The Rise and Fall of a Boat Building Family

Kay Koenig

Yesterday I was asked to research the Holmes family who were boat builders at Lavender Bay. With a little research what a fascinating story developed.

Members of the Holmes family had been building boats in England and in the USA from the 1700’s.   Whether some of their descendants migrated to the southern colonies is a matter of debate. However, one William Holmes travelled to New Zealand around 1850. He is reported to have been a potter, not a boat builder. Whatever the case, he sired a boat building dynasty.  His three sons, James, John and William settled in Devonport. They won a government tender to run a ferry service between Devonport and Auckland and in 1864, built the paddle steamer, Waitemata, the first ferry to be built in the town. The brothers operated the Waitemata Steam Ferry Company. When the company went bankrupt in 1867, they renamed the Waitemata, Enterprise 2, established a new company, the North Shore Steam Ferry Company, and continued their business.  This flourished. To suitably accommodate the ferry passengers, a private hotel was built.  This hotel, the Flagstaff, was quite a resort and even included a bathing beach.  The Holmes brothers continued to build boats and operate the ferry service until well into the twentieth century.

William’s son, also William, migrated to Australia. He worked for a time as a bridge builder in Victoria and then moved to Sydney in the 1870’s. Once in Sydney he followed his father’s trade as a boat builder. Initially he worked with the firm of Warbrick & Payne who had established a boat building workshop in Lavender Bay.  Then he struck out on his own at McMahon’s Point. William’s enterprise was hugely successful.  His name plate was attached to boats all over Australia and up into the islands to the north.   He built large luxury yachts such as Minota, Apache and Bona, (now Boomerang, a proud member of Sydney’s heritage fleet).  He built launches that were used by missionaries to travel between the islands of Melanesia. He built boats designed for racing on Sydney Harbour, including ten footers and fourteen footers. He skippered several of these and won many trophies.  His eighteen footer, Arawa, won three championship races in one season.

William Holmes was the first boat builder in Sydney to construct speed boats. In 1905 he build the Gee-Wiz and later the Fairbanks which won the first Australasian speedboat championship. William built a hydro-plane and was still operating his business, building boats and winning races when he died in 1923.

William’s eldest son, Reginald also entered the boat building industry. His workshop was in Lavender Bay at the bottom of Crescent Street. He built launches and speed boats. Like his father, he was a successful and well respected businessman.

It was the mid 1930’s. The Harbour Bridge had been completed and Sydney was just dragging itself out of the Depression. People were looking for cheap entertainment. Fun piers and aquariums were popular.  In order to boost his business, the proprietor of the Palace Hotel in Coogee put a four metre tiger shark into an indoor swimming pool at the hotel. On Anzac Day 1935 the shark had a large audience.  About 4 o’clock in the afternoon, it became agitated and vomited. Amongst the fish it disgorged was a rat, a bird and a human arm, complete with tattoo.  The reputation of the Holmes family was about to be tarnished.

Boat builder, Reginald Holmes had a modern use for his speed boats. They sometimes did a night run, out through the Heads and along the coast to collect packages that were dropped overboard from passing ships. Homes had a secret life as a drug runner and dealer. He imported Cocaine and distributed it amongst the young crowd of Sydney.   Not content with boat building and drug dealing, Reginald and some of his mates decided to indulge in a little insurance fraud.

In 1932, Reginald mortgaged a life insurance policy to Albert Stannard for £4000. Stannard was a friend and fellow boat builder.  Holmes, Stannard and two other friends purchased an ocean going motor yacht, Pathfinder. They had a business venture involving the Pathfinder.  The caretaker of the boat was James Smith.

Smith was a part-time boxer, who lived in Balmain, and originally ran a billiard saloon. During the 1930’s he moved up in the world. He became a builder and his first contract was the construction of a block of units for Reginald Holmes. As the caretaker of the Pathfinder, Smith took the boat on a trip up the Central Coast in April of 1934.  It sank off the coast near Terrigal. Unbeknown to Holmes and his friends, Smith was a police informer and the police were very interested in the Pathfinder. They thought it was involved in the smuggling operation. After is sank, Stannard, Holmes and his cronies were so vigorously interviewed by the police. The insurance company was also suspicious. The claim for the sunken yacht, valued at £8,000, was not settled.

A police informer cannot remain undercover forever and by April 1935, Smith’s days were numbered.

The arm in the shark caused a sensation in Sydney. A photograph of the arm featured widely in the press and it was not long before the owner was identified by its tattoo of fighting boxers. The arm belonged to James Smith.

Once identification was made, it did not take police long to trace Smiths last movements. He had been drinking in a pub with Cronulla local, Patrick Brady. A taxi driver remembered Brady. He recalled that, very late one night in April, he had taken Brady to Reginald Holmes house in Lavender Bay. The police had their connection.

Initially Holmes denied knowing Brady.  Then he took one of his speed boats into Sydney Harbour, and in full view of people strolling along the shore, Reginald Holms shot himself in the head and tumbled into the water.  Miraculously he survived. He climbed back into the boat and sped off. The water police gave chase and for four hours they zigzagging in and out of ferries, large cargo ships and other harbour traffic.  Eventually Holmes surrendered. He confessed that Brady had visited him. Bearing the severed arm, Brady had tried to blackmail Holmes. Later, Holmes agreed to be a witness at the inquest into the death of James Smith.

In the early hours of the first morning of the inquest, Reginald Holmes was found dead in his car in Hickson Road, under the newly constructed Harbour Bridge. He had three bullets in his chest.

At his inquest, his wife testified that, on the day of his death, Reginald had withdrawn £500 from his bank account. When he had left home he had told her that he was meeting Albert Stannard at 2 o’clock.  Another witness identified Stannard, as the man who walked away from a car in Hickson Rd, on the evening that Holmes had died.

In the end, Reginald Holmes’ killer was never identified. It was thought that Holmes had ordered his own death and paid a hit-man to do what he failed to accomplish. Without Reginald’s evidence, Brady was not convicted. In 1937 Albert Stannard purchased the Holmes boat business in Lavender Bay. It still operates today.