Sawyers and shipbuilders bring a thriving industry to the Nambucca in 1800s

Davis Shipyard Nambucca Heads circa 1926. The Davis's owned at least five ships on the coastal run.
Davis Shipyard Nambucca Heads circa 1926. The Davis's owned at least five ships on the coastal run.

The first industry on the Nambucca was cedar cutting. This brought about the demand for sawmills, which then required transport to markets in Sydney and along the coast by ship. Shipbuilding followed as a natural progression, right at the source of timber.

Early shipbuilders like Thomas Boulton, George Grant and John May were from England.

William Sullivan, a "currency lad", meaning the child of a convict, also built ships. All these men had first come as selectors and fell back onto trade skills to supplement their income or to take advantage of the burgeoning industry.

Pictured here in 1879, Rock Davis Senior, a shipwright from Brisbane Waters arrived in Nambucca on horseback in 1880. Photos: Courtesy of Nambucca Headland Museum

Pictured here in 1879, Rock Davis Senior, a shipwright from Brisbane Waters arrived in Nambucca on horseback in 1880. Photos: Courtesy of Nambucca Headland Museum

The Davis family of brothers Rock, Thomas and Edward were established shipwrights from Brisbane Waters when they arrived in Nambucca on horseback in 1880.

The connection with Brisbane Waters began with sawyers coming from that area to the Nambucca. The group surveyed the timber quantities in a professional manner and returned home to send back their sailing ships, with bush workers aboard, to commence work on Iron Bark girders, turpentine piles and cedar logs.

Tom Davis returned to build a mill at Bellwood. This was later sold to A. E. Ellis and Co. in 1895.

Edward Davis built his sawmill at Whoorabooraby and when this burnt down he shifted to Nambucca Heads in 1887.

The Davis's owned at least five ships on the coastal run. When Edward Davis's daughter Bertha settled at Nambucca with her husband, Robert White, a master mariner in 1883, the link between the sea and saw milling in the community was reinforced. The timber industry and the workers it employed made wheels from iron bark, roof shingles from oak and stripped wattle bark to be bagged and all then sent to Sydney. The needs of these workers brought butchers, bakers, blacksmiths and other traders to the community.

Rock Davis Senior is held to be the most prolific ship builder in the Brisbane Waters area and the suburb of Davistown is named after him.

The "Alpha" sailing ship portrait by W. Edgar. It is said to be the last sailing ship built by Rock David Senior.

The "Alpha" sailing ship portrait by W. Edgar. It is said to be the last sailing ship built by Rock David Senior.

The "Alpha" was the last sailing ship he built, according to his son Rock Junior and was commissioned by Nambucca pioneer John Eichmann.

A portrait of the ship, by maritime artist W. Edgar, hangs at the Nambucca Headland Museum.

This article used the records of the Nambucca Headland Museum and the book "Valley of the Crooked River" by Norma Townsend.

  • About the author: A local history enthusiast living in the Nambucca Valley, Rachel Burns volunteers at Nambucca Headland Museum and the Mary Boulton Pioneer Cottage and Museum in Macksville. She also hosts a current affairs program and music program on 2NVR, with special interest in interviewing. As a guest writer for the Nambucca Guardian News and Mid Coast Observer, Rachel volunteers her time and research talents to bring the community interesting stories from the past.

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