John Drake was a Scottish ship’s carpenter who left his ship in Melbourne and prospected in the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s, before being brought to Torquay in 1855 by David Cocker to build barges. These barges were used to take produce from Cockers Creek and Deans Point to larger vessels anchored outside the Mersey River.
The S.S.Thistle was built at Torquay by John Drake at his own shipyard which was located, as was his home Zetland, on what is now the site of the Argosy Motel. Built in 1878, the Thistle was the first steamer built on the North West Coast. She carried passengers and cargo between Torquay, Formby and Latrobe and was also called into service as a tender to take passengers out to ships anchored outside the Mersey River.
The Devon Herald of March 1879 carried an advert for the Thistle’s service. It advised that she would leave Torquay and Formby at 9am and 4pm, and Latrobe at 11.30am and 6pm, daily except Sundays. The cost to passengers was one shilling each and a whistle would be blown ten minutes before starting.
It seems that the Thistle was a well set-up little boat: an article in the Devon Herald of October 1879 noted that she was fitted out with a comfortable cabin so that passengers were able to travel in comfort no matter the weather.
Aside from the regular ferry service, Captain Drake also chartered the Thistle out for excursions regularly. The Devon Herald of November 1879 reported that on the public holiday which was in honour of the Prince of Wales’ birthday the Thistle, with approximately eighty people on board, took what must have been a lovely trip. Passengers were taken out on a very flat sea as far as Wright’s Island. It was reported that one or two passengers fed the fishes, as it were, but most found the trip enjoyable. On returning to the Heads, people had picnics on the beach before returning home on the Thistle.
The Launceston Examiner reported another lovely excursion in January 1889, a midnight trip from Latrobe to Formby and back. The trip was well supported, with the Thistle being full, and the passengers were accompanied by the Latrobe Band playing on both legs of the trip.
The Mercury of September 1898 reported an incident which overtook the Thistle. While entering the Mersey she was caught by a squall and driven on to the eastern spit. There was only minor damage and she was soon re-floated. It seems she was not being captained by John Drake at the time, having recently been taken over by a Launceston syndicate who were using her to trade between the Mersey and North West coast ports.
The Thistle was eventually broken up at East Bay in 1922.
Bass Strait Maritime Centre file number 109
Devon Herald, Saturday 29th March 1879, page 2
Devon Herald, Wednesday 8th October 1879, page 2
Devon Herald, Wednesday 12th November 1979, page 2
Launceston Examiner, Monday 21st January 1889, page 4
The Mercury, Monday 19th September 1898, page 2