Rosman Ferries – history on the Harbour

Lisa Ratcliff | VOLUME 25, ISSUE 1
Christophe Launay
Lisa Ratcliff explores the historic fleet of Rosman ferries, which have been an integral part of daily life in Sydney for nearly 70 years.

Charles Henry Rosman’s funeral notice read: Aged 106 years. Legend on Sydney Harbour for 74 years. Now at rest.

From the early 1900s, Charles and his brother James Rosman were ferrymen, the former building a successful business that now operates under the Noakes Group banner. From the early days carrying dockyard workers to the Garden Island naval base during World War I, the Rosman Ferries business has ebbed and flowed with changing modes of transport, industry and lifestyle.

These days, a fleet of five – Lithgow (1927), Proclaim (1939), Radar (1947), Royale (1974) and Regal II (1981) – provide a colourful and nostalgic reminder of Sydney Harbour’s ferry heyday, when Australia’s oldest port was alive with commercial and naval shipping. Resplendent in Federation livery, they are genuine relics of the past that can’t be replicated.


Charles Rosman senior died when Charles junior was just 16, leaving his mother Elizabeth to continue the business, before dividing the three Rosman boats between her two sons. By all accounts, Charles junior was a hard man, working seven days a week, with Christmas Day the one day of the year he put his feet up and enjoyed a single glass of champagne. Rosman based his ferries in Mosman Bay, which remained the company’s headquarters for more than 70 years.

In 1916, at just 18 years of age, Charles spotted the first of many opportunities to expand the business, launching a ferry service between Balmain, North Sydney and Garden Island carrying dockyard workers to the naval base.

At the time, Rosman also provided transportation for workers from Balmain to the Harbour Bridge during its seven years of construction in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, right up until the opening of the bridge, which, paradoxically, marked the start of the sharp decline in ferry activity on the harbour. Rosman Ferries survived the Great Depression of the 1930s, but late in that same decade, an incident would occur that would have severe consequences for the company head.


On a fateful day in 1938, as owner and master of the passenger ferry Rodney, Charles Rosman filled the ferry and set off to farewell the Navy vessel USS Louisville as it sailed out of Sydney Harbour. The passengers on the overloaded top deck of the Rodney were gaily waving their handkerchiefs at the departing sailors, when they suddenly moved from one side to the other just as the boat altered course to go around the stern of the ship. Within 40 seconds, the Rodney had listed and capsized. An inquest later found that there had been over 100 passengers on the top deck. Nineteen people died and Rosman was found to be negligent. The fallout of his dealings with the press over this particular incident led to a steadfast refusal to speak to any media he didn’t personally know from that time onwards.

The 1930s was also a period when long-held traditions were established and business boomed, thanks to the picnic trade and the Garden Island run, and the popularity of the 18-foot skiff league, which utilised Rosman’s ferries, amongst others, as spectator vessels.

Steve Matthews, second owner of Rosman Ferries, who ran the business with his father Frank from 1987 to 2008, recalls: “Working as a deckhand for Charlie in the 1970s, I remember up to 1000 people per weekend out on the Harbour watching the Sydney Flying Squadronand the Double Bay leagues. There were three ferry companies operating both days of the weekend and I remember the ferries were chock-full.”


Notoriety came to the service when the 1947-built Radar was periodically raided by the Gaming Squad on suspicion of harbouring illegal gambling activities associated with the Flying 18s – just another chapter in the Rosman fleet’s long association with the 18-footers that continues on the harbour today.

Charles Rosman continued to run his ferry service well into the 1980s; a legend among harbour ferry masters for his ability to maintain schedules regardless of weather. He sold the business to Steve and Frank Matthews and Ross and Neva Williams in the late 1980s, following a collision in fog with a Manly ferry that stripped him of his licence to drive after 71 years in the wheelhouse.

The Williams’ Proclaim was added to the fleet when the business changed hands, wife Neva working as the Harbour’s only female skipper at the time. “Young girls today lack self assurance, they often don’t know what to do, other than setting their sights on becoming a secretary or hairdresser,” she once said. A decade later, the couple sold their share of the business to the Matthews’.


Last year, Noakes Group acquired Rosman Ferries, which was the realisation of managing director, and yacht racing identity, Sean Langman’s long cherished dream. Langman first approached the Matthews’ about buying sentimental favourite Radar and was told he could have the little ferry if he bought the other three as well.

In 2009, Langman added Lithgow to the fleet, a small ferry that joined the Kincumber Growers’ Cooperative Company in 1927 to provide Central Coast farmers with the means to get produce to market and rail transport simply and quickly.

With close to three centuries of combined history across the fleet of five, each Rosman ferry has thousands of stories deeply embedded in its fine woodwork. the rich tapestry includes everything from picking up drunken servicemen during the war years and carrying them back to their ships in the dead of night, to more recent Leather Pride bookings, many of those passengers sporting leather chaps within-built air-conditioning.

For nearly 70 years, Rosman Ferries has helped keep the magic of the 18-foot skiffs alive for Sydneysiders and for the past three decades it has offered Lessons Afloat, a unique program of excursions designed to supplement NSW school and college syllabuses for kindergarten to Year 12 and English language students.

Rosman ferries have carried Australian Prime Ministers, international celebrities and even religious gurus with their BYO Persian rugs and armchairs. They have delivered generations of students to their exclusive harbour-side schools, and thousands of nervous brides-to-be to their awaiting grooms.

Now part of the expanding Noakes Group, Rosman Ferries is in good hands. While Sean Langman might be better known for building turbocharged ocean-going thoroughbreds, his stewardship of Rosman Ferries has proven his abiding love for traditional timber boat building. Following a restoration of the entire Rosman fleet at his Berry’s Bay shipyard, they are back to original condition and ready to carry on the tradition.