Berthing at Little Dock … maybe for a cuppa?

Berthing at Little Dock … maybe for a cuppa?
Ashley Smith

Before the Spencer Street Bridge was built, this was the view from the corner of Spencer and Flinders streets.

This photo was taken some time in the late 19th or early 20th century, and features Spencer Dock, also known as Little Dock. It was opened in August 1854 and was described by The Argus (August 18) as the “first public dock in Victoria”. The first ship to enter was the Flying Cloud, which unloaded 300 tonnes of cargo. As The Argus reported, because the government was “too slow for the spirit of the people”, it was up to the merchants to do their own celebrating. Around an hour-and-a-half before opening, the Flying Cloud’s owner Mr Throckmorton ordered the Criterion Hotel’s Mr Moss to organise a makeshift luncheon on the vessel to celebrate the occasion. By some miracle, the order was fulfilled in the most “efficient and satisfactory matter”. 

For more than 70 years, the Dock was a mainstay for many smaller boats that were able to navigate the shallow bends of the Yarra. This included a group of trading ships known as the Mosquito Fleet. The fleet consisted of many small ships that would buzz across Bass Strait to Tasmania and back, usually for timber. Even as steamships became the primary mode of sea transport in the early 20th century, sailing ships such as ketches, schooners and brigantines were still seen as economical due to their reliance on free wind power instead of expensive coal. Due to their small size, they were perfect for delivering cargo to seaside or riverside towns that didn’t have access to rail. The Herald in 1916 (May 27), reported on how they were vital to resort areas between Mornington and the Port Phillip Heads, especially as they delivered cargo three times a week in the summertime. Former president of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, George R. Leggett, wrote in 1945 (The Argus, April 21) that on a busy day, so many would berth at the Dock that “it was possible to cross one side to another on the decks – five abreast and one across the end – two tiers of them”.

Two ships have been identified on the left-hand side of this image. The darker one is known as the Orsin, a 42-tonne ketch. The white-hulled ship is the Berean, a 71-tonne ketch that measured 80 feet in length and originally built in Tasmania in 1877. It served as a trade ship until it was sold to the Victorian Government in 1911 for £700. It then served as a storage ship for gunpowder and explosives up until the 1930s. By 1937, The Argus (September 17) reported the “rotting hulk” was resting at Williamstown with other used ships, likely awaiting destruction.

Usually after a journey, a sailor would want a pint or two at the bar, or, if they were a teetotaller, a cup of tea. One of the most popular tea brands of the era was Robur, whose warehouse (known today as The Tea House) is the lone behemoth, in this photo, towering over the South Melbourne skyline. Standing six stories tall, the building was constructed in 1887 as a warehouse for stationers, Ferguson and Mitchell. Built on swampy ground, the engineers were able to construct it using an innovative technique: the sturdy foundation used more than 450 ironbark timber piles and concrete rafts. It is one of the finest examples of a 19th-century warehouse in Melbourne and, indeed, Australia. In the early 1900s the building was owned by S. A. Palmer, who sold the herbal remedy known as “Vitadatio”. 


Robur occupied the building by 1906. Robur started as a brand owned by Hawthorn, Rhodes and Co. in the 1890s, a time when Australia was drinking more tea than any other country. The distributor James Service and Co. then bought the company in 1900. They also had a factory in Queensbridge St, equipped with machinery that mixed the tea leaves, using fans and magnets to remove dust and stray metal parts, before they were packed into vegetable parchment bags. Workers (around 120 at the time), wore white aprons as they diligently prepared the tea for grocery shops all over Victoria. 


The brand was known for its wide array of aggressive advertising campaigns. In the decades that followed, they did everything including distributing promotional calendars featuring famous artworks, wartime promotions encouraging families to donate tea to the ANZACs, created a separate teapot brand made of the finest silver, and covered Melbourne in a series of outdoor wall advertisements featuring their signature teapot logo; some of which can still be found in their fading glory today. Through these promotions, Robur pitched itself to the many aspirational middle-class or lower-class suburbanites who wanted to be posh but at a fraction of the cost of the more expensive tea brands.

The warehouse would remain in business until the 1970s. The Robur Company was bought by Tetley, which in turn was swallowed by the Indian-based Tata, then, in 2021, Tetley was purchased from Tata by Harris Tea. Today, the building’s presence along the South Melbourne skyline has been diminished slightly with the Convention Centre impinging on its glory. Importantly, the tea house remains as one of the last very vestiges of the south bank of the Yarra’s industrial and warehousing past. •

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