GET out your candles – the Lady Denman Heritage Complex is celebrating its 20th birthday tomorrow.
In the afternoon an exhibition marking the complex’s 20 years will be opened and Brigid Sant will launch her corresponding book. A formal dinner will be held in the evening.
When then Member for South Coast John Hatton and a group of volunteers hijacked the Lady Denman ferry and brought it back to its birthplace in 1981, work on the complex commenced.
Construction of the first building, which housed the Local History Museum and Timbery’s Aboriginal Workshop, was started in the mid-1980s, funded largely by an Aboriginal Employment Grant.
Laddie Timbery initially came on board as the project supervisor and his association continues to this day.
When the Lady Denman Ferry was returned to Huskisson, he original idea was that it would become a floating museum and tourist centre.
However, it took so long to get the ferry ready that the museum idea took off on its own.
The Lady Denman Heritage Complex opened officially on Saturday, December 3, 1988.
It divided into three sections, each with its own official openings.
Olympian Dawn Fraser opened the Local History Museum, sailor Kay Cottee opened the Museum of Science & the Sea (Halloran Collection) and elder Marjorie Timbery (dec) opened Timbery’s Aboriginal Workshop.
John Hatton was then the Lady Denman president and his wife, Vera, the honorary curator.
The complex owes much of its success to its army of volunteers.
Current Denman president Margaret Britton, a volunteer since 2005, said it was a privilege to help out in a place that has local cultural and historical significance.
During the research for her book, Mrs Sant was impressed with the “breath of activity” contributed by the volunteers.
She also documented the Lady’s colour change.
“In 1983 she was blue, then in 1992 she was green and in 2001 was prima pink,” Mrs Sant said.
Our favourite ferry at a glance
• THE Lady Denman was launched in Huskisson on December 5, 1911.
• She was built by George Dent for the Balmain Ferry Company in Huskisson.
• Her hull was built from local timber milled at the Dent sawmill.
• The keel was cut from 96 foot spotted gum, carted by two bullock teams.
• She weighed 96 tonnes and had a 500-passenger capacity.
• The Lady is 110 feet long and 25 feet at her widest point.
• She was powered by a 38 horsepower steam engine.
• At first she was painted white, maroon and black.
• In 1936 she was refitted with a six-cylinder diesel engine and her colours were changed to light green, with red trim and black topped funnel.
• In 1974 she was repainted blue and cream and in 1979 featured on a 35 cent stamp.
• On June 1979, she completed her last passenger run.
A brazen rescue
A STORY about the Lady Denman would be incomplete without mentioning the brazen story of its return, led by John Hatton and crew.
In the early hours of Sunday May 31 1981, a local fishing boat towed her from Sydney Harbour and straight into more problems.
On entering the Shoalhaven Bight, the Lady encountered stiff northerly winds and began to wallow in three-metre waves.
The lives of the four men on board, Neil Gage, Les Phillips, Ab Mehmet and Ian Ellis were at risk and the RAN was called in to assist.
A helicopter from HMAS Albatross hovered over the Lady until the HMAS Tobruk came to the ferry’s aid.
The Tobruk kept watch until the Lady was successfully towed into Jervis Bay.
She managed to get 200 metres up Currambene Creek before coming to rest on her side.
Despite the risk and the cost, the then State Member for the South Coast John Hatton said at the time the ferry was worth saving.
“It’s always a battle to save something worthwhile,” Mr Hatton said.
“The Denman is a benchmark, a romantic link to the past for hundreds of thousands of people who travelled in the Lady series of ferries on Sydney Harbour.”
Mr Hatton’s dream was to help build a unique maritime museum, which we have today.
While she waited for a permanent home, the Lady was vandalised and was half submerged.
In 1983 she was floated to a permanent dry land site close to where the Lady Denman Heritage Complex was to be built.
The complex was opened in 1988 and thanks to a Federal Government Federation grant of $1.4 million the ferry was saved.
In 2001, the Lady, even though it was a small journey, was sailing again.
She was floated from her dry dock home and came to berth inside the Heritage Complex where she can be seen today.