Ferries on the Waitematā

Courtesy of the Stewart Family

16 May -  10 October

This exhibition features a selection of paintings by W. W. Stewart (1898-1976) and photographs which capture the romance of the era when steam ferries once operated on the Waitematā Harbour. In those days, public holidays would see the wharves crowded with hundreds of excited passengers travelling on excursions to destinations such as Motutapu, Cowes Bay, and Kawau Island. Steam ferries offered passengers a safe, comfortable and reliable form of transport, as they didn’t rely on the wind for motive power.

In 1860, the first ferry service in Auckland began, travelling between the city and Devonport. Over the years, the number of routes gradually expanded. Several companies were established by determined individuals, but quite often folded as competition among the operators was fierce. In the first half of the 20th century ferries had become a familiar sight on the Auckland Harbour, but once the Auckland Harbour Bridge was completed in 1959, the majority of services were cut – almost immediately.

Today, most of the steam ferries have either been scrapped or buried in reclamation. Preservation societies for the ferries Kestrel and Toroa have been set up and motorists driving along the North Western Motorway can clearly see the Toroa at the Lincoln Rd on-ramp. 

In 1972, Stewart wrote a book titled Steam on the Waitemata. It was illustrated with many of the paintings that are in the eponymous exhibition and contained a number of his photographs too. Although his primary interest in the steam ferries lay with their engines, he also describes the charm for passengers travelling on these vessels as evidenced in the following excerpts: 
“When they climbed aboard it was not on to a ferry, but on to a club ship where everybody went to his own position, and where they were not so much workers as superior citizens leaving a foreign country for their native land. Woe betide an innocent Aucklander sitting on one of the regular’s untouchable seats!”

“Here on the ferries was ship life on a small scale: the smoking cabin, with businessmen discussing the share market or taxation, footballers playing the match over again, political groups with their arguments, racing men picking the winners – all of them ignoring the notices on the walls that nobody ever read.”
Interested in shipping and the railways, Stewart had a great love for engines of all types – particularly steam engines. An avid photographer, Stewart didn’t sketch, but instead used many of his photographs as references for his oil paintings. He had no formal training as an artist, but painted in his leisure time. 

Auckland’s rapidly growing population and congested motorways have seen an increase in the popularity of ferries as an alternative means of transport. Unitec student Silena Griffin has been working on a photography project that focuses on some of the current passenger ferries operating on the Waitematā harbour. Her photographs reveal that although some of the charm of the early ferries has been lost in the name of increased efficiency and speed, today’s ferry passengers still enjoy beautiful vistas and a quiet camaraderie.

As Stewart once predicted, smaller ferries have indeed made a return. Some of the earlier routes to Devonport, Northcote, and Pine Harbour still exist, but there are now also many new lines, such as West Harbour, Hobsonville Pt, and Beach Haven with more planned.