The Merchants House at 43 George Street had started life in 1848 as the residence of merchants Martyn and Coombs, and later offices for Peek & Co.
Nearly a century after the fine residence had been built, and at a time when Sydney Harbour was the major Allied naval base in the Southern Hemisphere in World War II, it was requisitioned by the Royal Australian Navy. The purpose: to become a boarding house for Indian sailors who had come to crew corvettes under construction in Sydney for the defence of India.
At the outbreak of the war the Indian navy had only a handful of ships, having had to rely on British naval support in times of crisis. But when the crisis came Britain’s ships were required closer to home, so four Bathurst Class corvettes were ordered to be constructed in Australia, at the Cockatoo Island and Mort’s Bay dockyard in Balmain. The Bombay, Punjab, Madras and Bengal were launched between October 1941 and May 1942. The last one, HMIS Bengal, was still in Sydney Harbour on the night of the Japanese attack on 1 June, but escaped damage.
The corvettes were intended for coastal patrol and to provide escort for troopships and oil tankers from the Persian Gulf. A few months after launching the Bengal succeeded in defending an attack on a Dutch tanker by two Japanese cruisers off the Maldives, sinking one of the much larger attackers and severely damaging the second.