“Completely negligent”: National Trust slammed over maintenance of Polly Woodside

Polly Woodside
Sean Car

A volunteer who has been working on South Wharf’s historic tall ship, Polly Woodside, for more than 40 years has spoken out against its owner for neglecting one of Melbourne’s most treasured maritime assets.

Neil Thomas, chairman of the Polly Woodside Volunteers’ Association, claims that the National Trust, which manages the heritage ship, had repeatedly ignored a range of maintenance issues for more than 10 years.   

The net result of what Mr Thomas described as the National Trust’s “completely negligent” and “non-existent” approach to its maintenance program is a heritage asset, which he said, “isn’t 100 per cent safe” and required urgent dry docking to restore it.

Of most concern, Mr Thomas said, was the presence of black mould in the ship’s deckhouse, which is hazardous to human health.

Other serious issues include incomplete rigging, significant water ingress, rust, and decaying paintwork.

Speaking to Southbank News in early March, Mr Thomas said volunteers had been warning the National Trust about the mould issues for more than a month, which he claims had only responded by closing off the affected areas to the public.

“When I saw it last around two weeks ago, it [black mould] was definitely completely visible,” Mr Thomas said. “It’s got to the stage where they’re not even opening up the galley to the school kids because of it.”

“We [volunteers] can only get in there one day a week and then it’s restricted because there are school groups in usually both the morning and afternoon. And as a result, there’s a lot of the work we want to do, but we can’t do because of the presence of the school kids.”


The maintenance that should be done to keep the ship up to any reasonable condition is completely negligent and non-existent. We [volunteers] try to do bits, but we just can’t get the time to do it.


“Paint work on the ship is zero,” Mr Thomas said. “There’s rust everywhere, and at present we’re trying to work on the deck house itself. The canvas on it was torn and the Trust did nothing about it no matter what we said until it reached a stage where the water was pouring in through the timber and the roof to the cabin.” 

“Black mould is still present mainly in the galley more than anywhere else. We killed it in the cabins; we thought we’d killed it in the galley as well actually, but we didn’t. Once they [the National Trust] get their cleaners in to kill the mould and clean it up, we’re going to start ripping all the fittings out and rebuilding them.”

Mr Thomas said that while the National Trust had engaged marine contractor BMT to do a survey of the ship, which provided a recommended maintenance program last year, “nothing has been about it so far”.

“We [the volunteers] have gotten to the stage where our youngest member is in his 50s, but most of us are in our 80s, and one is in his 90s so there’s a limit to just how much we can do,” Mr Thomas said. “She [Polly Woodside] is well overdue for a dry dock, which she hasn’t had in more than 10 years.”

“As we’re getting older, we need to train people to replace us. Unfortunately, due to the ongoing maintenance issues with the ship, we’re losing members instead of gaining at a time we desperately need them.”

Southbank News put questions to the National Trust regarding its maintenance program, as well as the series of safety issues raised by volunteers. It didn’t respond before deadline.

Launched in 1885 in Belfast, the Polly Woodside made 17 trips around the world and operated between Australia and New Zealand.

Used as a coal ship following World War Two, by 1968 it was the last square-rigged deep-water commercial sailing ship still afloat in Australasia.

Since being sold to the National Trust for a peppercorn sum, the Polly Woodside has welcomed thousands of visitors on board and was added to the Victorian Heritage Register in 2007.

The ship was last restored in 2008 during the redevelopment of the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC), but Mr Thomas said many of the maintenance works started since its refurbishment had never been completed.

According to the National Trust’s website, the Polly Woodside is currently only open to the public on the first and third Sundays of each month, for an open day and a “pirate day”, respectively.

The ship’s condition and the surrounding area where it’s berthed at South Wharf has also been subjected to recent scrutiny by the Melbourne Maritime Heritage Network (MMHN), with its chair Jackie Watts describing it as a “squandered asset”.



Ms Watts, a former City of Melbourne councillor, cited a range of issues with the area’s present appearance, including degraded signage, graffiti, litter, and tired window displays.

“MMHN regards this space as the Southbank Maritime Precinct, which includes the heritage-listed Polly Woodside and dry dock, pump engine room, wet dock, signal pole, buoys, anchors, re-purposed goods sheds and the Merchant Seafarer memorial,” Ms Watts said.

“The site remains a degraded blight on Southbank riverside – a squandered maritime asset in the public realm.”

Part of the issue, according to Ms Watts, was establishing who had oversight over which areas of South Wharf, with multiple stakeholders in the area, including the Victorian Government, National Trust, Parks Victoria, Plenary and Vicinity.

She said the issues raised by volunteers were credible and were evidence that the National Trust struggled to both manage and finance a maritime asset like the Polly Woodside.

In 2022, the Yarra River Business Association (YRBA) commissioned a report into the potential establishment of a dedicated maritime precinct at South Wharf, which revealed that key marketing agencies weren’t willing to support its promotion until the heritage product offer was a lot stronger.

“South Wharf has great potential to be Melbourne’s key maritime heritage zone, but it needs a lot of preliminary work to tidy it up and to interpret its story,” YRBA president Jeremy Vincent said.

“At this stage, no organisation seems to have the appetite, or the money, to undertake the works, so we’re hoping that Greenline’s proposed maritime precinct will also encapsulate South Wharf and so present both banks as Melbourne’s best place for visitors to experience the city’s maritime past.”

As part of Lord Mayor Sally Capp’s signature Greenline project along the north bank of the Yarra River, the City of Melbourne is seeking to establish a “maritime precinct” near the Mission to Seafarers.

Cr Capp said that with “tens of thousands of people visiting the precinct each day, we want to ensure it [South Wharf] remains a vibrant and welcoming place for everyone.” 

“We’ll continue to work with the Victorian Government and Parks Victoria on projects and initiatives to further revitalise the area,” the Lord Mayor said.

A spokesperson for MCEC said it had participated in master planning workshops with the City of Melbourne and other stakeholders for the Greenline project, which includes considerations for a maritime precinct across both North and South Wharves.

Southbank News also sent questions to the National Trust regarding the upkeep of its precinct surrounding the Polly Woodside, as well as the establishment of a dedicated maritime precinct. •

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