Big dreams, even bigger nightmares
By Luis Calleja
Researcher Royal Historical Society of Victoria
Established in 1877, the Melbourne Harbour Trust was the first organisation of its kind in Victoria.
Empowered by the Harbour Trust Act, to “provide for the regulation, management and improvement of the port of Melbourne”, the fledgling institution decided to dream big, commissioning Sir John Coode, who would later oversee the construction of the Suez Canal, to compile a report on how to improve the Yarra River for maritime trade into Melbourne’s Docklands.
Proposing to completely reconstruct the Yarra River at an estimated staggeringly vast cost of £1,246,300, the works sought to provide “for the accommodation of the largest class of oceanic and intercolonial vessels.” However, in order to accommodate vessels that were steadily increasing in size and carrying capacity, the Yarra River’s banks needed to be widened. Such a massive restructuring of the urban environment threatened the livelihood of people who had built their businesses along the banks of the Yarra.
One such business was Wright, Orr and Co, a dry dock, whose two entrances protruded from the banks of the river and restricted its navigability. Nowadays the picturesque site of the historic Polly Woodside, this location was once a site of violent contestation between locals and the early industrial trend of centralising state power.
Wright and Orr were in the process of constructing a new dock further downstream however, their 1875 lease which predated the establishment of the Trust stipulated that their old docks would remain operational until the new docks were open. By early 1878, Wright and Orr had completed the construction of a single entrance dock and begun operating both the new and old docks. Seeing the completion of the new dock, the Trust requested that Wright and Orr vacate the old dock so that the Yarra could be expanded.
In a decision that would spark a two-year long dispute, Wright and Orr refused, arguing that their lease required their new dock to have two entrances before they would lose the rights to the old dock.
Upon receiving this response the Trust demanded to see the lease, a request which was refused by Wright and Orr. Throughout the rest of 1878 the Harbour Trust sought legal advice to determine how to force Wright and Orr to vacate their old docks.
After seven months of correspondence between the Trust and Wright and Orr there was still no progress on removing the obstruction posed by the old docks. The Trust, desperate to begin its works widening the Yarra, passed a resolution to forcibly close the dock.
Utilising the SS Warhawk, the SS Platypus and a team of 50 workers, the Harbour Trust blockaded the old docks anchoring the Warhawk and the Platypus across its entrances. Meanwhile, the team of workers using picks and shovels begun forcibly disassembling the dock’s entrances. The Trust hoped to force Wright and Orr to abandon their claim.
Unfortunately for the Trust, Wright happened to be on site that day and ordered his 100 or so workers to prevent the Trust’s employees from tearing apart their docks. The dock employees, seeing their place of work and source of income being destroyed, willingly flung themselves in the way of the picks and shovels and lay at the feet of the Trust employees to prevent them from destroying the dock. The dispute continued for roughly two hours while the Trust employees sought to tear apart the dock and Wright and Orr sought desperately to prevent them from doing so.
The spectacle later dubbed the “battle of the docks” by The Argus, attracted a crowd of roughly 1500 onlookers. Eventually the police arrived on site, dispersing the Trust employees and arresting six of them on charges of breaching the peace. However, the SS Platypus and SS Warhawk remained, blockading the entrance to the docks.
The correspondence between Wright and Orr and the Harbour Trust commissioners became white hot. The Trust accused Wright and Orr of lying about their claims to the old docks and threatened to bring the matter before the Supreme Court. Wright and Orr responded with a scathing challenge to the Trust’s legitimacy, writing “we are of the opinion that the Melbourne Harbour Trust has not and has never had any legal existence. Although we have no desire to question the validity of the [Harbour Trust’s] constitution unless we are forced to do so.”
This veiled threat posed an existential challenge to the Harbour Trust. Given it was such a young organisation, a legal challenge to its legitimacy could neuter the organisation’s ability to reshape the urban environment. Wright and Orr sought to have the matter heard by an arbitration court, which the Trust saw as a “deference to laymen” whose decision will “affect other cases of the same kind” clearly showing the Trust’s hesitancy to have its legitimacy rest on public opinion.
However, the dispute never made it to court. Over the next year the Harbour Trust and Wright and Orr fought a media war, releasing scathing criticisms of one another in The Argus and The Age. By mid-1879 the dispute was heard by the Crown Lands Commission who supported Wright and Orr’s claim to two entrances in their new dock. After another six months of negotiations, the Harbour Trust and Wright and Orr agreed that the Trust would pay Wright and Orr 5000 pounds over four months and permit them to build a second entrance to their new dock.
Today, as we walk around Docklands and the banks of the Yarra River, it is easy to assume that the urban landscape resembles some natural order of things. But this story demonstrates how the urban environment we call home has been shaped by a negotiation between entities small and large, who all sought to imprint their vision of Melbourne onto the city’s docklands. •
Image caption: Map from the RHSV collection MNE-GT 37/W (detail).