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A couple of royal wharves

By Ashley Smith - Royal Historical Society of Victoria

Before the construction of the Victoria Dock in the 1890s, trading ships that were able to navigate the winding Yarra (and later the Coode Canal) would berth at the wharves on either side of the Yarra, beyond Spencer St. 

This photograph (taken around the late 19th or early 20th century) features Queen’s Wharf (in the foreground) and Prince’s Wharf (in the background). These regally named wharves were between the natural reef known as the Falls (where Queen’s Bridge now stands) and Spencer St. This image features both wharves flanked by ships, with Queen’s Wharf bustling with horse-drawn carts ready to deliver its cargo to the next location. If you look carefully in the foreground, you’ll notice a dust bin labelled “MHT”, likely the property of the Melbourne Harbour Trust, dating this photo sometime after 1877. 

Both wharves have had varying histories. Queen’s Wharf dates back to the earliest days of European settlement in the 1830s. Back then boats had to be tied to posts along the Yarra bank to avoid drifting away. Captain George Cole is credited as having the first private wharf in 1841, known as Cole’s Wharf, but demand would see the first public wharf, Queen’s Wharf, be built in 1842. Made of bluestone foundations and timber boards, it cost £80,000. By the late 1860s more wharf accommodation was needed, and Queen’s Wharf was in need of repair. The Argus (August 2, 1870) once reported that the wharves were becoming dilapidated due to the quality of timber used, and that the Cole’s Wharf area had become “the receptacle for any rubbish that may be thrown there.”

At the same time, the south bank of the Yarra grew from sparse river bank to a growing manufacturing town. Ships moored there for various reasons in the past, but with the north bank full, the south bank was becoming an enticing solution to the wharfage issue. A deputation of Emerald Hill (now South Melbourne) locals to the Commissioner of Public Works in 1868 (The Herald, August 14) argued that unloading all the goods on the Melbourne side of the Yarra meant a detour across the river to reach the businesses on the south bank. Adding to the problems was that there was barely room for ships to turn at the Falls and the shallowness of the river. The latter issue was raised by an 1869 deputation of the Victorian Shipowners Association to the Commissioner of Customs (The Herald, October 15), pointing out that the build-up of silt caused many ships to be “frequently dragged on the bottom at their moorings”.

Such complaints prompted the government to start plans to widen the Yarra and construct new permanent wharves. The construction that began in late 1870 saw Queen’s Wharf extended to 389 feet (or 119 metres), and stretch as far as Spencer St, using sturdier redgum piles and a timber platform of 18 feet 6 inches (followed by 23 feet of bluestone). As for the South Wharf, the first contract went to Young, McGuigan and Co, with initial plans for an all-bluestone wharf that stretched 154 feet (47 metres) from Falls Bridge (now Queen’s Bridge). The Argus (August 2, 1870) also revealed plans to widen portions of the Yarra “by as much as 140 ft” (43 metres) including an area “from below the basin (likely where the Falls were) to the end of the Australian Wharf” so ships had more room to turn.

While Queen’s Wharf’s construction was done in a few months, the construction of a wharf on the southern bank was a different story. While making initial excavations to create the new quay wall and widen the river (using the bank as a coffer dam), the piles were discovered to be embedded in quicksand instead of rock, causing the excavation to flood. Then the bank collapsed, delaying work until a second contract had to be put in and construction was shifted lower down the river. The work that followed involved excavations, stones being broken for masonry, a steam pump that sucked out excess water, divers to dig out piles, and even explosives. Notably, construction also included the government steam crane (seen far right of photo), constructed in 1874. It stood on a pyramid of bluestone and with a capacity to lift up to 50 tonnes (later 70 tonnes), would often carry ship boilers and other heavy objects. It was moved to North Wharf in 1922 where it continued to lift trains until the 1950s and was withdrawn in 1962.

The initial wharf was finished by 1876, but it was only the beginning. The Harbour Trust took over wharf improvements, and between 1876 and 1882, around 1514 feet (461 metres) of extra wharfage was built, and another 600 feet (183 metres) would be added beyond Duke’s Graving Dock. It was a timely addition during a time when 87 per cent of Victoria’s whole shipping (or more than one million tonnes) arrived at the ports of Melbourne. The wharves east of Clarendon St would be lumped in with the western wharves as South Wharf, until a Harbour Trust meeting in 1885 altered a previous resolution, giving Prince’s Wharf its more regal name. 

These wharves would continue to remain busy until the opening of Spencer Street Bridge in 1930, limiting the types of ships that could squeeze that far. However, while both are no longer the busy wharves of their heyday, they have fortunately found new purpose. Queen’s Wharf now houses the Aquarium and Batman Park, while Southbank is taken up by the hotels, eateries and slot machines of Crown Casino •

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