Family History Month: The Family behind Polly Woodside

August is celebrated as National Family History Month - a time to remember the families whose lives are now woven into the story of The National Trust of Australia (Victoria).

Sid Gardner holding Johnny Gardner, circa 1943. Photo provided by Mick Gardner.

The Rona’s lighterman during the 1930s and 1940s was Peter (Patrick) Gardner, who, with his wife Margaret, raised eight children on board the coal hulk. In 1940 an article was written about the Gardner family and their life on the ship. They lived in the quarterdeck accommodation that had housed the ship’s officers during her sailing years. There was no electricity, but they had plenty of warmth thanks to an abundance of coal.

Five Gardner children still living on-board the ship in 1940 were reportedly happy and healthy, if sometimes a little dirty. A cloud of coal dust covered everything and meant that frequent bathing was necessary. The ship was usually tied up at South Wharf, Melbourne, but she moved about the port to load vessels with coal. The children were enrolled in several schools and attended whichever was closest to where the lighter berthed each day. But by the time the children finished school in the afternoon their home might be somewhere else entirely. The Port Melbourne milkman who delivered milk to the coal hulks of the Yarra recalls overhearing the Gardner children ask their father where the Rona would be when school finished for the day. If the plans changed, however, there was no telephone on board so the children would ride around the banks of the Yarra on their bicycles, searching for the hulk until they found her.

In 1943 the Rona was requisitioned by the Australian Navy, under whom she served until 1946. At some stage after her return, the Gardner family renewed their custodianship of the little hulk. Once Peter (Patrick) became ill his son Peter (Alfred) became the lighterman and continued tradition by raising his six children aboard her. By this time, electricity was supplied to the ship from the wharf and a fence had been built on the poop deck to stop the children accidentally falling into the Yarra.


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Guest writers

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