Paddlesteamers at Sorrento - Oral History
Memories of the paddle steamers at Sorrento narrated by Janet South.
By the 1870s, Sorrento was becoming popular as a holiday resort for wealthy Melbourne people, partly due to promotion by entrepreneur, actor and politician, George Coppin. He formed one company after another, the first of these setup in 1874 was the Ocean Amphitheatre Company, which constructed a road to the back beach, building a large rotunda there. Refreshment places then developed. This company also built the front beach sea baths enclosure with cafe. The four storey Continental Hotel, constructed in local limestone, was erected by another of Coppin's companies and became the most fashionable place to stay.
In 1874 he also floated the Sorrento and Queenscliff Steam Navigation Company, which purchased the Golden Crown paddle steamer, to bring people down from Melbourne, carrying 20,000 visitors in its first season.
On arrival at Sorrento Pier, guests for hotels and boarding houses were met by horse cabs which could also take passengers the 2km from bay to back beach or Ocean Amphitheatre. Cab driving provided a useful part time occupation for local people.
Other companies introduced additional larger steamers over time, the best known being the Ozone which carried 800 passengers from 1886, the Hygeia from 1890 with capacity for 1,400 and the biggest Weeroona, which brought 2,000 people down the bay.
As visitor numbers increased, a more efficient transport link was needed between front and back beaches, and the Sorrento Tramway Company was formed in 1889 by Coppin and others to provide a steam tram service, supplemented by horse drawn tram cars. This tramway often carried more than 20,000 people in a four month season, using six open cars with transverse seating each carrying up to 50 passengers, drawn by to Baldwin locomotives.
The front beach terminus was a platform built on the high ground known as Policeman's Point, connected to the pier by an iron bridge. The double track, just one metre wide, ran across from here to the Portsea Road intersection, then straight up the main street and to the back beach, swinging sharply left onto a terminus platform high above the ocean. Tea rooms and a wine bar catered for passengers needs.
In time, of course, the increasing popularity of the motorcar slowly made in-roads into the bay steamer trade, and the last tram ran at Easter in 1921.
"In the morning, we set off to catch the 8 o'clock train at Gardiner Station to reach the docks in time to board one of the bay ferries. The Hygeia, the Ozone or the Weeroona. As we arrived at Sorrento the excitement mounted, after disembarking, we hurried along the pier to people calling out 'All Aboard!'. The whistle blew and we were off on a most exciting journey."
"The tram rattled and shook as it took us straight to the back beach, in the middle of the late afternoon, the steam tram blew it's whistle again, and we all reluctantly trooped up to the platform for the ride back to the pier and the waiting ferry."
Mostly of an afternoon, the pier became a mecca of entertainment for holiday makers, to meet, or greet friends, or farewell those who had to return to Melbourne on the afternoon bay steamers. It was always an event, most people turning up in their best outfits.
"We arrived at Sorrento yesterday after a very pleasant trip down the bay on the paddle steamer Hygeia, it took just over two and a half hours. A new and much larger paddle steamer the Weeroona is now making excursions around the bay as well. The boats are met by wagonettes from the different guesthouses and hotels."
"As the ship drew away from Sorrento, to making a sweeping turn, the ship's wake, characteristic of all paddle steamers, was like a bridal train. The day closed with the singing of Auld Lang Syne and the mariner's final salute of three long blasts, this time from the Weeroona's naval siren."