Stories about the Port of Melbourne reflect the social and economic progress of the city. Initially Melbourne’s lifeline to Europe, this harbour near the mouth of the Yarra River has evolved into an international port and is now Australia’s most important maritime trade hub.
Old Treasury Building in collaboration with Public Record Office Victoria / January 2015

“A fair wind and tide soon carried us through; and in a few minutes we were presented with a picture… the port is beautifully picturesque, swelling into gentle elevations of the brightest verdure, and dotted with trees, as if planted by the hand of taste, while the ground is covered with a profusion of flowers of every colour.”

James Hingston Tuckey. 

An account of a voyage to establish a Colony at Port Phillip in Bass’s Strait on the South Coast of then, New South Wales, 1804.

Liardet's Beach and Hotel in their heyday W. F. E. Liardet (Wilbraham Frederick Evelyn), 1875

Liardet’s Beach

After European settlement of Melbourne began in 1835, shipping activity centred around the place on the Yarra River known as ‘The Falls’, with a port (Queen’s Wharf) established at the widest part of the river.

However, the river was difficult to navigate. Many passengers chose instead to disembark at Sandridge Beach (today’s Port Melbourne). 

Here, an enterprising new arrival, Wilbraham Liardet, saw a business opportunity.

Liardet arrived in Melbourne in 1839. 

He bought a whale boat and began a business ferrying passengers from ship to shore and then transporting them or their luggage by road to Melbourne. 

Business boomed and, in 1840, he built a jetty.

In 1849 Liardet’s small tea-tree jetty was replaced by a larger, government-built pier, Town Pier.

A sketch of Western Port and Port Phillip Bays

Gold And Racism in the Port

In 1851 Melbourne was nearly deserted when the male population rushed off to the Victorian goldfields. 

By 1852 news of the gold rush had spread throughout the world and thousands of hopeful diggers started to arrive in Melbourne. During one week in March 1853, a staggering 138 vessels anchored in Hobson’s Bay.

While most gold seekers came from the United Kingdom, the Chinese were by far the largest group of foreign nationals on the goldfields. In 1857 they formed about 14 per cent of the diggers and by December 1858, when they numbered about 40,000, they comprised over 20 per cent of the mining population. 

The Victorian Government warned of the ‘unpleasant possibility of the future that a comparative handful of colonists may be buried in a countless throng of Chinamen’.

During one week in March 1853 a staggering 138 vessels anchored in Hobson's Bay. 

In 1855 the Victorian Parliament passed an Act to restrict the number of Chinese miners on the goldfields. It restricted the number of Chinese passengers per vessel, and charged a head tax of 10 pounds per Chinese migrant entering a Victorian port.

The new law did not stop the arrival of Chinese immigrants. Many landed instead in South Australia and walked overland to the Victorian goldfields.

The Chinese diggers protested against the 1855 Chinese Immigration Act with a large petition signed by 3089 Chinese signatures.1866

The petition argued “......  they have always conducted themselves in an orderly and peaceful manner and the Records of the Police Court can show but few instances in which the law has been infringed by the Chinese population.” 

The Chinese Petition against the Chinese head tax.

Signatures on the petition against the Chinese head tax
The Royal Charter sunk off the coast of Wales along with its cargo of gold. 

The Royal Charter

The Royal Charter was one of the fastest ships during the Victorian gold rush.

In August 1859 the Royal Charter left Melbourne for Liverpool, carrying 452 men, women and children, and a cargo of gold valued at £320,000 – the equivalent of more than A$170 million today!

On 26 October the clipper was near Moelfre (on the island of Anglesey off the north-west coast of Wales) when it sailed into the worst storm to hit the Irish Sea that century. Sending up distress signals, but finding no pilot to respond, the captain dropped the anchors and powered the coal engines, but it was too late.

The Royal Charter was driven onto rocks only 50 yards from shore and broke in two. Some people swam valiantly for shore but were weighed down by the gold in their pockets.

Seaman Edward Wilson, one of the crew to survive, described the terrible confusion on deck: ‘Fathers and mothers clasping their children in their arms, wives clinging to husbands, shrieking and crying, “Save me!”’

Another seaman, Joseph Rogers, was a hero. He tied a rope around his waist and managed to swim to shore. He secured the rope and aided the rescue of the 39 other survivors – all men.

The Royal Charter Passenger List 1859. It is sobering to read the roll call of those lost in the wreck of the Royal Charter. Of those listed on this page (1 of 10) only one man survived – John Bradbury.            

Melbourne's Floating Prisons

The rapid increase in Victoria’s population during the 1850s had a flow-on effect on the colony’s prisons. The number swelled from 29 people in 1851 to 857 by 1853. The gold rush had its darker side.

In response, the government decided in 1852 to buy the ship President and fit it out as a floating prison hulk. 

The President kept prisoners of ‘the longest sentence and most desperate character’. 

By 1854 there were four more prison hulks. The ships were anchored off Williamstown.

Conditions aboard the hulks were harsh. Prisoners were kept below deck in irons, in strict silence, in cramped conditions with no books. 

For only minor offences, prisoners were sent to solitary confinement in dark cells far below the waterline.

The prison hulks were used for thirty years and closed in 1885.

This 1853 view of Hobson’s Bay shows a bustling gold rush port. The jetty was used to land convict labourers from the prison hulks. (Courtesy State Library of Victoria)
A tourist postcard of the former prison ship Success produced c1900
Regulations for the control of prisoners on board the vessel President 

“If not ironed on arrival he will then be placed in irons which will never under any circumstances be removed... He will immediately be placed in a cell where he will be kept in close confinement during the period he remains on board.”

Samuel Barrow, Inspector General of Penal Establishments, Regulations for the control of the prisoners on board the President prison hulk.

Disease Arrives At Port

Fifteen weeks at sea in a rat-infested ship with poor drinking water: this was the reality for many early immigrants to Victoria. Infectious diseases flourished aboard ships. 

In 1840, one in every 51 adults and one in every 10 children died on the journey to the colonies.

This continued for many decades causing outbreaks of disease to sweep the colony.

The dreaded words ‘typhus’ and ‘yellow fever’ sent fear into the hearts of the colonists. The Glen Huntly, one of the earliest immigrant ships to Port Phillip, arrived in 1840 carrying typhus fever sufferers. Passengers were put ashore and housed in tents. A quarantine camp was set up at Point Gellibrand in 1841. The camp housed typhus victims from the ship Agricola.

"3 cases of small pox, 3 of measles and 4 cases of Fever...of this number 4 died." Inward Registered Correspondence about the ship Glen Huntly.
Names of diseases and the number of passengers aboard the vessel Glen Huntly who contracted diseases, recovered or died. 1840
Report and certificate of the Surgeon Superintendent of the immigrant ship Agricola, regarding typhus sufferers, dated 3 October 1841

In 1842 the arrival of the ship Manlius threw the small colony into a frenzy. Sixty-one of the ship’s 243 passengers had died from yellow fever during the journey from Scotland. The ship is known in the Victorian shipping records as the ‘Plague ship’.

“The first case of Fever occurred on board whilst the vessel lay at Gourock Bay on the point of sailing and that during the entire voyage it continued to spread. 27 deaths took place from fever during the voyage and 14 deaths after the ship’s arrival at Port Phillip. The mortality from other complaints amounts to 20 making a total of 61 deaths.”

John Patterson, Chairman of the Immigration Board, in his report on the ship Manlius, dated 3 May 1842.

....Diarrhea, Dysentary, Inflammatory Fever, Delerium present
The Melbourne and Hobsons Bay Railway Company conceived of a plan to link Melbourne to the bay with a rail line and a deep-water pier in Hobsons Bay. Due to its proximity to Melbourne, the swampland of Sandridge (Port Melbourne) was chosen for the location of this new pier, which became known as Railway Pier. It opened in 1854.
Railyway Pier, c1861. Photorgaph by Nettleton

The Earl Grey Scheme: The Potato Famine and Irish Orphans

By 1848, one million people had died during the Irish potato famine, resulting in mass migration to America and Australia. Earl Grey (Henry George Grey, Secretary of State for the Colonies) devised a scheme of shipping needy orphans (young Irish women) to the Australian colonies. The benefits of the scheme were twofold: to relieve the crowded Irish workhouses and to supply much-needed female labour.

From 1848 to 1850, 4114 orphan girls, some no more than 12 years old, were shipped from Ireland to Sydney, Melbourne, Moreton Bay (Brisbane) and Adelaide. The selection criteria were simple: young, dutiful, in good health and free of smallpox. Most of the girls spoke only Gaelic and few were trained in domestic service, which was their intended employment. 

They were known as the ‘Irish orphans’.

The Sad Story of Alice Ball

Alice Ball, an Irish orphan, arrived on the Diadem on 18 January 1850. Three months later, she was pregnant to her employer, Mr Brown. Seeing no way out of her predicament, she committed suicide by throwing herself in the Yarra River. She was dead at the tender age of 16.

At the inquest, a witness stated that about an hour before Alice’s drowning, he heard Mr Brown describing Alice as a 'strumpet' and 'everything that was bad', and speaking of 'jealousy on the part of his wife towards the girl'.

Inquest Deposition Files for the death of Alice Ball

“Mrs Brown told me that her husband and the deceased had been connected together and that the deceased had told her she was in the family way by Brown (her husband)...” James Craig

There was immediate and continuing hostility towards the orphan girls, mostly Catholic. They lacked experience and had, according to one Sydney official, a ‘disinclination to learn’ and ‘dirty and idle habits’. Worse, he feared that, as future mothers, they would dilute the colonial physique, with ‘their squat, stunted figures, thick waists and clumsy ankles’.

News-sheets reported the colony to be awash with ‘workhouse sweepings’, but despite the hardships they had endured, most orphan girls found immediate employment and integrated into colonial life. 

An Irish Orphan Success Story 

Sisters Mary, Ann and Sarah Arbuckle from Strabane in County Tyrone arrived on the Derwent in 1850. Sarah married Joseph Richardson, a market gardener, farmer and landowner. The couple had several blocks of land at Cowes on Phillip Island. After her husband’s death in 1892 (his estate was valued at £6,643 pounds), Sarah managed the farm properties on Phillip Island.

“ I devise all those parcels of  land in the Colony of Victoria being allotments twenty one, twenty three, twenty five, forty nine......on Phillip Island to my said wife Sarah Richardson during her life...” Joseph Richardson outlining in his Will the distribution of land to his wife Sarah, who arrived to Melbourne as an Irish orphan.

From the early 1840s until the 1880s, ships coming into Melbourne anchored in Hobsons Bay. Cargo was unloaded onto 'lighters' (small boats), which then went up the Yarra River to wharves such as Queen's Wharf on the riverbank at Flinders Street near the site of today's Immigration Museum.c. 1910
A n early plan details the location of a Battery to be built to defend the Port

Defending Melbourne Port 

Built with prison labour between the 1850s and 1880s, Fort Gellibrand (in Williamstown) was Melbourne’s earliest defence against attacks on its port and shipping.  Thirty-one guns were mounted in four batteries and set imposingly along a prominent bluestone wall.

Plans for upgrading Fort Gellibrand battery in Williamstown, 1880

“In the possible event of anything resembling a powerful invasion, we have tens of thousands of men who would rush at once to arms and drive the fool-hardy invaders into the ocean.” (Sydney Morning Herald, 1854)

The Great White Fleet and “Fleet Week” 

On 29 August 1908 Melbourne gaped in wonder as 16 white-hulled battleships of the United States Atlantic Fleet, carrying 14,000 naval personnel, steamed into Port Phillip Bay. The ‘Great White Fleet’ was circumnavigating the globe on a tour launched by President Theodore Roosevelt.  The cruise was a display of naval power and practical exercise, testing the battle-readiness of the US Navy and demonstrating its ability to patrol and protect the west coast and American interests in the Pacific including Australia.

This welcome song was to be ‘sung everywhere, by everybody’.Records regarding the American Fleet Visit, PROV, VPRS 10370/P 0, unit 7

Home Sweet Home 

In 1899, the first troops from Port Melbourne left for the Boer War. Watched by waving crowds, volunteers boarded the SS Medic. The ship was accompanied down the bay by a flotilla of sailing boats.

Fourteen years later, ships left for Anzac Cove. They were not farewelled; a public departure could alert German warships patrolling the Pacific. Nevertheless, large crowds gathered at Port Melbourne railway station.

Did you know...The first shot of World War One by any allied army is believed to have been fired from the Point Nepean Fort at Port Phillip Heads. The date was 5 August 1914, and the war was just one day old. The target was the German steamer Pfalz, attempting to leave the port.

Another World War and again men embarked from Port Melbourne. Nurses were also going to war. Sister J.F. Crameri boarded the Mauretania bound for Egypt and wrote: “To see that unending stream of fine handsome men ... wondering who would come back with us.”

By October 1945, Port Melbourne piers had “Welcome Home” painted across the gable roofs of the outer terminal sheds.

A group of RAAF men put on a happy face before embarking from Port Melbourne, c1940
Australian Soldiers leaving port for the Second World War 
Station Pier under construction 

The Commercial Development of the Port 

In the early 20th century, the Melbourne Harbor Trust transformed the shipping facilities at Port Melbourne, constructing two modern piers that were longer, wider and more efficient. 

Princes Pier, originally known as New Railway Pier, opened in 1916. This allowed work to begin, in 1923, on transforming Railway Pier into the new modern Station Pier. By 1930, Station Pier was ready for business.

In the first half of the 20th century, barrels, boxes and bales were commonly hauled on and off ships, unlike the containers that hold cargo today.

As migrant populations grew in Melbourne, so too did the crowds that gathered to greet new arrivals. More than two million immigrants arrived in Australia between 1945 and 1971. Thousands would disembark at Station Pier in a single day.

In the 1950s Australia introduced a cheap immigration scheme for people from the United Kingdom. They were known as the 'Ten Pound  Poms'. People from all over the world migrated to Australia contributing labour to major capital projects.

By 1960 the Melbourne Harbour Trust installed conveyor belts to bring baggage from ship to shore.
Loved ones leave Port Melbourne
The festive scene at Station Pier prior to a ship's departure c.1950


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This online exhibition is based on the physical exhibition Sailing Into Melbourne originally displayed at Old Treasury Building, 20 Spring Street, Melbourne.

Credits: Story

Curator — Kate Luciano
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