The ‘Floating Concert Hall’: Music on the Manly Ferry

Tony Smith


In the early 1950s one of the great pleasures available to Sydneysiders of all ages was a trip on the Manly Ferry. Ferries ran to many points across the Harbour, mainly taking commuters to the CBD or to the railway for further travel. At about 30 minutes however, the Manly trip was the longest and the most relaxing. It gave views of remnant bushland and glimpses of waterfront mansions. It even passed nearby ‘The Heads’, the wide break in the cliffs which provides access to the Pacific Ocean.

According to the tourist slogan used by the Port Jackson and Manly Steamship company, Manly was ‘Seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care’. Visitors could relax in netted harbour baths or brave the waves at a broad surfing beach. Ice creams and fish and chips were readily available.

I have fond memories of sitting on the wooden benches of ferries such as the South Steyne and the Collaroy. Among the delights of the trip was the music. I recall a piano accordion player, a saxophonist and a fiddler knocking out the popular tunes of the day with great expertise. When I thought about those musicians recently, I recalled mainly men who seemed to be middle aged and probably of European origins. I remember a wooden donation box being shaken as the musicians moved around the decks. I imagined that they were raising money for the Royal Far West Children’s Hospital. All these assumptions were wrong.

Ferries, at least in the days before the popularity of transistor radios, were popular venues for musicians. Larger ferries had pianos at each end – on the upper deck and the lower. Dinner dance cruises were held regularly and ferries could be chartered for such purposes.

The money collected was for the musicians themselves. Often these busking players had positions with the bands of radio stations, called orchestras or dance bands or concert bands. They were expert musicians in demand as they could readily adapt to the demands of various conductors and some taught their instruments as well. It was not unusual for them to play in symphony orchestras.

Musicians were such a common sight on commuter ferries that their presence was largely ignored by the press. They were taken for granted as unremarkable. It was only when something extraordinary occurred that a report might appear, which is of course an interesting caveat about reportage in general. A good example occurred when a flying fish landed on the piano during a hot night when trumpeter Vic Cross and banjo player Tony Jack were ‘serenading’ passengers (Sunday Sun 24 November 1946).

Material for this article has kindly been sent to me by astute researchers – many of them volunteers. I acknowledge particularly John MacRitchie, Local Studies Librarian at the Northern Beaches Council, Don Brian, Library Volunteer at the Australian National Maritime Museum and a number of blokes named Bill who keep afloat Sydney’s Marine Records and Research Centre. Of course these helpful people are not responsible for any errors here, which are entirely mine.

Some Musicians
Mr Lisle (or Lyle) Pearse (1891-1976) was adept on saxophone (alto or tenor), clarinet and xylophone.  In the late 1920s he performed on Radio 2FC and 2GB, and performed with “The Celeste Trio” and in the mid-1930s he performed with his ‘Modern Swing Band’ at the Halcyon Club in Pitt Street. There is a Lisle Pearse Memorial Garden at Tasman Street, Oberon, in the Blue Mountains as Pearse was a benefactor of the Australian Plant Society. In between these musical activities he served in the military (SMH 20 February 1976).

Closer to my impression that some of the musicians might have received classical training in a European tradition, if not actually in Europe, Isaac Goldstein reminisced about his uncles in Ferries of Sydney by G. Andrews (p.221): “My uncles Jack and Morris Rosen were musicians on the Manly ferry. Uncle Jack played violin and Morrie played the piano and shook the coin box. The third member of the trio, Archie Jackson, played the cornet. The Rosen brothers were well-known in racing circles”.

Norman White, a violinist, was interviewed for the Sun Herald (11 March 1956) and is quoted in Andrews, Ferries of Sydney (p.222). In the 1920s, musicians could expect to make £3 on a good summer Sunday, and before WWII could average £18 a week.  By 1956 a good week brought in £40. “Folks want it as corny as we can make it, and boy, do we make it corny”. The picture of Mr White was kindly supplied by the MRRC.

Gwen Gordon’s Harbord, Queenscliff and South Curl Curl (p.82) has a photo taken in 1922 of Steven Raffo, who played flute, along with two other musicians on banjo and ukulele, on board one of the ferries. Mr Raffo later became a well-known builder in the Harbord area.

Bill White recalled: “Each ferry had a famous German iron-frame piano fore and aft upon the decks. The scholarly players would make the pianos talk, often accompanied by three other uniformed musicians on violin, cornet and bass. It was music all the way to Manly and return – everyone’s music, from classic to ragtime. As the 1914 troopships outward-bound dipped goodbye at the Heads, I well remember a tear-jerking cornet solo of ‘Somewhere a Voice is Calling’. There were handkerchiefs and many tears, but a liven-up with HMS Pinafore was the medicine” (Manly Observer Newsletter no.28 1977).

Dorothy Collins, in her unpublished memoir of her 30s childhood ‘Not a Peony Bush’ recalled: “Then there was the joy of an occasional trip to town and the thrill of being given a penny each to place in the musician’s collection box when it was rattled under our noses during the journey. There was a piano at each end of the upper deck and a team of three musicians who usually travelled on the same ferry. The team consisted of a pianist, a violinist and a piano accordionist. After entertaining the passengers on the upper deck the pianist took over the collection box and then, in the manner of the ancient strolling minstrels, the three traversed the length of the lower deck, even penetrating the sacred portals of the Ladies Cabin at one end of the ferry. I can recall one occasion when my mother cleared out a huge pile of sheet music from the old piano stool and decided to offer it to our favourite trio who used the ferry Dee Why as their floating concert hall. Don and I waited at the Manly Wharf until the ferry docked and then excitedly lugged the heavy bundle of music up the gangplank and gave it to the surprised man. We were rewarded with a sweet from all three and in the months that followed it seemed almost disloyal to travel on any other boat because we used to hope they’d play ‘our’ music”.

While my memories reach back only to the early 1950s and the music seemed to be thriving then, signs were appearing that music might not be played much longer. During the years of the Pacific war, one newspaper complained that the pianos were out of tune, suggesting that piano tuners had probably either joined up or been pressed into some form of manual labour to replace those who had volunteered (Sydney Sun 30 March 1943).

Musicians had a slightly precarious position, depending upon the ferry owners to allow them to perform. Apparently, a musician so annoyed one passenger who wanted to read his newspaper by shaking the collection box under his nose, that drastic action followed. The passenger happened to be a director of the steamship company and at the next meeting, convinced the board to ban musicians (Sydney Sun 9 April 1923).

Perhaps the transistor radio was the final straw. When the steamship company conducted a poll to determine whether passengers would like radios playing on ferries, 51% respondents voted against the proposition. Eleven per cent respondents expressed concern for the live musicians. One passenger put his feelings in verse:

Peace in the smoke-room do not shatter,
By some announcer's sales talk or chatter,
Of headache, powders, Auntie's flour
At home we hear it by the hour.
We shall not put a nickel in,
To hear a poor cow's moo-sick din (Barrier Miner 27 July 1950).

There is some evidence then that passengers appreciated the contributions of these strolling players. Their presence also provided opportunities for ‘pop-up’ performances by other players and even singers. Visiting opera star Gino Mattera for example, gave an impromptu performance of ‘Come Back to Sorrento’ as he crossed the harbour to meet the Mayor of Manly (Sydney Sun 16 May 1953).

I have barely scratched the surface of this topic and would welcome any reminiscences people might have of this bygone era. Musicians played on ferries from about 1880 to 1955. Like buskers everywhere, they created an ambience – something slower and gentler and decidedly more human than we encounter on public transport today. They ought no longer be taken for granted.

A note about newspapers: These can generally be sourced on Trove at the National Library of Australia website. Thank you again to the researchers who forwarded them to me.

A former academic, Tony Smith has written extensively on a wide range of subjects as diverse as folk music and foreign policy issues in the Australian Review of Public Affairs, the Journal of Australian Studies Review of Books, Overland, the Australian Quarterly, Eureka Street, Online Opinion and Unleashed.