ABOUT OUR BUSINESS
This Is Our Story
For 150 years, C Blunt Boat Builders, of Williamstown and Geelong, has been launching wooden boats into the waters of Port Phillip Bay, from sea-faring vessels carrying missionaries to the New Hebrides to beautiful race-winning yachts. Now a listed heritage site and run by a fifth generation of Blunts, it is a unique link to Victoria’s maritime past.
LOSING your home and possessions to a bush fire would be enough to send all but the hardiest of new immigrants scurrying back to their homeland. Yet, when such a disaster struck English newlyweds Clement and Sarah Blunt shortly after their arrival in Australia in the early 1850s, they entertained no such thought.
The young couple had settled in Lorne, 140km south west of Melbourne, where Clement earned a living building a boat for a local squatter. Undeterred by the fire that ravaged their fledgling life, they walked with what little survived the blaze along the coast to Geelong. There, the 34-year-old began a boat building dynasty that survives to this day.
Within two months of opening his yard, it became home to the Geelong Rowing Club.
His designs also began turning heads; a 24-foot yawl built for a local doctor “skims over the water like a thing of life” came one report of May 1, 1874. As his reputation and business grew so too did his clan, and he distilled his talent into the five of six sons who were to follow him into the trade.
It was the old man’s eldest son, another Clement, who headed further up the coast to start his own business on the thriving Williamstown foreshore, a major centre of Port Phillip Bay’s boat building industry. Displaying a similar longevity to his father – and, latterly, the same full white beard – he would oversee the yard’s operations well into his 80s.
The new C Blunt Boat Builders was originally set up adjacent to the present site in Nelson’s Place. Clement Blunt II was granted 33 feet of frontage for a ₤10 annual rental. His business was soon a soar-away success that benefited from the continuing expansion of Melbourne, then Australia’s largest and most prosperous city. All manner of boats began flying off the slipway, from large pleasure boats to smaller rowing boats, including Williamstown’s first ever motor boat – the Ariel – and a fleet of 24 power launches and sailing boats for use by missionaries heading to the Solomon Islands.
On Monday evening a yacht made to the order of Mr Findley was launched from Mr Blunt’s boat building establishment in the presence of a number of members of the Hobson’s Bay Yacht Club. The boat is considered one of the finest… turned out from local sheds…The health of the builder was also drunk. Mr Findley and Mr Blunt suitably responded.
From the Advertiser, Williamstown, June 9, 1888
Boosted by the fortunes of Blunt racing yachts such as the Sunbeam and Hyacinth, respectively winner and runner-up in the St Kilda Yacht Club, N H Roberts and Corio Bay trophies of 1892, the site was soon unable to cope with the volume of orders, despite an ability to produce boats in astonishingly quick time: “A smart piece of workmanship was displayed by Mr Clem. Blunt, boatbuilder, this week. In six days he turned out a large six-oared surf-boat for work at the standed Drumblair,” reported the Chronicle, on October 22, 1892.
The business was forced to move to a bigger yard in 1898, at Clark’s Slip, now the site of Williamstown’s police station. The Advertiser was impressed: “It is Mr Blunt’s intention to take advantage of the opportunities of this site for developing his business into an important industry, and he is to be congratulated upon his determination to launch out in a large way.”
Residents of Williamstown awoke on Sunday morning to find that one of the oldest landmarks along the waterfront in Nelsons-place had almost disappeared during the night…Mr Blunt has the sympathy of a wide circle of his friends in his severe loss.
From the Advertiser, June 6, 1926
The 1926 fire that gutted the boat shed did little to stem the progress of the business. Thankfully, with the Blunt name well known in the sailing world and the family well loved in Williamstown, their “wide circle of friends” ensured the business was not short of offers for a new home. And, if the small matter of a devastating blaze had not deterred the first Clement, neither would it his sons and grandsons, who combined to lease a new shed adjacent to their first site in Nelson’s Place. They took over a building previously used for motor repairs and, using timber from the first ever floating dock to inhabit Port Phillip Bay’s waters, laid down the yard and slipway still in use today.
Among the boats to grace Clark’s Slip was a yacht designed by William Fife Jr, of Fairlie, "AOTOA" still sailing to this day in Hobart. By September 1900, Clement II, now approaching 50, had “more work than he can attend to”, according to the Advertiser.
All the while, the Geelong business was kept running by his brothers Herbert and Charles, producing a number of large yachts and one craft, the Cock o’ the North, which was used by Presbyterian missionaries. As he neared his 60s, Charles decided to join his older brother in Williamstown in 1922, by which time the third generation of Blunt boat builders was already being groomed.
Among the grandsons were the third Clement, born in 1894, and Arthur, two years his junior, who over the coming years would gradually take over the reins. By this stage, a large part of their work was contracted up river where Clement oversaw their men’s work, with Arthur in charge of the shipwrights at the yard. The former Naval Reservists became a formidable partnership, leaving an indelible mark on Williamstown. Stories abound of their time in the yard, one recalled so often it is found on a tourist information board erected by Hobson’s Bay City Council outside the yard:
“A client neglected to retrieve his boat. Frustrated with it taking up space for many years, Arthur recycled it into wood needed for the new pier. But the owner reappeared. He unwittingly leaned against the pier, resting his foot on what was once his boat’s keel and hollered ‘Where’s my bloody boat?’”
According to the current yard’s owner, Greg Blunt, Arthur chased the man from the yard with an earful.
Business was steady, with at one stage ten shipwrights making up orders as varied as rowing skiffs and wheelhouses for tugs. And when Clement III was diagnosed with diabetes, which resulted in both his legs being amputated, they installed ramps throughout the yard so he could continue over seeing work. The firm also secured regular contracts from the local naval authorities, ultimately forcing them to request an extension to the site from the Melbourne Harbour Trust in October 1942.
So integral had the Blunts become to Williamstown life that they had their own corner of the Steampacket Inn the old pub situated one block back from the waterfront. Blunt’s Room, complete with it’s own sign and boating paraphernalia served generation after generation at their shifts’ end.
“In Williamstown, they say that Clem and Arthur Blunt are as well-known as the Gellibrand Light.”
From the Advertiser, November 18, 1970
As well-known as the Gellibrand Light they may have been but, just as the Bay’s most famous lighthouse’s time was to end so was the brothers’ time as the town’s leading boat builders. Arthur died within six months of the above article appearing in the local newspaper; Clem passed away in April 1973. Both remained in the trade until their last days.
In a break from tradition, Clement Blunt III’s eldest son, Clement, chose not to take on the boat building mantle, instead opting for a career at the Altona refinery as a fitter and turner. He retained a love for yachting, but not the art of building the yachts themselves, so younger brother Robert, who had served his boat building apprenticeship with the Melbourne Steamship Company, first at Williamstown, then for three years at sea, stepped into the breach.
By this stage, the demand for wooden boats was in steep decline, with plastics and fibreglass becoming the material of choice for an ever-growing majority of prospective owners. As a result, the Blunt yard had been moving steadily into the field of repairs to compensate for declining orders. Among the staff struggling against the tide of progress were Robert’s two sons, Greg and Paul, both of whom served Shipwright/Boatbuilding apprenticeships at the behest of their grandfather.
By 1982 the orders had completely dried up and the dynasty, now in its 125th year, faced a threat to its future greater than those earlier posed by Mother Nature. Robert had wages to pay, but no income, so both his sons offered to leave the yard. Greg returned to his previous trade as a signwriter; Paul became a boatman with the tug company; their father soldiered on.
Business failed to pick up, Blunts, which had once employed ten shipwrights, now had just one employee and was in trouble with the banks. The business was in dire straits. That all paled into insignificance when Robert was diagnosed with bowel cancer and given just months to live.
After Robert passed on new obstacles soon arose. The lease on the site was up for renewal and there were vultures hovering. A meeting of the Blunts was called to decide the fate of the business: Ultimately, it was left to Greg to choose whether to take the business into a fifth generation or consign it to the history books. After much soul-seeking, he chose the former and raised the necessary funds to take the lease from the estate.
Then his problems really began. Times had changed though the yard not necessarily with it. EPA inspectors and government began to make demands for certain works to be carried out, which were going to be very expensive. The site was found to be contaminated with heavy metals and the EPA demanded the removal of a foot of top soil. A compromise was reached with the government on covering the costs of removal.
“With the lease not up for another 21 years, I started thinking, like my father before me, ‘What on earth have I done?’,” says Greg.
A white knight arrived in the form of Heritage Victoria who listed the entire site and later agreed to provide a $15,000 grant, funding a part refit of the boat shed’s floor. Occasional orders began coming in and requests for repairs became regular again. And, with yards like Blunt’s becoming increasingly rare, it began attracting inquisitive passers-by through its door; not just boat people, but tourists drawn to its antiquated look.
While its value as a tourist attraction may prove central to the yard’s future, the Blunt family’s past will never be forgotten; it may even be impossible to escape. The tools and methods used by Greg and his small team of staff and volunteers are the same as they were when the shed was opened by Clement II more than 80 years ago, work is currently underway on a beautiful Gaff Cutter, Janet, that was built by Greg’s great-grandfather in Geelong in 1900. The boat was reclaimed from a scrapyard in Hobart, Tasmania, and sold to Greg for a dollar in 1999 once the owner realised its restoration was beyond his means.
New owners took over at the Steampacket Inn last year, stripping out the bar’s traditional furnishings It means Blunt’s Room is no more, but its legacy lives on in a pontoon restored by ten local men behind the yard where they have formed their own club.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride with government officials, boat owners and trying to operate a yard using the same techniques as 80 years ago when wages aren’t what they were 80 years ago,” says Greg. “But we’ll always be fixing boats. What we’ve got here is unique.”
“This boatyard is a great delight and a pleasure for all. It is part of our maritime history that should be preserved as a working shipyard for our heritage wooden boats.”
Retired seaman Paddy Garritty, Blunt’s guest book, January 30, 2008