Of all the great ships of Her Majesty’s Australian Navy, the ship which has possibly received the least acclaim, and yet the one which should receive high honours, is HMASTingira. Tingira, an aboriginal word for ‘open sea’, was originally the clipper sailing ship Sobraon, built in the yard of the famous shipbuilder, Alexander Hall of Aberdeen. Sobraon was launched in 1866 and was the largest composite ship ever built.
For 24 years she sailed between England and Australia and her Commander, James Aberdour Elmslie RNR, earned the utmost respect from his sailing fraternity and all those who ventured the seas to place their lives in his capable hands. Captain Elmslie never unduly stressed his ship or her passengers. The New South Wales Government, in 1891, negotiated with Sobraon’s owners Devitt and Moore to purchase her after she had reached Melbourne, or rather Hobson’s Bay, in January 1891. Sobraon was towed to Sydney Harbour, arriving there on 15th February 1891.
This action by the Government to purchase Sobraon had been brought about because a ship had been urgently needed to replace the Vernon, an old Blackwaller which had been acquired in 1867 to act as a floating reformatory for boys who had been dispatched to her under the regulations which emanated from the Act for the Relief of Destitute Children, the Act to Establish Juvenile Reformatories and the Public Schools Act of 1866. The Vernon had been lying at anchor off Garden Island until 1871, when she was towed to the confluence of the Parramatta and Lane Cove Rivers, where she was moored off Cockatoo Island, then named Biloela, an Industrial School and Reform School for Girls.
Sobraon was placed in Sutherland dock. Cockatoo Island for an inspection and complete refit. She was found to be as sound as a bell and by October 1892, after £31,429 had been spent on modifications, the great ship was prepared to enter the second stage of her life as an Industrial School Ship, or Nautical School Ship, for underprivileged boys whom the court had found destitute, or for other reasons saw it fit to hand these boys into the strict, disciplinary life on board Sobraon, under the careful control of Superintendent Frederick William Neitenstein, Lieutenant William Henry Mason, and their officers.
Apart from being disciplined, the boys were given the opportunity to develop their skills as tradesmen and were inculcated with a basic education both moral and academic. The band was in much demand on many an important ceremonial occasion, and such was the standard of their tuition and development that some of the lads found positions in orchestras. Indeed, many of them attained acclaim, both at home in Australia and overseas, in the field of sport as well as music.
The aim of this exercise was to encourage young lads to join the navy or merchant service which at this time was undergoing a dramatic change, as steam was gradually winning the race with wind propelled ships. In 1911 the New South Wales Government, which had been constantly studying the means of making progress in the treatment of children whose young lives were disadvantaged, decided to dispose of the ‘ Nautical’ type of reform in favour of a land based system. Accordingly Brush Farm was purchased at Eastwood, NSW. It was here that the boys from the Sobraon were housed until an establishment at Mt. Penang was constructed in 1912. It is interesting to note that the porch at the entrance to the main building is known as the quarterdeck, even to this day. Sobraon was sold to the young Commonwealth Government for £15,000. In 1890, the Premier of New South Wales, Sir Henry Parkes, initiated moves towards the federation of the Australian states, which led to the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia being decreed on 1st January 1901.
In March 1901 the naval forces and establishments of the State Governments were transferred to the Commonwealth, but the States continued to administer them under State Acts and Regulations until February 1904, when the Commonwealth Defence Act came into force. An amending Act, decreed on 12th January 1904, led to the establishment of a Naval Board of Administration, with Captain W.R. Creswell as Director.
Now in 1909, a proposal for Australia’s naval defence emanated from the Imperial Defence Conference; the Pacific Fleet was to be formed of three units, one attached to the Australian Station, one attached to the East Indies and one to the China Station, which was also to defend New Zealand. The East Indies and China units were to be under the British Admiralty’s control, while the Australian unit was to be paid for and controlled by Australia, and was to be eventually manned by Australians. In 1910 the Naval Defence Act was passed and in October 1911 the adoption of the title ‘Royal Australian Navy’, was authorised by King George V. This same year saw the launching on the Clyde of HMAS Australia, and the purchasing of the Sobraon by the Commonwealth of Australia. Sobraon was again placed in the hands of Cockatoo Docks for an extensive refit. She was again found to be as sound as a bell at the ripe old age of 55.