The Newtons of Pelican:
pioneers, shipbuilders, mariners


In the 1800s thirty ocean-going ships were built along this riverbank?

The ships were built at the Pelican Shipyard between 1846 and 1878. It was said to be once the largest shipyard in the Southern Hemisphere.  

The shipyard extended from the jetty and pine tree you can see upriver, to the point visible downriver known as Pelican (now Chinamans) Point. 


Alexander Newton Snr was an adventurer. Born in Scotland in 1810, he was apprenticed as a shipwright. Working as a carpenter and whaler, he sailed the world’s oceans, from the Arctic Circle to the Southern Ocean. He disembarked in Sydney in 1835. Later that year he was at Scotchtown (in Kempsey) building sailing ships with partners, including William Malcolm. They built 11 ships before the partnership dissolved. 

In 1846 Newton and Malcolm moved to this riverbank where, under a land-grants scheme, they owned 200 hectares. Forests of ship-building timbers and a deep river made their land ideal for ship building. They established a shipyard, calling it “Pelican”.  

Learning seamanship in the tough whaling school, Newton later became a master mariner. A skilful shipwright, he built alongside his workers. He interspersed shipbuilding with trading voyages in his ships, going to sea about every five years.



The Pelican Shipyard was called “Baruah” until the early 1850s. The schooner Baruah was launched in 1851 at the shipyard and bore the figurehead of a bird. Was it a Pelican?  No images exist for this ship.

Ship-building timbers came from the floodplain here and from higher ground nearby: paperbark for the ship knees (curved bracings); ironbark for keels; white beech and cedar for decking, joinery and interior finishing; and blackbutt and spotted gum for planking and frames. Timber for masts and spars came from Mitchells Island – that’s it across the river. 

Shipwrights, apprentices, cooks, labourers, blacksmiths and sawyers lived in huts at the Pelican Shipyard, working 12-hour days, six days a week. 

In the 31 years to 1878, Newton, Malcolm (until he died in 1856) and Newton’s sons built, launched, sometimes owned and sailed, 30 ocean-going ships. All but the paddle-steamer Huntress were sailing ships. 

Carrying cedar, hardwoods, farm produce and passengers from the Manning Valley along the east coast, they returned with provisions for the district. They also traded globally including to booming goldfields.

The Pelican ships were well-built and long-lasting, despite being worked hard and driven relentlessly. “Mr Newton’s reputation ranks second to none in the colonies for the staunchness of the vessels built by him”, The Manning River News reported in 1865.



Alexander Newton Snr married Hannah Scott in Sydney in 1846. In early 1849, Hannah and their first born, Alexander Newton Jnr (Alex), moved from Sydney to join him. Alexander and Hannah raised 11 children at the yard. Ten were born there. 

All five sons were apprenticed as Pelican shipwrights; all went to sea in Newton ships and all became ships’ masters. All six daughters had a ship named after them – Jessie (launched in 1856), Ellen (1859), Hannah (1867), Rebecca Jane (1871), Alice Maud (1872), and May Newton (1878). 

When his father went to sea in 1867 Alex, aged 20, took charge of the shipyard. On his father’s return Alex sailed to many countries as first mate on the Newton’s Rebecca Jane and, in 1873, he was appointed her master. In 1876, back at Pelican, Alex and his father built the Alexander Newton which Alex sailed as master for the next eight years. 

Alex married Annie Howlett in 1884. They had eight children and lived on their “Belmore” property at the mouth of Cattai Creek. Retiring from the sea in 1885 he turned his hand to grazing and dairying, becoming a director of the Manning River Cooperative Dairy Company. 

Alexander Newton’s other sons were Charles, William, Robert and Peter. Robert, gaining his Master’s Certificate in 1885, took command of the May Newton. In 1892, with Robert as master, she disappeared without trace, all hands lost. 

Alexander and Hannah valued education. Harrington’s first school (Pelican Point) was on his land. Two daughters taught at Harrington’s third school, the Cattai Creek School, built on Alex’s “Belmore” property. Hannah taught there from 1884-1891, Ellen from 1891-1900.

References and Further Reading

Armstrong, J. Journal of an Expedition to the Manning River including a Boat Survey of the River Manning with its Branches. Transcribed and Edited with Explanatory Notes by Dr Bill Birrell, Taree, 1996.

Haug, Ron. 8 September 1987. Unpublished letter to Janeen Clifton, Harrington.

Linton, Rebecca. Crossing the bar: a history of Harrington: Gateway to the Manning Valley. Focus Publishing, 2004. pp 33, 34, 37.

Manning River News, 1865 reprinted in Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW: 1843-1893), Thursday 1 June 1865, p. 4.

Manning Valley Historical Society, 2002. Down to the sea in ships. A history of sea and river watercraft built on the Manning River. Pp 13, 34,35 – 54.

Marshall, Gordon de L. Ships’ Figure Heads in Austalia, 2003. p. 71.

Newton, V.A. Scotchtown and Pelican: The Shipwright’s Tale, A History of Alexander Newton and his Vessels. Auckland, New Zealand, 1991, unpublished. Pp 5,35,60.

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