- Editorial Staff
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Albatross
- September 2022 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
With kind permission of the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral M.J. Noonan AO RAN, the Naval Historical Society of Australia presented an Australian White Ensign to St John’s Church Birchgrove, which was dedicated in the presence of the Rector of St John’s, the Reverend Canon Peter Yeats, and Chaplain Catherine Wynn Jones RAN. This replaces an earlier White Ensign presented to St John’s many years ago.
Mr John Jeremy, the Vice President of the Naval Historical Society, gave an address in which he said: The Church within which we have gathered this morning has a long and remarkable relationship with shipbuilding in the Port of Sydney and the Royal Australian Navy in particular. It lies close to the sites of four past shipbuilding yards: Cockatoo Island, Mort’s Dock at Woolwich and Balmain, and Poole & Steel in Balmain.
Shipbuilding is a special endeavour, particularly to those who have taken part – from the naval architects, engineers and draughtsman who have designed the ship to those who turn their drawings into reality. Everyone, shipwrights, boilermakers, blacksmiths, sheet-metal workers, joiners, fitters, plumbers, coppersmiths, iron workers, painters – the list goes on – all have a role in the creation of ships, not forgetting the clerks, storemen, and all those behind the scenes who contribute to the enterprise as a whole.
There are milestones during the construction of a ship which are particularly notable. A ship’s launching, in particular, is special for it transforms a static structure on land to a moving, almost alive, vessel floating on the water, her element. For centuries it has involved a ceremony of blessing and naming.
In 1927, the RAN asked the Rector of this Church, the Reverend Arthur Rix, to officiate at the launching of Australia’s first aircraft carrier, HMAS Albatross, named by Lady Stonehaven, wife of the Governor General, and launched at Cockatoo Island on 23 February 1928. It was to be the start of a long association with the launching of some sixty vessels, mostly naval, from Sydney’s shipyards in peace and war.
Arthur Rix would have been very familiar with the usual prayers for the launching of ships, including the words following the traditional hymn Eternal Father Strong to Save: ‘Bless this ship which we are about to launch upon the waters, so that guided by you in storm and calm she may ever be brought to her desired haven.’ The service is followed by the naming of the ship and christening with a bottle of wine, recalling an ancient pagan tradition. This task was also undertaken by Arthur Rix on several occasions.
Most of the ships launched in Sydney have been launched on inclined slipways – a sight which stirs strong emotions, particularly amongst those who have ‘laboured with mind and toil’ to build the ship. The poet Longfellow must have experienced those emotions before he wrote in his famous poem The Building of the Ship:
And see! She Stirs!
She starts, – she moves, -she seems to feel
The thrill of life along her keel,
And, with one exulting, joyous bound,
She leaps into the ocean’s arms.
Arthur Rix’s last launching was that of HMAS Voyager in March 1952. Over almost a quarter of a century he played his part, like the many others, in the construction of ships in Sydney.
To commemorate the association of this Church with the Royal Australian Navy, on 18 June 1944 a White Ensign was dedicated in the presence of Lady Gowrie, wife of the Governor General, as a memorial to the men of the RAN who gave their lives in World War II and to mark the connection of this Parish with the launching of ships of the RAN.
After 78 years, time has inevitably taken its toll on that Ensign. Today the Naval Historical Society of Australia is proud, with the approval of the Chief of Navy, Australia, to present and dedicate a new White Ensign to take its place and maintain the recognition of the links of this parish and church with the Royal Australian Navy.
The remains of this proud flag were then laid up and presented to the safe keeping of Captain Viktor Pilicic CSC RAN, the Commanding Officer of HMAS Kuttabul, and the new ensign was paraded into the church and dedicated by Chaplain Catherine Wynn Jones RAN.
The service was well attended by the congregation from the parish, about forty members of the Naval Historical Society and uniformed participants which included a naval bugler, a ceremonial party and naval photographer from the local command. Afterwards all were invited to attend an excellent morning tea at the church hall, then a short historic tour of maritime Balmain, followed by lunch at a local hotel.