Commanding the Braeside

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Before Pier 6-7 was rebuilt as marina apartments, the earlier wharf was operated by Burns Philp, a major South Pacific merchant shipping company. Pier resident IAN DANCE recalls his grandfather, Captain Alexander Blain, commanding its cargo ship, MV Braeside, on her maiden voyage from Glasgow to Walsh Bay in 1949.

My maternal grandfather, Alexander Blain, was born near Edinburgh. As a youngster he must have had an adventurous spirit, because in order to see the world he went to sea.  His merchant ship was sunk during the First World War.  In 1919 he obtained his Masters Certificate in NSW. Later he joined Burns Philp and rose to become its senior captain.

Alexander Blain’s master’s certificate to captain a steamship.

Burns Philp Co. Ltd was formed in Townsville, North Queensland, in 1883 by Scottish migrants James Burns (also from near Edinburgh) and Robert Philp (Glasgow). In 1884 they were the first company to offer tourist travel to New Guinea, and their five-week voyage has been described as ‘the official beginning of tourist cruises in the South Pacific’. Sir Robert Philp twice became Premier of Queensland, while Sir James Burns became a member of the Legislative Council of New South Wales.

In 1949, Burns Philp launched a new cargo ship, MV Braeside, from a yard in Glasgow. My grandfather and grandmother sailed there to bring the Braeside to Sydney on its maiden voyage

Newspaper report on the Braeside’s launch in March 1949.

The Braeside was more modern and well-appointed than earlier Burns Philp cargo vessels. A Singapore newspaper reported:

The most luxurious British passenger-freighter on the Eastern Australia-Singapore service is now in port on her maiden voyage. She is the new 5867 ton Burns Philp ship, Braeside, which has been put on the run to replace the Marella, sold to a Greek shipping firm last year. The Braeside is under the command of Capt. A. W. Blain. Built in a Glasgow shipbuilding yard, the Braeside is able to take 10,000 tons of cargo and 500 tons of refrigerated cargo. She carries 12 passengers in single-berth cabins with bathrooms attached. A new departure in the furnishings is a cocktail cabinet in each cabin.

Captain Alexander Blain aboard the Braeside.

The Australian leg of the Braeside’s voyage to Sydney was eventful. The Brisbane press reported:

Caught in restricted water inside the Barrier Reef south of Mackay, the passenger ship, Braeside, for 14 hrs was thrashed by 100 m.p.h. winds which made navigation impossible.

Hero of the epic of seamanship which saved the Braeside from foundering was Captain A. W. Blain, who stayed on the bridge for 18 hours from Friday afternoon until Saturday morning.

‘The winds which blast the Braeside were the worst I have experienced in 40 years at sea’, said Captain Blain.

Australian newspaper reports of the Braeside’s maiden voyage.

The Braeside berthed at Wharf 7, Walsh Bay.  I distinctly remember being taken to visit my grandfather there one Sunday morning in 1949. I was enthralled by the speaking tube communication between the bridge and engine room, and perplexed by the sight of one sailor throwing buckets of water over another sailor seated on the foredeck. I now suspect this was the Sunday morning sobering-up ceremony.

Farewelling the Braeside from Sydney in 1949 (schoolboy Ian Dance at centre).

We grandchildren always knew grandfather as ‘Chief’. He told us he was chief of the gang of grandchildren (maybe he had crew in mind). Chief travelled and traded all over the islands between Australia and Singapore, and brought us interesting gifts and artefacts. Once he had to transport two giraffes, which he named High and Mighty.

When in Sydney, Chief strode proudly along Bridge Street to visit the magnificent Burns Philp headquarters at No. 7.

Captain Blain near the Burns Philp Building in Bridge Street, Sydney.

Chief married my grandmother, born Kate Stirling, on 24 May 1913. They met while she was working with the Sailors Home on George Street North at The Rocks. They were a strong, happy couple, devoted to the family. On retirement they moved to Gosford, where Chief grew exotic orchids, inspired by his time around the Pacific Islands.

Captain and Mrs Alexander Blain.

The old Sailors Home evolved as today’s Mission to Seamen, which now operates in Walsh Bay, on the south side of Hickson Road, between Piers 6-7 and 8-9.

  • Old Sailors Home in The Rocks.
  • Mission to Seamen premises, Walsh Bay.

In 2009, I moved with my wife, Carol, into an apartment on Pier 6-7, overlooking the exact place where my grandfather berthed the Braeside 60 years earlier. In our basement lobby, we discovered a local heritage sign including an engraved image of his ship.

We like to think that the adventurous spirit of Captain Alexander Blain is still here with us in Walsh Bay.