Victoria Dock

Ashley Smith

In the early 1930s Victoria Dock was one of the biggest sites for trade and export in Melbourne. A constant queue of ships sailed in, unloaded their cargo, recharged and reloaded, then left for the next port.

Around the time this photo was taken (found in a 1934 photo book), the trapezium-shaped basin had been through some changes since its construction in the 1890s. The 497-metre-long Central Pier, finished in 1919, now featured six sheds to house the ever-increasing volume of cargo. The entrance had also been widened in the 1920s to allow better access. Some of the berths featured three-ton jib electric cranes to help with loading cargo and a rail network connected to the State Railway service. 

In 1934, not only did over a million tons of cargo pass through the Dock, but it was also a port for passenger liners. The Age, earlier that year (January 17), noted the French liner Commissaire Ramel arriving into Victoria Dock with a guest list which included French geologist, M. de la Rue and his wife who were travelling to New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), the Danish Consul-General, G. L. Host returning to Sydney from Europe, and the young Lithuanian Alesha Yakovlev, who, with his mother, was being reunited with his Melbourne-based father. The day prior to arriving, Alesha celebrated his seventh birthday on the liner with a lavish cake.

In the 1870s this area had been swampland, until engineer Sir John Coode intervened. While best known for the Coode Canal that re-directed and widened the Yarra, his initial 1879 scheme also recognised the need to cater for an increase in river traffic. His solution was not one, but three docks built near the eastern end of the swamp for easy access to the city and its railways. The first of these planned docks covered 10 hectares and featured about 1980 metres of wharfage. Coode wanted concrete wharves, believing their durability would outweigh the higher cost which he initially estimated to be around £646,000, but, in later estimates, it ballooned to more than £1 million.

Despite the respect and high regard in which Coode was held, the Harbour Trust’s own engineer, Joseph Brady, bravely disagreed. He believed that a cheaper alternative was to build timber wharves, and, on his suggestion, several varieties of timber piles were tested at the Ann Street Pier, Williamstown during late 1881 to find the most durable timber. He also felt Coode’s design was too small and suggested that two docks should be combined into one dock covering 19 hectares, before it too expanded to 28 hectares.

Coode and Brady continued to argue over this hot topic throughout the 1880s, and, in 1887, the Harbour Trust considered several alternatives. One of these was a 609-metre pier at Port Melbourne which was rejected as didn’t meet the Trust’s requirement for accommodation close to the city. Another plan came from the Trust secretary, Mr Mouritz, who suggested five separate jetties as a better use of Trust-owned land. Not even Coode’s scheme was safe from criticism. It was reported in The Age as “showing an incomplete knowledge of the character of the strata likely to be passed through in making excavations” (March 8, 1887). However, it was Coode’s scheme which finally prevailed with Brady’s modifications.  It was approved on March 16, 1887 with the first contracts let in May of that year.

By 1889 excavations were in full swing. While the first contracts went to Hughes and Miller, it was Arthur T. Robb (paid £117,000) who would cart away the bulk of over 85,000 cubic metres of soil and clay that was dug up. Brady, in the meantime, got his wish and around £200,000 of timber from New South Wales and Western Australia was used in construction. During that time, the project faced multiple issues. During 1890, work was delayed due to a workers’ strike over wage reductions needed to cover increased coal costs. Then, in July 1891, floods (see Docklands News, March 3, 2021) threatened to spill into the excavations. Workers grimly fought to keep the coffer dam strong to hold back the engorged Yarra. With that crisis averted, works still had to be postponed to pump out the metre of water that had leaked in.

By the time construction was completed, the dock was 39 hectares and hailed as the second-largest dock in the world (behind Cavendish Dock, Barrow-in-Furness). To further save costs, excavations were dug to a more reasonable seven metres below low water, instead of Coode’s recommended 8.3 metres. Even then, the costs were still around £900,000. It was envisaged, with the extra wharfage, that around thirty 90-metre ships could berth inside. On March 22, 1892, Victoria Dock was opened by Victoria’s Governor, the Earl of Hopetoun (later Australia’s first Governor-General) who opened the sluice to let the Yarra in. It took six days to fill the basin with The Leader estimating that it would take another six months to completely fill (March 26, 1892). In the end, it took nearly a year before the first ship was allowed to enter on February 20, 1893, when the steamer Hubbuck sailed in to unload 1200 tonnes of cargo in 15 hours. The Argus (February 23, 1893) reported that the ship’s captain, J. R. Brodie, called the Yarra “better than the Thames”, and compared Victoria Dock favourably to the Albert Dock (Liverpool).

The economic depression of the 1890s meant that the dock’s first few years were quiet, especially as it took until the 1900s to finish the storage sheds. Business did pick up and, by 1908, about 90 per cent of Melbourne’s imported cargo was handled at Victoria Dock. Cargo tonnage topped one million by the 1920s and (with some exceptions, such as the 1930s Depression) stayed there. Eventually containerisation and the opening of other docks, such as Appleton and Webb, saw business decline by the 1980s. Redevelopment in the 1990s and 2000s gave the docks a second life as a recreational hub. Central Pier was converted into a restaurant area, until its dilapidated foundations forced the pier to close in 2019, with its future uncertain.

Today, while the use of the dock has changed, it still attracts boats from every corner of the world, where they unload, reload, recharge, then leave for the next port •

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