About The Ships

Between the 1880s and early 1970s, Burns, Philp & Co.Ltd. operated for varying periods thirty-eight "mainline" (operating out of Australian ports) ships and countless inter-island sailing and powered vessels.

Although the Great War's physical impact on Burns, Philp's areas of interest was limited, sea-going raiders presented a constant hazard to its ships. Most significant was the experience of its steamer Matunga, en route Sydney to Rabaul, when on 6 August 2023 it was captured by the German raiding ship Wolf. Sinking Matunga some days later, the raider carried its crew and passengers into captivity in Europe until war's end.

Between the wars the names of Burns Philp's ships became household words in many parts of Australia and South East Asia, as well as indispensable links with the Pacific Islands, particularly appreciated by expatriate residents. Easily distinguished by their black funnels with a black-and-white check band and their Scotch Thistle house flag, their sustained service to remote locations as well as main centres led to the Company sometimes being described as "The Hudson Bay Company of the South Pacific".

Shipbuilding in the United Kingdom in the 1930s foresaw the possibility of war. When it came in 1939, the newly-built Bulolo was requisitioned for Royal Navy service and the partly-constructed Burnside was allotted, on completion in 1940, for merchant service elsewhere. All vessels, now fitted with modest weapons of defence and extra liferafts, were mobilised in various ways into the war effort, mostly by allotment to either the British Ministry of War Transport or the Australian Shipping Control Board.

The evacuation of families (generally only the women and children) from Island locations, from the Netherlands East Indies, through to Papua, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, is considered to have been one of the epics of its type during the Second World War. The Company's shipping fleet, outstandingly familiar with these areas, played a major role in these events. Though no official figures exist, the evacuees numbered in the thousands.

Ships of both the mainline and inter-island portions of the fleet were ubiquitous, around the Australian coast and throughout adjacent islands, large and small. Designed for such trade, including plantation calls to collect produce, they were admirably suited to the role. Their crewing varied: generally the inter-island ships carried Australian officers and Pacific Islander crews, while the mainline ships, though always officered by Australians, had crew structures which varied according to the ship's Port of Registry. Some had all-Australian crews, others employed Malay seamen, Chinese stewards and Indian engine-room personnel.

The number of officers and crew members lost to or wounded by enemy action appears never to have been officially recorded, the Official Histories making only scant reference to the work of the Australian Merchant Navy. The Burns Philp Fleet lost three mainline ships: Macdhui sunk Port Moresby (10 crew killed), Neptuna sunk Darwin (45 killed) and Tulagi sunk Indian Ocean (47 killed).

Of its considerable inter-island fleet losses, only few are documented: Mamutu sunk off New Guinea (23 crew, 119 passengers killed), Lakatoi presumed sunk (23 personnel missing) and Matafele presumed sunk Coral Sea (17 crew, 20 naval ratings missing). The fate of a number of others is unknown.

Crucially important also to the repulse of the threat from Japan - and perhaps unique to Burns Philp Shipping - was the accumulated local knowledge of uncharted areas of reef and island access, often maintained over the years by Burns Philp navigators as extensive personal, professional records and provided as guidance to successors and cadets-in-training. Expertise in seamanship and ship-handling in confined port facilities, sometimes enhanced by experiences of earlier strandings and mishaps, in often uncharted and some of the most hazardous waters in the world, combined with this knowledge to provide unmeasurable assets in the prosecution of the war.

Whether serving as members of the Royal Australian Naval Reserve, being seconded to allied naval forces (as happened with a number), or remaining in their Australian Merchant Navy roles, several received decorations for such activities as reconnaissance and survey of enemy locations and guidance of allied invasion fleets, in the campaigns which turned and pushed back the Japanese forces in the South Pacific arena of conflict.

For those seeking broader background on Burns Philp Shipping, the following publications may assist:-

  • "The Ships of Burns, Philp and Company" by Ronald Parsons 1978. ISBN 09O9418 12 8
  • "The Mainline Fleet of Burns Philp" by B.A. Wilkinson and R.K. Willson 1981. ISBN 09599079 2 0
  • "The History of Burns Philp-The Australian Company in the South Pacific" by K. Buckley and K. Klugman 1981
  • "The Australian Presence in The Pacific-Burns Philp 1914-1946" by K. Buckley and K. Klugman 1983 ISBN 0 86861 007 0