1851–1875: Clippers

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Several new phenomona affected Sydney’s shipping industry after 1850: the advent of fast clipper ships (slicing freight times), a series of gold rushes in rural areas (causing shortages of sailors and wharf workers in Sydney), a boom in building new wharves, roads and buildings, and the new era of photography (especially landscape panoramas captured from high ground).

Clippers were designed like yachts, with longer, slimmer hulls than earlier sailing ships. They could carry cargoes and passengers and were often painted stylishly in glossy black with a white stripe. With three masts carrying various square sails, they could achieve speeds of up to 250 nautical miles per day (compared with about 150 nautical miles for older boats).

Built mainly in American and British shipyards, they were favoured for long trade routes such as England to Australia and New Zealand (returning via Cape Horn). Risking storms and icebergs around the three major capes of the Southern Ocean, clipper owners and sailors sought high rewards from speedy journeys with valuable cargoes like wool, coal, gold, anvils, pianos, tea, hops and beer.

The first clipper ship to visit Port Jackson, in mid-1849, was the Phoenician, built in Aberdeen for the White Star line. Another notable clipper was the Cutty Sark, built in 1870, which set a record of 73 days to sail from Sydney to England.

On the north shore of Millers Point, the existing Moore’s and Lamb’s wharves were expanded and Robert Towns and P&O Steamships built new wharves on the west side of the bay. A North Shore ferry wharf was built as an extension of north-south Pottinger Street and was also accessible by pedestrians descending sharply from Windmill Street down a new cobbled walkway (later named Ferry Lane). These changes appeared on town plans from the mid-1850s.

Map of Sydney (detail) published by Smith and Gardiner in 1855 (CoS, HAtS).