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Shipbuilding in South Australia: Twentieth century

Poole and Steele

The two world wars of the twentieth century were both instrumental in increasing the amount of shipbuilding in South Australia. Late in World War I, the Commonwealth government realised that there was a shortage of ships in Australia due in part to wartime losses and a downturn in shipbuilding. The government devised a scheme to promote shipbuilding in the states by advancing loans to companies. In all it required 40 ships with a total tonnage of 148,000 tons. The Sydney firm of Poole and Steele won the contract in South Australia; they were contracted for four ships. They built their new yard at Osborne, gouging out a site among the mangroves, reclaiming sufficient land for an 800 foot frontage, a workshop area of 384 x 128 feet, tramways, slipways and cranes, and wharfs. By January 1920 work had begun on the first ship later to be named Eurimbla. Work proceeded apace, and by July 1920 the keel for the second ship had been laid. The Poole and Steele yard used the most up-to-date equipment and methods, including lathes which were among the largest in Australia. By early 1921 the Commonwealth government had reduced the contract to three ships only. The Eurimbla was launched in April 1921 and handed over to the government in November. The standard of work from the Poole and Steele yard was reputed to be the best in Australia, but it was already rumoured at this date that once they had completed the contracted work, there would be no further Commonwealth jobs.

A post-war shipping surplus was now influencing matters. Despite the formation of committees to investigate the situation, shipbuilding could not continue at the yard without government support - either commonwealth or state. The third ship was completed in 1922. Poole and Steele then undertook to build two dredges for the state government. By 1925 a newspaper report showed that the shipbuilder had diversified to stay in business - in addition to a dredge, it was building wagons for the South Australian Railways and the steel work for the new bridge at Murray Bridge. Finally in 1937 the shipyard was sold, with the state government the purchaser. The site is now occupied by a power station.

Whyalla shipbuilding

With another world war looming in September 1939, Broken Hill Proprietary Ltd decided to build a shipbuilding yard at its Whyalla works. Progress was rapid. Starting from scratch they built wharfs, building and fitting-out berths and all the other requisites for shipbuilding. Their first order was received in June 1940 and the keel laid the next month while the yard was still being built. The corvette HMAS Whyalla was launched 12 May 1941. A further three corvettes were built for the Australian Navy and launched in 1941, after which BHP began building ships for its own commercial needs. The Iron Monarch, 8,158 tons deadweight was the first of these, launched October 1942; the Iron Duke was launched the following year and by the end of the war five River class standard freighters had been completed. During the rest of the 1940s ships continued to be built, but with a slowdown due to a shortage of experienced labour.  Immigration solved this, but other labour issues: trade unionism and strikes for better pay and conditions. These would contribute to the demise of shipbuilding at Whyalla, but not immediately. Ships continued to be built, and gradually increased in size and in their speed BHP kept abreast of the technology and in the late 1950s adopted all-welded construction: this produced ever bigger ships. The slipways were extended to accommodate the ever larger ships, and crane capacity was increased to enable prefabrication techniques to be utilised. The Iron Dampier launched in 1960 was the first to be built using the all-welded construction method.

In the early 1960s the Whyalla Shipbuilding and Engineering Works entered into a Technical Co-operation Agreement with Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries Company (I.H.I) of Tokyo which gave it access to the resources and technical resources of that company. In 1967 the shipyard built the submersible oil rig, Ocean Digger - at 300 feet wide, 365 feet long and 204 feet high and with hollow legs, this was the most unusual commission to that date.  However labour costs and problems were beginning to slow production at the yard, and elsewhere in Australia.

In April 1970 there was a disastrous fire at the yard. The half built tanker Amanda Miller, 66,800 tons was gutted. She was eventually launched in 1971. Ships, including oil tankers and bulk carriers continued to be built and launched, but labour issues continued to simmer, and the launch of Zincmaster, the 59th ship to be built at the Whyalla yards was cancelled twice. The last large ship to be built at Whyalla was the Iron Curtis. She was the 64th ship from the yard and was launched in January 1978 and handed to the owners in August of that year. The work force was reduced and the shipbuilding yard was shut down.

Future of shipbuilding industry
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Osborne shipyards visited
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Ship being repaired
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Ship launching at Osborne
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Shipbuilding at Osborne
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Shipbuilding at Port Adelaide
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Ships under construction
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Shipyard at Osborne closes
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The launching of the Eurimbla
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Towmaster tugs
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View of the Whyalla shipyards
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Whyalla shipyards
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