The deposition that changed the course of Coffs Harbour’s history

From John Kramer, Ships and Timber: a short history of Coffs Harbour port and associated railways

In 1911, a Royal Commission into Decentralisation concluded that the “port of the south” should be Jervis Bay and the “port of the north” should be Port Stephens. [1]  Patrick MacNamara was having nothing of this. When the Public Works Department, which had the role of actually building the harbours, conducted further hearings in 1912, Patrick launched forth, as only he could. [2]

The rest is history. Port Stephens became the sleepy town, and Coffs Harbour became the place that launched a thousand ships. At the same series of Public Works hearings, Woolgoolga had a go at becoming the chosen port. But Woolgoolga’s advocate, Mr. Rudder, admitted defeat, explaining that “we don’t have a P. J. MacNamara”. [3]

Patrick MacNamara passed away in 1929, aged 62 years. His funeral was the “largest ever seen in Coffs Harbour”. [4]  Mr. C. A. Clarke of Karangi, who had accompanied Patrick on a number of deputations to Sydney, paid tribute: “We would have failed repeatedly but for him,” said Mr. Clarke. “The officials we saw could put us off, but Mr. MacNamara was too well primed with facts and the knowledge of how to go about things to be brushed aside.” [4]

As the Coffs Harbour Advocate put it at the time: “In the death of Mr. MacNamara Coffs Harbour loses its greatest champion and most ardent and consistent worker for its progress and development over a period of almost a quarter of a century.” [5]

The deposition that changed history follows.

The Public Works Committee.

At Coff’s Harbour.

The above Committee visited Coff’s Harbour last week, when the following evidence was tendered in connection with the construction of the harbour, and the value of trade derived from the adjacent districts:—

  1. J. Macnamara deposed :— I was six years secretary to the local Railway League, both in connection with the North Coast railway and the Dorrigo railway. I accompanied Mr. Usher, of the Railway Department, on two occasions. He came here, I think, on instructions from the Railway Commissioners, first when he was making a report in connection with the North Coast railway, and secondly, when he was making a report about the Dorrigo railway. On the last occasion, he and I were out together for six days, and we traversed the whole of the route from Coff’s Harbour to beyond North Dorrigo, up near the Little Murray River. I have given evidence on two occasions before the Public Works Committee in connection with those railways, and the Decentralisation Commission. l have been pretty well all-over the country through which it is proposed to connect this port. l have been right out as far as Mungindi, on the Queensland border, and to Moree, Armidale, Inverell, and other places. The absolute necessity of having on the North Coast a deep-water harbour, capable of dealing with large ocean going vessels for direct export traffic, is evident because Newcastle (including Port Stephens) is, approximately, the centre of the coast line of New South Wales, and therefore, in the extreme southern boundary of the northern half of the coastline, and for this reason, quite unsuitable as a sea outlet, which should be as central as possible, whilst Coff’s Harbour is midway between Sydney and Brisbane, and also being 178 nautical miles from Newcastle, and 134 from Point Danger, is within 22 miles of the absolute centre of the northern half. It has, within 40 miles south, the rich and rapidly developing territories of the Bellinger and Nambucca Rivers, the bar of which are very bad, and practically incapable of improvement; therefore, with railway connection, Coff’s Harbour in the future must be looked upon as their natural outlet. It has behind it the fertile Orara and Dorrigo country, with an average rainfall of 60 inches, the second highest in the State, and, with the Dorrigo part only in its infancy. It has, within 70 miles north and south respectively, the large and growing districts of Grafton and Kempsey with their, at times, not too reliable sea outlets. Further back, it has the enormous inland territory comprising Guyra, Glen Innes, Inverell and Moree districts, which in natural richness are unexcelled, and which will be eventually joined to the coast by a connecting link between the Great Northern railway and the Dorrigo railway. The estimated cost of harbour improvements, namely, £190,000, is a mere trifle compared to the ad-vantages to be gained by having a safe and reliable port in the north, and also, when the inland connecting railway is built, by the saving of freight on goods sent from the interior for direct oversea shipment. The size of the harbour projected would be ample, 65 acres in minimum depth of 30ft. at spring low tide, as, with the modern cargo vessels security and depth of water are of far more importance than size. For instance, at Circular Quay, Sydney, with, its small area, there are sometimes to be seen seventy or eighty thousand tons of shipping berthed. It has been shown that Coff’s Harbour is, naturally, the sea outlet of a tract of country roughly speaking 20,000 square miles in extent, or in other words, of a territory half the size of England and Wales; and for the proper expansion and development of this large area, it is imperative that a central deep-water port should be formed for direct oversea shipment. On all grounds, therefore — geographical and economical — Coff’s Harbour has a pre-eminent claim to special attention being devoted by the Committee to its advantages for the formation of a national port on the North Coast. When I came here, exactly six and a half years ago, the population was 200, now it is 2216, an increase of over 2000. The population return as taken by the Police during the past four years is as follows:— 1909, 1422; 1910, 1730; 1911, 1875; 1912, 2243. The number of butter factories in 1905 was 1; now there are 5, an increase of 4. The postal revenue in 1905 was £400; now it is £2,600. There has been an enormous increase in the number of passengers by steamer. The arrivals and departures in 1908 totalled 3000; 1909, 5000; 1910, 6000; and 1911, 7100. There has been a large increase in the timber business. That of the British Australian Timber Company amounts to six million feet annually. The new mills are: Karangi, Roberts’, Langley’s, Bumby’s, Mulhearn’s, McKenzie’s, Porter’s, Ulong, Ashton, Wild Cattle Creek, and two new mills are going up at Bonville; and the royalty from timber is: 1909, £1150; 1910, £1582; 1911, £1820. There is a very large area of timber left yet. There has been a great increase in settlement, but there are 30,000 acres still available in this district, and 79,000 still available in the Dorrigo district. The minerals obtainable consist of gold, copper and coal. The number of teams drawing to the Jetty is forty-five, and there are fifty teams drawing timber to Armidale. The Guy Fawkes country is suitable for potato growing and grazing, and there is a butter factory there. At Dorrigo there is a butter factory and sawmills, and there is a butter factory at Coramba. The number of new settlers in Dorrigo since I came here has been 600. There is a large traffic in timber between Dorrigo and the tableland, via Guy Fawkes. The timber is cut up and carted from Dorrigo to Armidale. There will be freezing works at Dorrigo and Coff’s Harbour as soon as the railway starts. The State Freezing Works should be here, it is the only place big vessels can come in. The railway from the tableland to the coast here would be of great advantage to the western country in time of drought, in connection with the carriage of stock. There is no doubt that when the pro-posed line of railway is made, that there will be new sawmills opened, and a trade in frozen meat and rabbits. The line will pass through 100,000 acres of land between Guy Fawkes and Guyra suitable for closer settlement, and which will be used for sheep farming, mixed farming, dairying, cheese production, butter making, pig raising, and maize growing. In addition, the line will carry large quantities of logs and other timber; and all these products will be shipped from Coff’s Harbour. The Coast railway will go from Coff’s Harbour, via Coramba and Nana Glen, to Glenreagh. I do not think it is necessary to say anything about the resources along the line, because tenders for that portion of the railway are to be called in a few months. A railway from Glenreagh to Dorrigo has been unanimously recommended by the Public Works Committee, and the permanent survey will be finished in six months. On the Dorrigo there are 250,000 acres, of which 79,000 acres are still available for settlement. The main road from Coff’s Harbour to Dorrigo is now opened right through to Eastern Dorrigo, into the town of Dorrigo, and goes on to Guy Fawkes, with good country at the back, almost as good as the Dorrigo country. The railway line should be eventually made to Guyra and on to Inverell, a distance of 167 miles from Coff’s Harbour. That would relieve congestion of traffic at Sydney and Newcastle, and shipments could be made direct from Coffs Harbour to the markets of the world. This line has been recommended by [the] Decentralisation Commission and Commissioner of Railways. On the Dorrigo there is an enormous quantity of timber, and at present there are seven sawmills there. About 15,000,000 feet of the timber there is absolutely destroyed annually. The Dorrigo is good for growing fruits, including apples and other English fruits, potatoes and root crops. All the grass is good. From Eastern Dorrigo cream is brought to Coramba. When I came into this district, six and a half years ago, the population on the Dorrigo was about 70, now there are 800 people within a radius of 3 miles. In this district there has been a large increase of business in connection with storekeeping and banking. There are now 7 branch banks in the district and two at Dorrigo, and the bank accounts must number 2000. The Dorrigo has the largest supply of soft woods still left in New South Wales. Altogether it is computed by experts that the timber wealth of the Dorrigo and contiguous forests is about £6,000,000, the timber including cedar, bean, mahogany, blue gum, blackbutt, tallow-wood, rosewood, mountain-ash, etc. The building trade of the districts to the north west is often seriously retarded owing to inability to reach those forests other than by team, a slow and uncertain method, and far too costly to be much availed of. The surveyed railway route from Dorrigo to Inverell traverses for the most part magnificent arable land, capable of maintaining the vastly increased population that would be sure to settle thereon if it were connected with the railway system of the State. A bacon factory is now about to be erected at the Jetty, and no doubt frozen meat works later. It is claimed that Coff’s Harbour can be made one of the best harbours in Australia, able to accommodate the largest ships afloat; and that if it were made available to the rich producing districts to the north-west of it, it would ultimately become a busy port of call for the shipping of all nations. Guyra is equi-distant from the important towns of Glen Innes and Armidale, is situated in one of the most wealthy farming districts in the Commonwealth, and is regarded by Queenslanders as the sanatorium of the south. Bundarra is a very rich pastoral, agricultural and mining centre; Howell is a busy and extensive silver, tin, and copper field, and Copeton is regarded by experts as the only permanent diamond field in Australia. The three latter districts are off the proposed Dorrigo to Inverell line, but only a few miles distant. Tingha is a thriving tin-mining centre, carrying a population of 4000; and the probability of its developing into a second Cornwall is favoured by no less an authority than Mr. E. F. Pittman, Under Secretary for Mines. The approximate value of the field’s annual output of ore is £160,000; and there is strong evidence that its recently-revealed rich copper measures will help to largely augment this output in the near future. Tingha is surrounded by excellent farming, dairying, fruit-growing, and grazing country, awaiting settlement and development. The Gilgai and Elsmore districts embrace some of the best country to be found in the western slopes of New England. Recently a wealthy and extensive deep lead of tin has been discovered at Gilgai, which it is confidently believed extends under the basalt to Inverell, a distance of six miles. Inverell is one of the largest, richest and most prosperous pastoral, wine-making, dairying, and fruit-growing dis-tricts in the State, its yield of cereals alone last year representing something approaching £160,000. The west and north-western slopes beyond Inverell are recognised as possessing stupendous possibilities. Already they are a network of wealthy pastoral holdings calling for resumption, subdivision, and settlement. Some years ago, when the Public Works Committee took evidence on the relative merits of the several proposed railway routes from New England to the coast, namely, Tenterfield to Grafton, Glen Innes to South Grafton, Guyra to Coff’s Harbour, and Armidale to Port Macquarie – that body strongly recommended the lnverell-Coff’s Harbour route, on account of its comparatively easy grades, the total absence of engineering difficulties, its shorter distance compared with some of the rival routes, and the cost or construction being much less than either of them. In consequence of the evidence given at Grafton, I wish to draw your attention to the fact that on the main roads from Tenter-field to Casino, from Kempsey to Armidale, and from Grafton to Glen Innes – 100 miles along those roads –there is practically no population, except the population in declining mining townships. The country along the route of the proposed line from Coff’s Harbour to Glenreagh, Dorrigo, Guy Fawkes, and Guyra to Inverell, is all good land, and will carry an enormous population. The land still to be thrown open on the Dorrigo would maintain at least 600 families. In regard to the Inverell-Guyra-Coff’s Harbour line, I do not think that any man in my position could form an estimate of traffic; but what I propose to make an estimate of is the trafficable area from here to Inverell, 100,000 population, 2½ sheep per head – 250,000. Would also require 1800 tons of wheat and by-products; all this would come down that line. I think that line would extend from 20 to 35 or 40 miles in width altogether. For instance, at lnverell I do not think it would be extravagant to say that the trafficable area would be up to 40 miles. Of course, in a dairying district the trafficable area would be much less – 20 or 24 miles. That would be 12 miles on either side of the line, or perhaps 15, but in the wheat and  woolgrowing districts, I myself have seen wheat carted 40 miles on waggons to a railway. There is a very bad bar Nambucca Heads, and an equally bad one at Bellinger Heads, and I feel sure that the bulk of the traffic would come in here for places in that direction. Nearly all the passenger traffic from the Bellinger now comes to Coff’s Harbour. I do not think that any business would be attracted to Coff’s Harbour from the south below Uralla, nor do I think that any business would be attracted to Coff’s Harbour from the north beyond Deepwater, between Glen Innes and Tenterfield; I do not think that any traffic would come to Coff’s Harbour from places beyond Warialda. I think we would come into competition with Newcastle when we got to Moree. I consider that we shall get all the traffic from Glenreagh and all the traffic from the Dorrigo. When the bar at Bellingen recently closed it cost £4 per ton to bring the Dorrigo butter to Coff’s Harbour. Any farmer living on the Dorrigo who wanted to go to Sydney – and I contend that the bulk of the business there would go south and not north – would have to go down to Glenreagh. When he got to Glenreagh he would either go north about 28 miles to South Grafton, or he would go south 25 miles to Coff’s Harbour. When he got to South Grafton he would have a long river journey on an average fifteen hours to the heads. That estimate is taken from the evidence of Mr. J. T. McKittrick, the President of the Grafton Chamber of Commerce at the time. When you get down to the heads on a steamer from South Grafton you are 60 miles north Coff’s Harbour. Supposing that a man from the Dorrigo did come to Coff’s Harbour, he wouId be able to reach here by coming from Glenreagh, 25 miles. I say that any man wanting to go Sydney from Dorrigo would not go up to South Grafton and then down the river, and still find himself 60 miles north of Coff’s Harbour, when he could come into Coff’s Harbour, and get down to Sydney in 16 or 17 hours. From Glenreagh to Dorrigo there is good dairying country, with some patches of very fine timber. Dorrigo itself contains some of the best land in the State. From Dorrigo to Guy Fawkes there is excellent country. I cannot say anything about the country from Guy Fawkes to Guyra, but I am told it is the finest cattle-raising country almost in New South Wales. On the other hand, I have been at Armidale and other places on the northern line, and also at Inverell and Moree, and out to Mungindi. Within the trafficable area I have described, and which is shown on the plan I have put in, I am of opinion that the whole of the produce, or very nearly the whole of it, would come to Coff’s Harbour if a railway line were made from Inverell to Coff’s Harbour, which is already practically assured as far as Dorrigo. Some men might like to send something north, but the bulk of the produce of the Dorrigo, which if sent there would come into competition with the produce of the Clarence and the Richmond, would I think come south. The difference from Coff’s Harbour to Inverell in a straight line, is only 167 miles. In that trafficable area I do not think we would come within 40 miles of another line. I think that, from its position, Coff’s Harbour being so central, is the best place for a harbour of refuge, and that if a port were made here there would be a big interstate trade, especially with Queensland, this place being practically half way between Sydney and Brisbane. I wish to have it put on record in the evidence that the area of Mutton Bird Island is 40 acres. During the last five years, the depth of water, in my opinion, has increased here. I think that the old charts are wrong, and that instead of having a depth of 17 or 18 feet, as they show, the depth is much more. I wrote a letter to the ”Daily Telegraph” a little while ago, giving the soundings taken at the time, and they showed a depth of 25 feet 6 inches and 24 feet 6 inches, one at the end of the Jetty, and the other to the south of the Jetty. It was in connection with a statement, that was made by Mr. Nash, the financial editor of the “Daily Telegraph”, about the depth of harbours north of Sydney. The Jetty and its approaches are nearly always congested as evidenced by the decision of the Government to make the Jetty 150ft. longer. I wrote that letter and signed my name to it, and it was never contradicted. I consider de Burgh’s scheme the cheapest one that can be got for the money, but I think that the Northern wall should be extended to the northern point of Mutton Bird Island. This would include the calm water under the lee of the Island where the ships take shelter now. If this scheme were adopted the money would not be thrown away as elsewhere, if it were ever decided to make a larger breakwater, as the northern wall of the proposed harbour would be the northern wall of the large harbour. If additional accommodation were required, Coffs Creek could be opened. There are large coal measures at Glenreagh, the junction of the North Coast and Dorrigo railway lines. At Karangi, five miles away, there is a fine copper lode. 90 tons taken out and treated at Port Kembla gave 20 per cent of copper. A good water supply could be obtained from the Orara River five miles away. The statistics submitted of the exports from Coff’s Harbour do not include any goods or timber previously shipped at either Grafton or Woolgoolga. I contend that the fact that Woolgoolga is off the railway line is fatal to any selection of that place, and that any proposed connection between Nana Glen and Woolgoolga is more expensive than between Nana Glen and Coffs Harbour; and that the proposed route does not admit of suitable grades being located, vide Amphlett’s and Kennedy’s report. I consider that Coff’s Harbour should be selected as a port for the North Coast rather than that Sir John Coode’s scheme should be carried out in its entirety, at an additional expense of £389,000, in addition to the £464,248 already spent, to give a minimum depth of 18ft., which, in face of the fact that the English Board of Trade have given expression to the opinion that the steamers of the future are likely to grow in the same ratio as the Dreadnoughts have done. Compare this with the fact that for an expenditure of £190,000 we can get here 65 acres of water with a minimum depth of 30ft at spring low tides. There are splendid fishing grounds hereabout 7 miles out, and with a safe anchorage the industry would assume large proportions.

Coal depot – 80,000 tons of coal to be stored here, and I presume it will be necessary to have railway workshops also.

Exports from Coff’s Harbour for the year 1911: 19,373 boxes butter, 6,137,000 super. feet timber, 3,009 pigs, 835 tons sundries, 90 tons copper ore.

Imports at Coff’s Harbour for year 1911: 7,395 tons general cargo, 365 head cattle, 131 horses, 1,009 sheep, 7,104 passengers in and out, 382 boats called for this period, 4 Shire trucks, 1 portable boiler, 1 traction engine. Wharfage dues collected for this period, £1,113 12s. You will note we do not get any credit for outward cargo.

Exports from Coff’s Harbour from January 1st to June 30th, 1912: 13,407 boxes butter, 4,508,000 super. feet timber, 2,655 pigs, 445 tons sundries, 4,558 passengers in and out.

Imports at Coff’s Harbour from January 1st to June 30th, 1912: 7,886 tons general cargo, 70 head cattle, 55 horses, 983 sheep, 1 bull, 1 motor car, 1 fire engine, 80 tons coal.

Coff’s Harbour: – 1906, 417 vessels, 97,072 tons; 1907, 309 vessels, 79,304 tons; 1908, 266 vessels, 71,763 tons; 1909, 436 vessels, 104,860 tons; 1910, 403 vessels, 96,654 tons; 1911, 488 tons, 245,035 tons; 1912 (first six months), 217 vessels, 117,915 tons. Byron Bay, 1911: 161 steamers, tonnage 125,600.


  1. John Kramer, Ships and Timber: a short history of Coffs Harbour port and associated railways, p.8,
  2. The Public Works Committee. (1912, July 9). Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton, NSW : 1889 – 1915), p. 3.
  3. Visit of P.W.C. (1912, July 6). Coffs Harbour Advocate (NSW : 1907 – 1942; 1946 – 1954), p. 2.
  4. Late Mr. P. J. MacNamara (1929, April 16). Coffs Harbour Advocate (NSW : 1907 – 1942; 1946 – 1954), p. 3.
  5. Coffs’ Great Loss. (1929, April 12). Coffs Harbour Advocate (NSW : 1907 – 1942; 1946 – 1954), p. 3.

This is the final post compiled by recently retired Museum volunteer Geoff Watts.