There is a wealth of history behind Peels Cruises in Lakes Entrance, but Barrie, Cheryl and James Peel have had to put celebrations on hold for their 100th birthday, which was on December 14.
These have been uncertain times amid the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly with tourism, and it has been an extremely tough 12 months for the Peels.
Even now the boats are operating with only 50 per cent capacity allowed, but as James says it is just good to get back out on the water.
By the time restrictions eased it was too late to organise any major events for their 100th and so it was acknowledged in a quiet, simple way.
The story of Peels goes back to the days before World War I. Charles and Harold Peel had a boat-building business in the West Melbourne canals and among many projects designed and built the first Jubilee yachts for the Royal Melbourne Yacht Club. They also built the punts that to this day run through the Tunnel of Love at Luna Park.
The partnership between Charles and Harold ended when Harold joined the Third Pioneer Battalion, AIF.
On his return from the war, Harold started a business in boat operating in 1919, just after the Spanish Flu pandemic, moving from Melbourne to Lakes Entrance and he started hiring out 16 to 17 feet skiffs and selling bait to amateur fishermen.
Harold’s first excursion boat was called the Devon, a local 24-foot open boat, which he licensed for 12 passengers and began operations out of Lakes Entrance.
In approximately 1922 he took a lease on the sunken 30-foot boat Lallahbrook, which he raised and refitted to carry 20 passengers.
Business was increasing and so Harold designed and built the first of the bird boats, the Blackbird, in 1928, which could carry 49 passengers. This replaced the Lallahbrook and cost $800 to build.
Every boat since has had a bird in its name and it is a tradition that Barrie hopes will continue.
It was another six years before more boats were needed and the Rubeena 1 and Rubeena 2 were purchased.
In these times all the guest houses provided their own boats and these two boats were in the style of those used by the better equipped establishments.
The boats were renamed Bellbird (Rubeena 1), which was 36 feet and carried 40 passengers, and Bluebird (Rubeena 2), 35 feet and carried 38.
Harold had a house flag, which was the tradition with boat owners, it just so happened to be a swastika on a white background. He redesigned the flag after it understandably lost its status, first being a swallow from a biscuit tin.
“Over the years the swallow lost a few tail feathers and they ended up substituting it for a blackbird which is still flown today,” Barrie said.
In 1936 Harold’s son, George, began his own operations hiring out small boats and in 1939 Harold passed away. Mrs Peel continued operating until being closed down by the Marine Board late in World War II.
After serving in the RAAF from 1942 to 1945, George became a partner with his mother until she sold her share to her son-in-law, Jack Mitchelson, in 1946.
Jack left the partnership in 1959 and George operated as the sole owner until 1961 when his wife, Marie, took an interest.
Their son, Wayne, later joined the firm and it was renamed Peel’s Tourist and Ferry Service.
The Bluebird was built for Peels by D. and E. Carstairs in 1955 and then the Lennabird was purchased in 1966.
Barrie had wanted to stay in Lakes Entrance and be involved in boats but was advised by his father, George, to go and apply for a job at the bank.
“After 26 years service I resigned from my position as manager of the NAB bank in Sorrento and came home,” Barrie said.
“Unfortunately, my mother passed away not long after my return and I then bought my brother out of the business. “A lot has changed over the past 33 years and
I am sure George would love to see what we are up to these days.
“We are really proud of our history and with my son, James, now looking after the business it is in very good hands. We belong to a great town and a great community.”
All the boats are now back on the water and going out most days. There was a lot of maintenance done during the year and their three boats I Seabird, Stormbird and Thunderbird - have all been repainted.
James has always been around the boats and
has been working at the business since leaving school 20 years ago.
He now looks at his eight-year-old son and thinks “that was me” and hopes he will carry on the tradition.
For the past eight years James has run the day-to-day business and although Barrie has had ill health, he still does the books and was in reception on the day the Lakes Post visited.
James says the business has prospered under the management of his father and hopes he can continue to build on the family legacy, to expand to newer things and newer vessels.
“Dad is the real hero of this business, we have made it to 100 because of him,” James said.
There has been much interest in the business’ centenary with the Today television show featuring Peels in a segment last week and the ABC and Win news, plus many more, doing news segments.
Barrie is particularly thankful to his wife, Cheryl, and James for their support over the years.
“I would also like to acknowledge Roger Mallen, who has served with us since leaving school over 40 years ago,” Barrie said.
“I just hope we have done our bit for the town of Lakes Entrance.”
Bev McColley (right), who went to school with Barrie Peel (left), painted an amazing picture of the Peel’s three boats out on the water. (PS)