked and oiled.
Deck houses next, Main then the aft main cabin and fo’castle companion way with sliding curved top and slide down wash rails, Hatch Coamings around the main cargo hatch and strong-back fore and aft then hatch covers fitted within and provision on the outside for canvas cover battens and iron lugs for wedges. The masts were stepped using a shear leg guyed in position and “Bonnie” doing the hauling through blocks, iron work made by the blacksmith in Alberton or Yarram fitted before stepping and all tarred or painted black.
As a boy I remember roaming the decks while Captain Taylor and 2 hands, one I think his son, carried out the standing and running rigging prior to launching. Lots of other gear was fitted such as the rudder and steering gear to wheel aft (cross at that time). Bow-sprit rigging, bob-stay, port and starboard stays, bands and lugs, huge deck bilge pump lever operated and emptied over the deck to scuppers. The cargo hold was completely lined over the frames and floored each side of the keelsons and forward bulkhead abaft focastle back to Captain’s cabin aft. The distance between these bulkheads determined cubic carrying capacity of the Ketch, and this determined crew numbers who should be manning the vessel.
However, Mother broke the bottle of champers over the bow after several bounces and with a lot of tapping of wedges and grinding noises she slid down the ways and came to rest by the old jetty. A crowd turned up to the launching, a man on the gate collected a few pounds for the local Hospital.
I was in one of four fishing boats, 2 each side and towed the “Annie Taylor” down the harbor and across the bar from which she (no engine) sailed away to Tasmania.
E.W. Higgs” (sourced from Higgs Family records)
The above is a rough account of the Tasmanian Trading Ketch build process. Other research books and documents on Tasmanian Trading Ketches stated, “that mainly the process of building a ketch was knowledge only to those who built them, and that those people had passed on before it was rightfully documented”. The above account is that of the son and grandson of the Annie Taylor shipwrights.
Peter Edmund Higgs
Great Grandson of Edward Higgs.
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