14 December 2022

Steamships, danger on the seas and a heroic pig: exhibition to open on coast's maritime history

| Albert McKnight
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woman steering ship

Gladys Arnold stands at the helm of SS Merimbula while it is docked at Tathra Wharf. Photo courtesy of Annette Evelyn.

Many years ago, when the ocean highways supported the European settlement of the Far South Coast and steamships ruled the waves, an unlikely hero emerged to help a shipload of passengers.

This heroic figure was, in fact, a pig. This story is part of the maritime history of the southern NSW coast that will be told at an exhibition opening in Eden this week.

Of Pigs and Whistles will open at the Eden Killer Whale Museum on Thursday (15 December). It explores the history of steamship navigation and the significance of the maritime industry in the region.

For instance, back in the pages of history, pigs and passengers travelled the coastline together while captains faced the dangerous job of navigating uncharted waters and coastlines.

Exhibition curator Angela George, a heritage management and interpretation consultant, said viewers might find the link and significance of the humble pigs quite surprising.

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“There are so many humorous stories about the pigs, from the porkers that shared cabins with passengers, to the heroic pig that played lifesaver to a shipload of passengers,” she said.

“I find the human side of the story so interesting in terms of the people who worked for the company and the role the company played in the community.

“It wasn’t like big businesses are these days, the Illawarra Company became a real part of all the communities it served.”

1930s dock loading

Workers load ”shooks” (butter boxes) onto a steamer in 1934. Photo courtesy of the NSW State Archives and Records Collection.

She was talking about the Illawarra Steam Navigation Company, which was founded in 1858. The company’s story spans almost 100 years, revealing the history surrounding shipping’s role in creating a vital link to the rest of the world following European settlement.

“From the time the company was formed until the time it ceased, it dominated the colonial maritime industry – it was the in and out of the place and the key to its survival,” Ms George said.

“If you had to go to a city for medical treatment, or if you needed clothing or other supplies shipped in, it came on the Illawarra Company or went out on the Illawarra Company.”

She said life must have been incredibly demanding for those involved in this particular chapter of maritime history, in part because charts and equipment during the 19th and early 20th centuries were considerably less sophisticated.

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“Can you imagine sailing from Sydney to Eden a couple of times a week, stopping at just about every port, dozens along the way, then turning around and going back again? They must have been exhausted navigating the risks,” she said.

“People depended on the shipping line as the most reliable service. We take it very much for granted now that we can just jump in the car and be in Sydney in six hours, that wasn’t an option then.”

Of Pigs and Whistles – How Steam Navigation Linked South East NSW to the World will be officially opened at the Eden Killer Whale Museum on Thursday at 4 pm and will be on display for two months.

In 2023, it is also scheduled to be displayed at Bega Pioneers Museum, Tathra Wharf Museum, Bermagui Museum, Merimbula Old School Museum, Batemans Bay Heritage Museum and Moruya Museum. The dates at these locations are still to be confirmed.

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