William the Fourth is an accurate operational replica of Australia’s first steam powered ocean-going paddlewheel ship.

When convict settlement was established at Newcastle from 1801, ships were the only form of transport. Within 30 years the settlement of fertile lands along the Hunter River and a growing coal trade – Australia’s first significant export industry, enabled the era of steam ships. In 1831 – when the Australian Agricultural Company began to have a profound impact on Newcastle, a shipyard was established at Clarencetown, taking advantage of the excellent timbers, to construct Australia’s first steam-powered ocean-going ship – William the Fourth, to operate between Sydney and the growing settlement inland from the ‘Green Hills’ now known as Morpeth.

There were almost no roads, and the graveyard of shipwrecks at the harbour entrance is testimony to the many hazards our local pioneers faced. The ship was a general carrier, transporting produce to the markets in Sydney and every product the settlers needed to live in the valley. It’s hard for us to imagine the hardships they faced, but their enterprise and determination developed the characteristics that are still in our blood today. By its very unique nature William the Fourth still serves as a faithful testimony to that tough pioneering and maritime heritage.

The original William The Fourth received its first promotion when it was described in a letter to the editor of the Sydney Gazette by a seasoned traveller on the 6th of September, 1831. Luckily for us, he described the ship in great detail, even listing the measurements, etc.

Here is a transcript of that very letter, which is shown to the left:

To the Editor of the Sydney Gazette;
I have remarked that you endeavour to give to the public every information you can possibly pick up that will in any way tend to the prosperity of this Colony, crying out with a loud voice, ” Advance Australia,” in which you, no doubt, are most cordially joined by every settler ; and there-fore, with the same feelings that animate you, I with pleasure take up my pen, to describe the gratifying sight I have this day enjoyed.

Many of your readers, I am inclined to think, only know the William River as a part of the Hunter, while it is in fact a separate River, emptying itself, not into the Hunter, but into the Coal River; and has from its mouth to Clarence Town (a distance of about 68 miles ), a depth of from four to five fathoms of water, without a single rock or bank to impede its navigation. On the right bank of this noble river, now well named after our most gracious Sovereign, and adjoining to Clarence Town, the township of the parish of Uffington, in the County of Durham, Messrs. Marshall and Lowe, shipwrights, have in their yard, on the stocks, a steam vessel nearly finished, to be called the William the Fourth. From the information I had received of her, I was led to suppose that she would be just such another craft as the Surprise, and as such only fit to be employed as a tender to the Sophia Jane. I accordingly did not feel any particular anxiety about her entering upon the watery element. My business, however, leading me from Maitland to Port Stephens, curiosity conducted me to the spot where the William the Fourth is building, when, to my surprise, I saw, not a puny boat only fit for fresh water, but a noble vessel capable of stemming the roughest seas. On expressing my astonishment to the builders, Messrs. Marshal and Lowe, they very politely invited me on board, and proceeded to explain the whole of her dimensions to me, which I now give you as nearly as I can recollect.

  • Length of keel, 70 ft ;
  • ditto from the taffarel to the stern, 80 ft. ;
  • width of beam aft, 13 ft. ;
  • ditto of ditto midships, 15 ft. ;
  • ditto over the spancing, 20 feet ;
  • height from the kelson to the flush deck, 7 ft. 6 in.;
  • height of the after cabin, 6 ft. 6 in. ;
  • length of the ladies’ cabin, containing berths, 12 ft. ;
  • ditto of the gentlemen’s cabin, containing berths, 16 ft.;
  • ditto of the fore cabin, containing berths, 15 ft.;
  • ditto of the engine room for an engine of horse power,—;
  • thickness of outside plank, 1¾ in. ;
  • ditto of ceiling, 1¼ in.;
  • ditto of deck planks (native pine), 2 ¼ in. ;
  • tonnage, 100 tons;
  • tonnage for goods, 25 tons ;
  • draft of water, 5 ft. ;
  • two masts, schooner-rig.
  • The whole (excepting the deck planks) including the treenails, of flooded gum.

Thus, Mr. Editor, you see that this colony can now boast of being able to build her own steamers, and these with her own indigenous timber, the flooded gum, which Messrs. Marshal and Lowe, declare is equal to any in the world for ship building, and particularly for treenails. Whenever this
beautiful vessel may be launched into her proper element, which it is calculated will be in about a month, it will be seen that vessels now of 600 tons can be built, or completely repaired in the William River, quicker and cheaper than can be done in Sydney Cove, a circumstance of the utmost importance to our whale fishery speculators, who, I have not the least doubt, will, when they see the masterly work of the William the Fourth, not fail to give ample employment to Messrs. Marshal and Lowe, at their ship building establishment in Clarence Town, and so follow the good example set them by Mr. Grose of Parramatta, the proprietor of the steamer.

I am Sir,
Your humble servant,
William River, Sept. 6,1831.

The replica William the Fourth was constructed as a community 1988 Bi-Centenary Project at Raymond Terrace, at a cost of $1.5 million and was launched on 26 September 1987 by Mrs Hazel Hawke. During construction hundreds of people purchased engraved copper nails – still in the ship’s hull, and since then thousands more have enjoyed the experience of the ship whilst learning of our maritime heritage.

The replica operated commercial cruises on Newcastle Harbour and the Hunter River for 14 years until a boiler leak put it out of service in 2001. It was earmarked to be dismantled.

In 2008 a community-based organisation, William the Fourth Inc. was formed to take ownership from Newcastle City Council and complete a total restoration of the ship and return it to service. Difficulty in raising funds delayed the restoration for 10 years but with generous public and corporate support, work valued at over $650,000 was completed without incurring debt. As part of the full refurbishment a powerful diesel engine with propeller, as well as bow thruster were installed to maximise availability and overcome the issues presented by steam and paddlewheel propulsion (whilst retaining and simulating the steam experience).

William the Fourth provides the ideal platform to showcase the beauty of the city from the harbour.

It is available as a floating display, a venue for on-board refreshments and functions, and has an operating licence to undertake corporate and tourist charters in sheltered waters. Charters are based on an hourly rate, for any number of passengers up to 54. Operations are available at any time, subject to availability of volunteer crew.