HOME OF THE LADY DENMAN - Local history isn't always about the big story - the everyday story of life in the early development of the region can be a fascinating, entertaining and educational journey.

19 September 2018

Berry's Canal and Comerong Island.


Berry's canal links the Crookhaven River and the Shoalhaven River, and holds a unique place in Australia's history being the first man-made navigatable canal to be constructed.

The canal was made by the hard labour of convicts using hand tools. Overseen by Hamilton Hume under the direction of Alexander Berry in 1822.  Alexander Berry needed a way of moving ships into the Shoalhaven River. The main entrance at Shoalhaven Heads was shallow and dangerous and impassable by anything other than the smallest cutter.

After the two waterways were linked by a small canal the river through time and erosion carved the canal into what you see today, cutting off the peninsula and forming Comerong Island.

The island is still linked to the mainland by the beach but during floods and high seas this link can be broken.  The only permanant way of reaching the island is by sea or by the Comerong Ferry. The banks of the canal are under constant pressure from the river. When I visited the island yesterday bank stabilisation works were being carried out to secure the shoreline.

In times of high floods, the water rushing through the canal emptying out from the Shoalhaven River can become a fast dangerous torrent. At these time the ferry cannot cross the river, stranding the local residents on the island.  On one occasion when we were crossing the canal the water was rushing so fast the ferry was straining the steel cables so much the ferry was struggling to cross the river, making distressing sounds as the cables run between the steel runners, that was the last ferry to run until the river flow subsided.  We came back the next day to find the ferry had a large 5 meter long by one meter diameter sealed concrete pipe jammed under its hull, with council engineers trying to work out how to remove it.

Living on an island seems like a romantic notion.  But sometimes the reality can be quite different.

James Kennedy
After the island was formed by the cutting of the canal, the 700-acre island was claimed by the Crown and later passed it over to the government.  The land was subdivided into farms and sold to various settlers. Mr James Kennedy was the principal purchaser. Kennedy, born in Ireland in 1883 and moved to New South Wales with his parents 3 years later.  In his younger days, he was for some time in the service of Alexander Berry and took a keen interest in farming. He was a true pioneer of the district and much respected for his mechanical aptitude.  Amongst other things, he was part owner of the successful Pioneer gold mine operating at Yawal. He managed the mine for a number of years before it was sold for many thousands of pounds.  He established a large co-operative butter factory in the district and was on the board from its conception. He died in 1918 aged 84.  His name is often mentioned in articles associated with Comerong Island.

1889 - On a less serious note, a resident of the island wrote to the Sydney Mail newspaper asking for a good recipe for putting starch into shirts to make them shine. She wrote:- "I have seen soap and kerosene put in with the starch,  but I don't think it is much of an improvement."

1889 – A butter factory/creamery was operating from the island, which meant there was a steady flow of traffic to and from the island,  the ferry at this time was in a bad state and needed repairs,  the roads leading to the island also needed urgent attention.

1891 – A large flood raveged the island, trapping residents for three days. Large quantities of winter stock feed were washed away along with stock.

1899 – A dairy factory drawing milk from island farmers and surrounding farms existed on the island.
The pastures on the island were regarded as some of the finest in the district.

1904 – The ferry was described as 'being in a very dangerous condition" makeshift repairs were continuously carried out to keep her afloat and operating.

1902 – Large area of the island had been washed away because of steamer wash and during floods, which now threatened to block the entrance to the Berry Canal,  stopping all shipping into the Shoalhaven.

1907 – The original ferry had been operating for 23 years, described as "being absolutely rotten" she was now lying on the bottom of the canal, with no hope of raising her,  stranding residents on the island.  Shoalhaven Council and local residents made submissions to the government for a new ferry. "Island People" were forced to row across the river carrying supplies and their cream, borrowing horses and drays to transport their goods to Nowra.

1907 – Money not exceeding 150 pounds was made available by the governments Public Works Department to the Shoalhaven Council for a new punt to be built, tenders for the construction were sought.


1909 – The Shoalhaven Heads entrance had completely closed by sand up to a distance of about 50 yards, effectively making Comerong Island part of the mainland again.  Fears were expressed by a local resident that if there were a flood the island could be inundated with water, with Crookhaven Heads now being the only entrance for the water to escape from.

1910 – The entrance was still closed with the sand now building up to over a half a mile wide, raising even greater concern about the safety of Comerong Island residents if a flood should occur, as a recent heavy rain flooded some of the paddocks on the island.

The last time the entrance was thought to have been blocked was in 1823 the year after Alexander Berry arrived in the district.


1910 – Erosion along the sides of the canal was becoming serious, Immediate works were undertaken to secure the bank.

1923 – The Shoalhaven Agricultural Societies annual show was concluded with a Mr Rice from the island being awarded the first prize for his display of different varieties of pumpkins he had grown on the island despite the severe drought which gripped the district over the preceding months.

1978 - A Navy Wessex helicopter rescued a family of four from the island after they were stranded by fast rising flood waters.

There are many stories associated with the island, these are just a few.


The island has a few permanent residents and dairy farming is still carried out.  The majority of the island falls under the protection of the National Parks and Wildlife Service,  the Comerong Island Nature Reserve was created in 1986 covering an area of 660ha.

Crossing the canal on the punt named Cormorant, you travel a rough dirt road which winds it's way through a dense forest, passing mangrove and swamps, during heavy rain the track becomes impassable to all but 4 wheel drives, eventually winding its way to the entrance of Crookhaven River. A short walk from the carpark and you reach the long breakwater built in 1910 stretching out into the sea.  Orient Point and Crookhaven Heads Pilot Station overlook the river on the opposite shore.

Early morning you will see the local trawlers coming back into the safety of the river after a nights fishing.


The breakwater was built to try and stabalise the shifting sand bars, which made the entrance so unpredictable for vessels passing in and out of the river entrance. With large north swells the entrance even today can be extremely dangerous and has to be crossed with care.  Over the years many vessels of all sizes have come to grief on the shifting banks, lives have been lost and ships wrecked.

I have covered the Crookhaven Heads entrance in a previous post. A link is provided below to it's fascinating history.

Looking west from the breakwater you will see the Coolangatta Mountain, below which Alexander Berry established the first settlement in the Shoalhaven District.


Pilot Station overlooking the river.

I have been visiting the island since the 1980's
. The forested area of the island has always been lush, dense, wet and green. Yesterday the island was very dry, much of the dense undergrowth had died leaving only the taller shrub and trees, there are places along the road where you can see through to the open sky of the beach, the swamp areas were completely dry. The swamp kangaroos which usually dart into thick cover on either side of the road had no where to hide and could easily be seen, I have never seen the island look so dry, it was quite disturbing.


There are a number of old delapidated dairy sheds on the island.

Continue reading about Crookhaven heads, the Crookhaven heads lighthouse and the construction of the breakwater.

Continue reading about the historic gold mining town of Yawal, west of Nowra.



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