In 1863 a small boat hire business known as Burns Boat Shed – sometimes known as Riversdale Boat Shed – opened on the lower section of Yarra Bend Park on the southern side of the Yarra River. It attracted people from all over Melbourne who enjoyed rowing their hired boat around the willows and elms whose branches would hang over the river’s bank and into the water. The willows and elms were brought in and planted along the riverbank re-create in the colony a setting similar to the banks of the rivers in the Old Country. Looking at photos of the picnickers the reasonably formal dress sense also reflected English ways.
Even though it was close to the city, being in Studley Park with its dramatic hills, thick scrub and magnificent gums, was like being in the country. But it was not as easy to get to as it is today. According to a heritage interpretation plan prepared for the Yarra Bend Park Trust the construction of new bridges across the Yarra in the 1850s increased accessibility to the parklands for picnicking and boating. A cable tram service from the city to the Johnston Street bridge opened in 1887 which made Studley Park even more accessible (the tram service ceased in 1939).
The park was later renamed Studley Park after settler and politician John Hodgson’s nearby house “Studley House”. Hodgson had named his house after his birthplace, the village of Studley in Yorkshire. He began building the house in 1857.
Hodgson, a central figure of the area at the time, also established Hodgson’s Punt, at the foot of what is now Clarke Street, Abbotsford, used by locals of the Kew district to get wood and other products over the river to Collingwood. It operated from 1856 to 1862.
By 1898 the Burns Boathouse was offering refreshments as well as boat hire. The family added new rooms to the boathouse including refreshment rooms, a surrounding verandah, a rear fernery, a landing stage on the river and a house to the rear.
Studley Park Boathouse saw many changes over the years including a large elevated early 20th Century addition in the Edwardian style with boat storage below. The river had a say in some of the changes. There were severe floods in 1863, 1891, 1934 and 1952. The 1934 floods badly damaged the boatshed and structures around it.
Paul van der Sluys’s family ran Studley Park Boathouse for more than 40 years. It was Paul’s first home when he was born in 1945. Paul’s parents had run another nearby boathouse on the river called Rudder Grange and were asked if they would be interested in managing the boathouse at Studley Park. They bought it from Mr Carl Sierak and the family made it both their home and their business, living in the house above the sheds where the boats were stored.
Paul’s connection to Studley Park Boathouse and the surrounding area is a lifelong one. As a young man he drew maps of the river and named spots which he would include in brochures for the boat business and would later become common usage. These included Bellbird Park in Kew and Galatea Point, a peninsula, around which the Yarra meanders near the boathouse.
Paul now reflects on the sweep of history of this iconic boathouse. “Studley Park Boathouse has been popular and it’s declined and it’s had re-births”, he says. “There were good times and not so good times. When we lived there it was desolate. On weekends you’d see people, but not during the week. Over the years it’s certainly had its ups and downs.”
In the 1990s the Studley Park Boathouse was restored, and now, 30 years on, it is about to launch into its newest chapter.