South Brisbane Dry Dock

History of the Dry Dock (Graving Dock)

Shipping played a significant role in 19th century Queensland as its primary – and sometimes only – means of trade and communication. Brisbane was declared a port of entry in 1846, a warehousing port in 1849, and in 1850 a Customs House was erected.[1] With the rapid growth of Queensland’s economy in the 30 years following separation, ports were opened in 14 centres along the Queensland coast to service the adjacent hinterland regions. Queensland’s share of the total Australian shipping tonnage climbed from 3% in 1871 to 11% in 1881, in addition to its intercolonial direct trade.[2] Much of this trade came to Brisbane, which had become a much more accessible port after the Upper Flats near the mouth of the river were cleared in 1871, enabling large vessels to access the Town Reach.[3]

The South Brisbane Dry Dock (built 1876-81) is important as an infrastructure facility associated with the shipping industry which contributed significantly to the commercial and economic development of Queensland. It is important as rare surviving evidence of 19th century shipping activity along the South Brisbane Reach, and indicative of the massive scale of former riverside industry and port-related activity in Brisbane. It is also important for its role as the Ship Repair Base and US Navy submarine base during World War II, docking and repairing nearly 300 vessels. (Queensland State Heritage Register)

The South Brisbane Dry Dock at 412 Stanley Street, South Brisbane is significant as Brisbane’s largest surviving 19th century industrial site. It is a rare Australian example of an intact riverside dry dock, illustrating contemporary engineering and technology. The dry dock is an important example of the work of engineer William Nisbet in Queensland, and is significant for its association with the contractors J & A Overend and the caisson manufacturers RR Smellie & Co.

South Brisbane Graving Dock in 1910. (State Library of Queensland)
South Brisbane Dry Dock 1923. (State Library of Victoria)

The South Brisbane Dry Dock is heritage-listed, commenced in 1876, the dock as completed was 313 ft (95.4m) long and 60ft (18.3m) wide. In 1887 the dock was extended to 430ft (131.1m) due to the increasing size of vessels. Constructed of granite imported from Melbourne and Helidon (near Brisbane) sandstone was used to assemble the altars (steps on the walls). It is now part of the Queensland Maritime Museum.  (State Library of Victoria)

There were over 5,000 entries for maintenance and repair in the dock prior to its closure in 1973. It was a vital piece of infrastructure for the development of Queensland trade for over 90 years, attracting shipping to the state and supporting the dredging fleet that was essential for the maintenance of Queensland’s river ports. During WWII the dock was an important factor in the establishment of the United States Navy’s Submarine Base in Brisbane.  Over 50 submarines and 100 other warships were maintained and repaired in the dock.

The dry dock is also the home of HMAS Diamantina, one of two extant River Class Frigates in the world. Diamantina embarked the Commander of the Japanese 17th Army to surrender at Bougainville and the Japanese surrenders of Nauru and Ocean Island were signed on her quarterdeck.

For a 25-year period from 1900 the dry dock also served as Brisbane’s major championship swimming venue. A 100-yard world record was set in the dock in 1903 by R Cavill. In 1915 Hawaiian world champion Duke Kahanamoku (who introduced surfboard riding to Australia) drew a crowd of 2,500 people to the dock to witness him swim.  (source: Brisbane Open House 2019)

Early days of the South Brisbane Dry Dock

The 800-ton barque Doon was the first vessel to use the South Brisbane Dry Dock on September 10, 1881.

The barque Doon, the first ship to use the South Brisbane Dry Dock. (State Library of Queensland)The top photo shows her just after she was floated out of the dock. (SLQ); the second photo is an excerpt from an article in the Queenslander, Saturday, 1 October 1881 describing the celebrations for the opening of the South Brisbane Dry Dock. You can read the full article at

The Turret-deck steamship Orange Branch in dry dock in South Brisbane, circa 1899, with Kangaroo Point Cliffs in the background.

Turret-deck steamer Orange Branch in the South Brisbane Dry Dock ca. 1899. (State Library of Queensland)

Queensland Maritime Museum, 412 Stanley Street, South Brisbane

The Queensland Maritime Museum, established and started by volunteers, took possession of the dry dock in 1973.

OPEN HOUSE: Three attractions in one:  Visit the Queensland Maritime Museum and experience the heritage- listed South Brisbane Dry Dock, historic HMAS Diamantina and the Museum.

Photo courtesy of the Queensland Maritime Museum