Boat-building family | Mike Scanlon

LONE SURVIVOR: One of the few remaining Towns-built flood boats on display outside the Newcastle Maritime Centre.
LONE SURVIVOR: One of the few remaining Towns-built flood boats on display outside the Newcastle Maritime Centre.

MEMORIES are fading fast of the once famous Towns family of boat-builders. Their workshop and home for 85 years was on the long gone Dempsey Island, swallowed up and merged now into industrial land at Kooragang.

Last trace: The palm tree beside Cormorant Road, Kooragang, is believed to mark the last trace of the Towns family boat-building site. Photos: Mike Scanlon

Last trace: The palm tree beside Cormorant Road, Kooragang, is believed to mark the last trace of the Towns family boat-building site. Photos: Mike Scanlon

Their family saga is one of the great, almost unknown yarns of Newcastle’s maritime history.

Unknown that is, except at Stockton, where the Towns family is still well remembered among older folk.

So, what’s significant today about a family of small boat builders on a mangrove-fringed island, once with no roads, far from the city’s heart?

For decades, the Towns family were noted boat-builders at their then island site not far across the present Kooragang side of the Tourle Street bridge.

Here, they shaped timbers using a steam boiler to build racing skiffs, launches and earlier, watermen’s boats and ‘butcher boats’. Their skillfully built, trim cedar vessels, often up to 28ft (8.4m) long, were renowned for their speed, stability and stamina.

In World War II alone, the Towns family is credited with building 259 boats and literally thousands of oars for the military. One order for the navy alone was for 2000 oars.

Many older Maitland flood boats used in rescues are believed to have been originally built on Dempsey Island.

Extended watermen’s skiffs later used by prawn fishermen on the Hunter River also came from the Towns site and usually measured about 26ft (7.7m).

And it was their early, slightly longer ‘butcher boats’, built in the 19th century era of sailing ships, which became the forerunner of many of today’s surfboats.

A 1947 Herald news article reported N & E Towns of Dempsey Island had built “the majority of the (surf) boats for some years for local and Sydney clubs”.

Then in 1949, Norman Towns, the senior member of the partnership, said the island firm had built “more than 100 surf boats” in 19 years, since 1930.

“Over the years, they have become lighter, the design in that first boat has been modified, but the main features are still used,” Norman Towns told the Herald.

“Today, clubs demand their boats light enough to race with, but strong enough to withstand the battering they get in heavy seas.” 

Earlier, in 1937, the Australian Surf Lifesaving Association even had two boats especially built to compete in a surf contest in Honolulu.

The Towns boat-building operation was located on the southern arm of the Hunter River, opposite Spit Island, now part of the former BHP land; roughly opposite the Stewarts & Lloyds site. Here, the smell of sawdust, shavings and varnish filled the air.

All this island boat-building work was remarkable as no power tools were used – because there was no electricity.

Due to the incessant on-site noise, deafness was also reported to be an occupational hazard. 

Towards the end of the business in the 1950s, Towns family members travelled as far as Gloucester and Dungog in winter (the quiet time for boat building) to secure cedar, the main timber for their business.

Prominent Stockton identity Vera Deacon, writing in a Stockton Historical Society (SHS) journal in 2005 said a fire at the Dempsey Island works in 1954 and the disastrous 1955 flood ended the Towns’ site connection, which had begun in 1869.

On top of that, a NSW Government push from 1951 to reclaim the eight islands (including Dempsey) to form one giant island, Kooragang, in the Hunter River delta, spelled their doom.

“Drive along Cormorant Road (on Kooragang) from the Tourle Street bridge and look to the right (where) you will see a healthy date palm,” Deacon wrote.

“This palm, identified for me by the late Daphne Valentine, nee Towns, was once part of the Towns garden and orchard. It is heritage listed. A tree in history, it is the only living recognisable remnant of this famous Dempsey Island family,” she wrote.

The Towns family business was started by George Towns Snr on the island in 1869. Here, he taught his sons the art of small boat building, according to gifted and tenacious SHS researcher and writer Jean Purtell.

George Towns built two sheds, one a workshop and the other a storage shed. The family lived nearby. Lighting was by candles and kerosene lamps.   

When George Towns died in 1920, three of his sons, Norman, Eldred and Arthur, formed a partnership with Norman’s brother-in-law, Frank Oakley, to continue, Purtell revealed.

After WWII, the brothers turned almost exclusively to building cedar surf boats, each taking the firm a month to six weeks of solid work, involving about 6000 copper rivets and 500 brass screws, Purtell discovered.

Veteran Hunter River prawner Reg Hyde, 91, told me earlier this year of the Towns family also once having 33 hire boats as a business sideline at North Stockton boat harbour.

“Then in World War II, all the small boats in Newcastle Harbour were impounded by the government and heaped at Carrington to be burned if the Japanese ever invaded,” he said.

The late Cliff Callen, of Stockton, also remembered the Towns rowing boats in the harbour around 1928 and earlier. In an interview with Purtell almost 20 years ago, he recalled people rowing in the hire craft around the last of the sailing ships moored on the Stockton foreshore ballast ground.

 “The Towns had lots of boats and they were all called after girls’ names. There was May and Iris and so on,” Callen said. “They were beautiful boats and they would hire them for the afternoon for about three shillings (30 cents).

“This was before the days of outboard engines so you had to pull. If you were caught in a strong tide, you had to pull very hard to beat the tide.” 

But strangely, any modern study into the Towns family today is more likely to uncover details instead about the eldest son, George Towns Jnr, who found fame as a champion rower.  He became Australian single sculls world champion from 1901 to 905 and again from 1906 to 1907.

George Jnr and his sons later made a living out of making oars, then rowing boats, specialising in racing skiffs by the Parramatta River in Sydney. There’s even a street named after him there. He died in 1961 and is honoured in the Hunter Region Sporting Hall of Fame.

But that’s a story for another day.