Norman Wright, was one of the true doyens of the Australian Wooden boatbuilding industry. He is arguably the greatest mentor of classic wooden boat builders in our history.
NORMAN WRIGHT CLASSIC BOAT BUILDERS.
Norman R Wright was born in 1885 in rather unremarkable circumstances in the isolated suburb of Bulimba, adjacent to the shores of the Brisbane River in Queensland Australia.
The Bulimba Electorate was created in 1872 and in 1879 the Bulimba Divisional Board was created as the local government authority for the area from Tingalpa Creek to Stone's Corner. Most of the housing subdivisions in this area took place during the land boom of the 1880s. Bulimba, Bulimba Bridge, Circular Quay, Bulimba Ferry, and the Love and Jamieson Paddock Estates were all developed in central Bulimba during this period. The building boom resulted in a great increase in the number of developments and residents in Bulimba.
In 1888, Bulimba was described as 'a small township about four miles distant from the City of Brisbane.
In the earliest days, Bulimba was a popular camping ground for the Aborigines. Corroborees and camps there were common. The Aborigines called Bulimba 'Tugulawa', which meant 'heart', probably a reference to the heart-shaped piece of land that forms the peninsula of Bulimba.
Ollie Crouch; the son of George Crouch, who had settled in Bulimba in 1865; remembers: 'there used to be a camp down Brisbane Street. One-eyed Jacky was the Chieftain'. Corroborees were held at the site of the present graving dock in Morningside. Other campsites may have been at the lower ends of Riding Road and Brisbane Street.
This was the early Bulimba that Norman R Wright grew up in.
Norman Wright, his history and his boats.
Normans Father, Henry William Wright, worked as a Customs Officer for the Australian Government and Norman, unlike many of the millionaire industrialists building boats at the turn of the century in North America and Europe, was unencumbered by either a formal education or family wealth.
Nonetheless, despite this perceived handicap, Norman would go on to establish himself as one of the world’s most iconic boat builders of the twentieth century.
The Wright family was one of the original founding families in Bulimba and in fact one of the earliest settlers to the Brisbane area.
Norman began work at age ten as a cook and companion to a visiting journalist from the U.K. Upon the writers return to England, Norman attended school, but his attendance was sporadic at best and instead, he would often accompany his Father on trips to Coochiemudlo Island in the bay islands where they owned a pig farm.
By age Fifteen, Norman had sensed an impending failure of his Fathers pig farming venture and went to work in the paint shop at Sachs & Company in Brisbane.
Not long after, Normans Father caught a chill and subsequently died of pneumonia, leaving the teenaged Norman as the primary provider for the family.
Following the death of his Father, Norman worked with his brother Alfred, who was employed at Laycock-Littledykes as a joiner. With a combination of inexperience and exuberance, Norman was involved in a workplace accident that left him unable to work with three split fingers, resulting from a clash with a spindle moulding machine.
During his convalescence, Norman spent much of his time visiting the boat shed down the street owned by John Hawkins Whereat.
At the time, the yard contained a somewhat infamous 22’ sailboat named the “Bulletin” that had won an interstate race to Sydney in the late 1890’s. Normans interest in the boat alongside his fascination with how boats were built, prompted Jack Whereat to offer young Norman a job once his hand had healed.
Norman R Wright commences his boat building apprenticeship with James Hawkins Whereat.
This part of the story, whilst not strictly all about Norman Wright, is significant, as Jack Whereat trained Norman, who went on to train almost every other significant wooden boat builder in the Moreton Bay and Brisbane area.
Once being employed by J H Whereat, Norman quickly established a reputation for quality craftsmanship, while displaying an intuitive understanding of hull design and was promoted to foreman in 1906 at the age of 21.
One of the last surviving Jack Whereat Boats, Ardath, has featured in the news over many years. Ardath was originally only named by her registration number, she was built for Robert Dath a timber merchant in Bulimba.
During World War ll at the Apollo Ferry, Bulimba, which was a favourite kids hang-out, a fuel lighter returning from the seaplane base at Colmslie exploded in flames opposite the pontoon. The two negro crew gave a new meaning to the term hasty departure and were soon trying to break the 100 yard freestyle record heading for shore The barge, still underway and on fire, drifted alongside the Ardath moored out side Bob Dath's jetty.
The Australian Navy had taken over Bob's shed for their small ship repairs, and a crew of sailors lived in the sail loft. As the Ardath was Bob Dath's home he was allowed to stay on the premises. The fire brigade arrived to put out the fire but in the meantime a small steam driven tender called the Minor, which shifted the anchor lines for the bucket dredges, came alongside and towed the fuel lighter into the middle of the river where she burnt her self out.
The Ardath suffered a large hole in the side which the yanks repaired. She is pictured below, cruising around Moreton Bay.
It is a testament to the skills of these classic wooden boat builders that their boats live on and are enjoyed to this day.
In 1907 while still employed by J H Whereat, Norman designed and built a 10’ racing skiff he named “Commonwealth” and would later go on to win three successive Australian Championships in this boat.
Norman R Wright commences his own boat building business.
By 1909 Norman’s vision had broadened and when an opportunity presented itself to buy out an ailing boat building business owned by a Mr. Woodhead, Frederick Hart, agreed to lend Norman the sum of £200.00 to get him started and with his solid reputation as a quality tradesman from his days at Whereats, he ventured out on his own.
The first boat commissioned to Norman Wright to build was a shallow draft, gaff rigged schooner called “Superb” built for James Hogan Smith.
Following the construction of Superb, the first official contract was signed for the building of a 56’ ferry named “Olivene” that would run between Sandgate, Woody Point and Redcliffe for the Humpybong Steamship Company.
By the end of the first six months in business, Norman had repaid his loan back to Frederick Hart and was well established financially.
Business kept coming in the 1920’s and the boatyards proximity to the local tram station allowed clients and potential buyers alike an opportunity to stop by for a yarn.
In 1928 construction began on the largest racing yacht ever built by the Wright yard.
J.G. McWilliam, the first manufacturer of plywood in Australia placed an order for “Francois”, a shallow draft 75’ schooner. While many early Norman Wright designed and built boats can still be seen in the coastal waters of the south pacific today, Francois was sold to the manager of U.K. boat builders Thorneycroft and delivered to their yard in Singapore. During the occupation of Singapore by the Japanese in 1942, it is feared that tragically, this piece of Australian maritime history has been lost.
By the end of the 1920’s Norman Wright began building a number of fishing vessels, that proved to be a fortuitous decision as the building of fishing vessels became the mainstay of Wrights shipyard during the depression years.
By 1936 the effects of the depression had waned and the decision by the Brisbane City Council to relocate the city’s wharfs along the Newstead reach, resulted in Wrights having to relocate their business from Newstead to Bulimba, not 300m from where Norman had been raised as a boy.
The land he acquired in Bulimba had been the site of a tin smelting operation and in the process of constructing slipways a large quantity of tin had been unearthed. With the world preparing for WWII the price of tin had risen dramatically and by selling the tin, Norman was able to re-establish the boatyards new location with money to spare.
Bulimba during World War II
By 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, all building of recreational vessels had been suspended with resources being diverted to the war effort.
Not far down the river, General Douglas Macarthur, had requisitioned local homes and jetties as his personal residence, building an oregon timber mill not far from Bob Dath's. While he was in Brisbane, General MacArthur requisitioned the 57 ft motor yacht Shangri-la. The boat was built in 1938 by Walker and Kelshaw in Rushcutter's Bay Sydney. The dinghy that MacArthur used from the "Shangri-La" is now located in the Queensland Maritime Museum near South Bank Parklands in Brisbane. It was donated to the Museum by Mr. Alan Campbell.
The dinghy is of unusual construction. It has a quite heavy frame and a thin timber skin. This was then covered with canvas and painted. Sister ribs were also then installed between the normal rib structure to strengthen it. A small inboard motor which was in use during WW2 was removed after the war.
Dennis Burchill of Bulimba described the location of the mooring for a motor boat used by General Douglas Macarthur as follows in his April 2004 "Wartime Memories of Bulimba". Dennis lived approximately 100 yards from the Brisbane River at 33 Cowper Street, Bulimba. It is almost certain this motor boat was the "Shangri-La".
"In front of our property was a large area of land with a house right on the river bank shaped like a railway carriage with a curved iron roof. The Wakefield family lived there. Outside their property, in the river, were two lovely motor boats. One was for General Macarthur’s use and the other for some other top brass. They had a permanent Filipino crew on each boat. As the front yard of the property was vacant land the yanks set up a sawmill there."
Norman R Wright builds vessels for the war effort.
Acutely aware of the general shortage of vessels available for use in coastal patrols, military authorities commissioned Norman Wright to refit a number of small vessels for use in carrying cargo.
By this time Norman’s eldest son Norman James had become involved in the company and the burden of much of the wartime efforts had been placed on his tender shoulders.
The Wright boatyard at that time involved managing a staff of 110 men, largely unskilled labourers and under the watchful eye of military personnel. The perimeter of the yard was patrolled by armed sentries and many of the men camped out at the factory.
Despite this, Norman Wright was not satisfied with attaching his name or reputation to the status quo build quality and strengthened the construction wherever possible within military guidelines. As a result the Wright built Fairmiles were probably the finest built during the war. The four Fairmiles built by Norman Wrights would later go on to become converted passenger ferries.
Fairmille 's become tourism cruisers and ferries.
After the war, Captain Tom McLean who owned the Mackay Hotel and Brampton Island, went south to find a suitable cruise boat, leaving his wife in charge of the hotel, which was eventually sold.
His first boat was the Shangri-la, a 17m recreational craft, which had been the personal water transport used by General Douglas Macarthur during the war. Shangri-la was soon running to the island from Mackay.
Within a year, the Shangri-la could no longer cope with the demand, and Tom went south to find another, larger boat. He settled on a Fairmile, an ex-World War II motor launch, which he bought for $3000 and named the Roylen. Roylen Cruises went on to convert 3 of the Fairmilles.
In April 1964, to cater for the ever-growing tourist traffic to Lindeman Island, the Nicholson and Evetts family purchased the 33.6 metre Fairmile Esmerelda from Proserpine sawmiller, Eddie Gray senior and in her conducted four-day cruises around the islands and the Barrier Reef, with Tom Evetts mostly as skipper. Their other vessel coincidentally purchased from Tom McLean, the World War ll vessel of General Macarthur's Shangri-La continued on with day-trips.
With placement of American made Elco PT-Boats in the Solomon Islands during the war, Wrights became an authorized service and repair depot and Norman befriended the Commander of PT-117 from Texas, a relationship that would last well beyond the war years.
At the end of the war in the late 1940’s there was resurgence in boat building and a great deal of the boats being built over the next decade by Wrights was to fulfill commercial needs. Trawlers, luggers and a variety of passenger ferries encompassed the bulk of their work and it wouldn’t be until the early 1950’s that recreational boats made a comeback.
Norman and Ronald Wright take over the business.
Ron Wright formally took over the business in 1953. It was incorporated into a new business Norman R Wright and Sons Pty Ltd.
Whilst the boat building business continued to flourish, throughout the 1950’s in the shadow of their Fathers racing pedigree, both Norman and Ronald dominated the 16’ and 18’ class racing skiffs, taking a number of Australian titles as well as a world championship in 1956.
Norman Wright built many surfboats in the early 1950's. North Burleigh SLSC Club's first surfboat, "Norseman" was a very heavy double ended, carvel hulled boat built by Norman Wright of Bulimba, in Brisbane, circa 1951. It was a typical surfboat of the time. In the mid 1950's the Tuck Stern surfboat made it's appearance, with Mermaid Beach SLSC being one of the first Clubs to acquire one; it was named "Blue Jacket".
There is yet another connection to Norman Wright's mentor J H Whereat. Surf boat designs were virtually unchanged from the 1900's through to the mid 1950's. Some of the earliest surf boats ever built were by Whereat, with Norman Wright carrying on that pedigree.
By this time both Norman and Ronald Wright had become experienced boat builders and after Ronald completed his degree in naval architecture, both sons assumed a more significant role and responsibility for the business.
In 1950 when Norman Wright Sr. had turned 65, despite the efforts of his capable sons, he was reluctant to relinquish control altogether and continued to dominate the design and implementation of all projects. One small concession was made however, to credit the work of his sons and the name of the business was re-named to Norman Wright & Sons Pty. Ltd. reflecting their level of involvement.
By 1960 the Wright brothers were now shareholders in the business and although they had now established some ownership in the company, Norman Wright Sr. was still insistent on maintaining a tight grip on the company’s financial position. Repeated disagreements between Father and sons eventuated in both boys leaving the company.
Norman Wright Jr. would return to the Bulimba yard occasionally to assist with specialized projects, but otherwise concentrated his efforts on a new venture building launches. Free of the burden of responsibility and away from his father, Norman Jr. accepted a berth on the 1962 America’s Cup Challenger “Gretel” and again five years later aboard “Dame Pattie”.
The 1960’s brought considerable challenges to Norman Wright & Sons. Many of the staff they had trained over the years had gone on to open competitive businesses such as Milkraft and Tripcony’s and production went into decline.
As Norman Wright Sr. got older, the responsibility for design work fell squarely on the shoulders of Ronald. Considered one of the best naval architects in Australia, his involvement would pave the way for the next generation of boat builders from Norman Wright’s stock.
By the mid-1960s in the wake of a motor vehicle accident that forced Ronald out of work for the next five years, Norman Wright Sr. hired a general manager for the yard. In consolidating the business efforts of the yard, he was largely responsible for the successful tendering of pilot boats commissioned by the Department of Harbours and Marine.
While this appointment enabled the yard to survive against the onslaught of Taiwanese built fiberglass imports and backyard builders, it served to change the dynamic of the company away from pleasure craft and into light commercial boat building.
In 1970 the death of Norman Wright Sr. marked the end of an era.
By now Ronald Wrights sons Bill and Ian had become involved in the business and the transition into management was infinitely easier by comparison to the experiences of their Father, while their Grandfather, Norman Wright Senior. was still alive. Their father Ron formally retired from the boat business in 1987.
Bill and Ian were at the forefront of available modern technologies that revolutionized boat building as we know it today and while there was provisioning made for use of fibreglass construction, the Wrights employed a process of cold moulding and dynal sheathing, something they had experimented with in the 1960s.
Construction of the 108’ Barrier Reef cruiser “Elizabeth E II” using modern epoxy resins, meant that it could be built from inexpensive Canadian Fir ply rather than with hardwoods, increasing its strength while reducing both its capital cost as well as its ongoing maintenance costs.
With incessantly rising fuel costs, the Wrights concept of high power to weight ratio in their composite construction methods, became blatantly obvious to charter operators who were looking at ways of reducing their spiralling operational costs.
Following the construction of Elizabeth E II a fleet of new generation luxury charter vessels was established. Their stunning good looks were equal to or better than their competitors made from fibreglass and aluminium.
As a result, Norman Wright and Sons Pty. Ltd. had become the preferred supplier to most charter, Government and Police agencies in Australia and were recently commissioned by the Royal Australian Navy to build a traditionally designed, 12m vessel currently in use as an Admirals tender.
While the Wrights continue to excel in the modern design and construction of commercial vessels “the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree”. When it comes to tradition the design of 'The Navigator 42', a 1940’s styled down east style lobster boat was due in part to the growing resurgence of classically styled boats coming on the market in recent times.
The internal fit-out also boasts a high level of sophistication including a galley which serves both the saloon and cockpit with ease, a sublime saloon with life’s luxuries such as a Sony Lifestyle system and LCD TV and two beautifully appointed bedrooms and a further two berths available in the converted saloon lounge, all of which are fully air-conditioned.
The clean lines on this handcrafted vessel accentuate the flared bow and tumbled home stern, creating a classic looking vessel as it glides through the water.
This is a modern day classic boat, whilst not built with the traditional carvel, plank on frame wooden boat heritage that Norman R Wright has passed on down the line, it will become a classic nonethless.
Partial history from Andy McCutcheon, 100 Years of Wooden Glory. Other material from state archives and independent research.