||The Mortlake Ferry is a vehicular cable ferry that plies the Parramatta River at a crossing between Hilly Street in Mortlake and Pellisier Road in Putney. It is the last remaining vehicular ferry (or punt) operating on the Parramatta River, and in Sydney more generally. Other existing vehicular ferry services close to the Sydney region include five on the Hawkesbury River at Wisemans Ferry, Sackville, Lower Portland, Webbs Creek and Berowra Waters.
Ferries, both passenger and vehicular, were an essential link in the transport infrastructure of Sydney throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as the city is built around the harbour and the network of river systems that flow into it. Vehicular ferries were particularly vital at tidal crossings, such as the point between Mortlake and Putney, where the cost of the construction of a bridge of sufficient design merit to make the crossing was prohibitive, in terms of finance and the availability of materials and manpower to build it.
A number of vehicular ferries operated on Sydney Harbour, the Georges River to the south and Parramatta River to the west in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Vehicular ferries were particularly important for linking North Sydney and the south side of the harbour in this time. In c1842 the Sydney Ferry Company began the first vehicular ferry between these two points, which operated until 1932 at which time the Sydney Harbour Bridge was opened to traffic. On the Parramatta River, a vehicular ferry service was first established in c1832 between Bedlam and Abbotsford Points, which was replaced by the first Gladesville Bridge in 1881. In most instances, bridges have since replaced earlier vehicular ferries operating on Sydney Harbour, and the Parramatta and Georges Rivers (OHM Consultants, 1998, pp 8-11). The Mortlake Ferry is a highly significant remnant of this early and prevalent form of transport as it is the only remaining vehicular ferry in use on Sydney Harbour and its tributaries.
The Mortlake Ferry, also known as the Putney Punt, began operations in 1928 (OHM Consultants, 1998, p 11). The Hon Robert Thomas Ball officially opened the Mortlake Putney ferry service on 16 May 1928. Ball was the Secretary for Public Works in George Fuller's coalition government (1922-25), and was also a minister in the Bavin Government at the time the ferry service was instituted by the Department of Main Roads (DMR).
The ferry service was commenced to enable employees at the nearby Australian Gas Light Company (AGL) who lived in suburbs on the northern side of the river to reach their workplace. Pressure came from the 'Putney side' for the institution of the service, and was primarily led by the Putney Progress Association. Otherwise, gasworks employees on the northern banks of the Parramatta River 'were confronted by a round trip via the Meadowbank-Rhodes punt or rowing them selves across or again using the passenger ferry but this would not always have been at convenient times for the worker.' (Information supplied by Concord Heritage Society Inc, letter from G M Cashman to D Brown, Town Clerk, Concord Council, 24 February 1982). This ferry would also have been a benefit for residents on the southern side of the river to access Ryde and other suburbs to the north, and as such would have been a supplement to the nearby Ryde Bridge.
Both Mortlake and Putney were named for towns on the Thames River in England. The AGL established gasworks at Mortlake in 1883 (moving form Darling Harbour). The suburb was subdivided for sale the following year, and would have provided housing for workers employed at the gasworks. Evidently a ferry service of some description was servicing the suburb during in the 1880s (and possibly earlier), as a subdivision plan for Mortlake prepared in 1884 shows a 'steamer wharf' at the end of Tennyson Road (then named Burwood Road), a little to the south of the present ferry wharf (Pollen, 1996, pp 179-180).
Construction began on a bridge between Ryde and Rhodes/Concord in 1933, which was officially opened in 1935. However, workers at AGL continued to use the Mortlake-Putney ferry service. The Mortlake Ferry service is still in operation, although the new bridge threatened the viability of the service, and despite intermittent attempts by the DMR (and later Roads and Maritime Services ) to remove it. That the service remains is a testament to the strength of the local community, who have campaigned to keep it operational since this time (OHM Consultants, 1998, pp 11-12).
The Department of Main Roads (DMR), and latterly Roads and Maritime Services (since 1989) operated Mortlake Ferry from 1928 to 1992. Although Roads and Maritime Services continues to maintain and repair the ferry, it has contracted out the ferry operations to a private operator since 1992. The ferry cables are replaced every 12-15 months, and the ferry is slipped every three years at the Mortlake Slipways. The slipway is located to the south of the Mortlake approach ramp and is used for the maintenance of Roads and Maritime Services -owned ferries operating in the Sydney region (including the Mortlake Ferry and the five vehicular ferries servicing the Hawkesbury River).
The suburbs of Mortlake and Putney are now largely populated by white-collar workers. As such, the ferry has become a commuter service for local residents working in the city, as noted on a site inspection in August 2004. This changing demographic is reflected by the restricted operating times for the ferry, which is in service Mondays to Fridays 6.20am-9.25am and 2.20pm-5.25pm. The large apartment construction program under way was cause for optimism that patronage would increase.