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The history and development of the Port of Melbourne is intimately linked to the development of the city itself. Considering that the Port Phillip settlement wasn’t authorised by Governor Bourke until 1836, the development of Melbourne and its port has been rapid and dynamic.
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The first people
The Melbourne Harbor Trust
World War II
The first people
When James Cook, captain of The Endeavour, first sighted the Victorian coast in 1770, aborigines had been living in the Port Phillip Bay region for at least 40,000 years. Generations of the first people would have seen the creation of the bay itself, as the waters rose to fill Bass Strait and cut off Tasmania from the mainland about 11,000 years ago. There were five clans around the bay area making up the Woiwurung language group. The Wurundjeri-William clan inhabited the area where the current port is situated. The area teemed with water plants and bird life. It was a favoured hunting ground for the Kooris who set fish traps, hunted small birds and animals, and foraged for roots, seeds, leaves
and insects. ^ TOP
The original site of Melbourne was chosen for its access to fresh water rather than its potential as a port. An underwater bar at the entrance of the Yarra River ruled out the entry of vessels drawing more than about nine feet of water. Ships arriving from overseas had to drop anchor in Hobson's Bay, or at the Sandridge (Port Melbourne) Pier. Passengers and goods then had to be transhipped up the river in smaller vessels or 'lighters' as they were called. These charged excessive amounts. It has been recorded that it cost 30 shillings per ton (half the entire freight costs for the voyage from England) to have goods taken the eight miles from sea to city, and the average delay in 1858 was three weeks.
The Melbourne Harbor Trust
Following pressure from several Boards of Inquiry, the Melbourne Harbor Trust was finally established in 1877. Its task was to improve access for shipping to Melbourne proper, but political pressure from rival port communities at Port Melbourne and Williamstown meant that it was several years before its recommendations were brought into effect.
The Trust employed the British engineer Sir John Coode to suggest how best to upgrade all aspects of the port. As well as seeking to improve the traffic flow in the river by widening and deepening it, he proposed removing the falls and raising the embankments to lessen the likelihood of floods. He also proposed to straighten the Yarra’s course by cutting a channel from west of Flinders Street to below its junction with the Maribyrnong. These works were all undertaken in the 1880s, and the Coode Canal was in use by 1886. ^ TOP
Another of Coode's recommendations was that the land southwest of the rail yards be used for another major dock facility. Consequently Victoria Dock was opened in 1893. By 1908 it was handling ninety per cent of Victoria's imports. In 1914 its capacity was enlarged by the addition of a central pier and in 1925 the entrance was widened.
With rapidly increasing tonnage figures and further renovation and development, the period between the two world wars was very significant in the development of the Melbourne docks. Victoria Dock and the adjacent North Wharf on the river continued to play a vital role, handling half of the Port of Melbourne's trade. As ships increased in size so did the needs of the river and wharves to accommodate them. Channels and berths continually required dredging.
The post-war period saw the further development of the dock area as well as its progressive march downstream. Appleton Dock, built on the site of the old course of the Yarra, was planned since the 1930s, but because of the war was not completed until 1956. In 1960, Webb Dock, at the mouth of the Yarra, provided roll-on-roll-off capacity mainly for the transport of motorists to and from Tasmania. The complement of post- war docks was completed with the building of Swanson Dock, the port's major container terminal. This reflected the change to shipping cargo in uniform sized containers at the beginning of the 1960s, which brought new requirements for port areas.
Rather than needing storage sheds close to the wharf, more open space was required for the storage of containers. The Port of Melbourne was fortunate in this regard since it still possessed reclaimed swampland that could be used for this purpose. Today, Melbourne is Australia's largest and busiest container port and one of the nation’s largest general cargo ports.
For many years following the war the port's passenger terminal facility at Station Pier in Port Melbourne was the home of the migrant ships bringing European migrants to Australia. Today Station Pier's passenger business is made up entirely of cruise ships, and the Tasmanian ferries,
Spirit of Tasmania I & II.
Wharf conditions and payment rates for workers improved dramatically after the war. The modern era has seen a major decline in the amount of manual work involved because of containerisation and other technological developments.
In addition to the physical changes brought about by construction of new dock facilities post war, the erection of the Sir Charles Grimes Bridge between the Railway Yards and Victoria Dock in 1975 saw the further closure of the river wharves east of its span. The construction of the Bolte Bridge as part of the CityLink Tollway downstream from Victoria Dock has meant the closure of most of that historic dock’s facilities. The approaches had already become too narrow for many of today’s ships. Victoria Dock is now a major element in the Docklands development and is now called Victoria Harbour.^ TOP
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