Kerosene-soaked timber provided excellent kindling for the fire that destroyed the ship Habitant at South Wharf in June 1894. The ship-rigged vessel was built of wood in Windsor, Nova Scotia, in 1885.
In the mid-19th century, whale oil was replaced as a lamp fuel by several alternatives, but kerosene (paraffin in the UK) quickly became the preferred choice. Kerosene lamps provided a more satisfactory light than candles, and Australians depended on the fuel being brought here in sailing ships. At that time it was known in shipping circles as ‘case-oil’ because it was shipped in either 15-litre (four-gallon) or 18-litre (five-gallon) containers packed in pairs in wooden cases. Known to all as ‘kero tins’, these were square in section with flat sides, unlike the cylindrical petrol drums.
The Habitant had completed the unloading of her cargo when it is thought a crew member with a grudge against the captain lit the fire. The captain and his family escaped from the burning vessel only minutes before the fire spread to their accommodation. An official inquiry found “the ship had been wilfully fired, but the evidence did not disclose who was the incendiary”.
Another ship, the Jenny Harkness, loaded with 30,000 cases of kerosene – about half a million litres – was moored at the same wharf immediately behind the Habitant but was moved before the fire spread. Had the fire reached the Jenny Harkness there would have been a major disaster.
Despite the efforts of several fire brigades, the ship was destroyed. The outer hull, which remained sound, was sold at auction for £190 and converted into a floating dock. To make this possible, the bow was removed and a box-like structure was added with a door that could be lowered to allow vessels to be floated in while the dock was submerged. A steam engine with a boiler was installed to drive a pump that removed the water from the dock once the door was closed.
The Habitant began her new life as a floating dock in January 1896 and continued to provide docking for hundreds of vessels over the next 60 years.
BY MAURIE HUTCHINSON
President, Peninsula Ship Society
T: Maurie Hutchinson 9787 5780
The Peninsula Ship Society will not be meeting until further notice.