1867 Postal Conference 

But by March 1867, despite pleasing progress constructing this huge and expensive project, Victorians were horrified to learn that through political recklessness and/or chicanery the whole enterprise might be rendered useless. This threat came in the form of agreements allegedly made at the Intercolonial Postal Conference of 1867. When the minutes of this Conference were published in March, the Argus professed to read them with horror. The Chief Secretary of Victoria, James McCulloch, and the Treasurer of the Colony, George Frederick Verdon, stood accused of fatally betraying the interests of the colony of Victoria. The Argus thundered: “While it is satisfactory to know that in those conclusions the delegates were unanimous, and to that agreement they were all parties, we doubt whether the people of Victoria will be satisfied when they come to understand the nature of one and the terms of the other. Nay, we feel sure that the arrangement is so utterly unfair to this colony that it is impossible for the public to acquiesce in it.” “For,” The Argus demanded to know, “what does this arrangement amount to?”


In broad terms, the agreement, as printed, amounted to the relegation of Melbourne as a terminal destination for all three projected steamer services from Britain to the colonies. And assuming pride of place, horror of horror, would be the port of Sydney.


Now, we think that every one of our readers will agree with us, that in this arrangement the postal convenience, the pecuniary interest and the commercial advantage of Victoria have been utterly ignored. As to the first, we have now a monthly service by way of Galle [in Ceylon] which brings the mails in forty-eight days, and which for the past twelve months has been as regular and as punctual as an ocean service can reasonably be expected to be. Instead of two mails each month by this route, which would seldom leave Melbourne for more than a fortnight together without a budget of London news, we are promised one day after the outgoing of the Suez mail at the end of the month, a mail via Panama with but six, and in some months only five days’ later news than that received by way of Suez, seventeen days before. In addition to this, there is to be a mail via Singapore, Torres Straits, and Queensland, leaving London on the 10th of each month, and reaching Melbourne ten days before the Galle mail is due, with sixteen days later news. In short, on the 2nd of each month, we are to have a mail in 53 days; on the 13th, one in forty-eight days, and on the 29th, on in fifty-seven days. Even if the Panama and Singapore routes were likely to be regular and punctual as that by Galle, it would be still far more convenient to Victoria to have two services of forty-eight days, than the three proposed.


The danger here was news: more specifically, it was the staleness of news. For the financial and mercantile elites of an aspiring entrepôt like Melbourne, the freshness of news about market conditions in commodities such as wool and wheat and in lending and borrowing rates for capital itself was crucial. Getting first use of that information from the financial papers of London could be the difference between business success and business failure. Sydney also hosted financial and mercantile elites who were keen to steal a march on their southern competitors. And Henry Parkes, Postmaster General of the Colony of New South Wales, set about to do his unscrupulous worst to ensure it was Sydney, not Melbourne, who got the freshest news.


This episode causes us to think deeply about what a port was in the last years of the 1860s. The trade in commodities was growing apace. The industrial and urban centres of Britain demanded more and more commodities and foodstuffs. And Britain exported manufactured products. Improvements in sail and especially steam enabled cheaper and cheaper transportation of bulky goods. The world was opening to globalisation. The port of Melbourne continues to play this role in the importation of manufactures and the export of commodities. Melbourne’s function in world trade has not changed much in the intervening 160 years.


But in the late 1860s, the port of Melbourne was something more. It was the point of interchange of a precious cargo. And that cargo was information. When the Williamstown Graving Dock was projected in the early 1860s, information from the rest of the world could travel no quicker than the fastest boats from the closest telegraph termini. Therefore, in the 1860s, the port of Melbourne, and all other Australian ports, were the synapses of the interchange of information. Within the British Empire, the mail steamers, beneficiaries of lucrative subsidies, were the carriers of that information. Now, in 1867, Henry Parkes, on behalf of Sydney, threatened to choke off that life-giving information from the merchants and bankers of Melbourne.


The Argus spelled out the threat in stark terms:


Strong as is the Ministry, able as it is to carry nearly every measure it proposes, we will not believe that party feeling will influence the votes of any members on such a question as this. It is a matter of such vast importance to this colony that it ought to be above all party consideration. Protectionists ought to join heartily with free-traders in rejecting a scheme which hands over to Sydney that mercantile supremacy which Melbourne has until recently enjoyed, and politicians of all shades of opinions should vie with each other in endeavouring to secure for Melbourne a traffic which will render one of our largest public works of some profit, and provide employment for hundreds of artisans and labourers in our port. [Argus 30 March 1867]


The Argus was, of course, referring to the Williamstown Graving Dock, still in the process of construction. Here was the predicament:


We have spent £32,000 on a graving-dock at Williamstown, and will have to spend, as Mr VERDON informed the assembly the other night, £110,000 more before it is finished. To enable Melbourne to become the port of arrival and departure for the steamers on the Galle route was the main object of this work, and the chief inducement to this large expenditure. Only the night before last £30,000 was voted towards this undertaking; it can easily be finished in two years from the present; yet for at least seven years from that time it will be impossible, if this postal compact be ratified, for the very steamers to stop here for which the dock was primarily designed. [Argus 30 March 1867]


In other words, were this alleged Intercolonial Postal Conference of 1867 agreement to stand, the vast expense and effort devoted to constructing the Williamstown Graving Dock would have been for nought. And the taxpayers of Victoria would be saddled with paying off a huge debt for a massive white elephant.


In the deepening rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne, as late as the 1860s, there were few issues that could be conceived of as a zero sum game. These two cities coexisted on a sparsely settled continent. Competition for control of hinterland had hardly begun. There were no national institutions to be squabbled over or national tax revenues to be redistributed. However, the mail contract provoked direct competition. If Sydney won, then Melbourne lost. And vice versa. And Henry Parkes was very conscious of the threat that the Williamstown Graving Dock posed to New South Wales. Unless he was able to nullify the advantage that completion of the Graving Dock appeared to endow Victoria, Sydney may be relegated to a status of permanent subserviency to that brash new metropolis to the South. For the political and mercantile classes of Victoria and NSW, the stakes could hardly be higher.


The issue was how British news would achieve first landfall in Australia, and who would pay. The Intercolonial Postal Conference summarized its conclusions on those matters in a humble memorial to Queen Victoria. There should be three mail routes: on via Albany, one via Torres Strait, and one via Panama and New Zealand. For these services the colonies were prepared to pay a subsidy of up to £200,000 pa, of which Victoria was to pay £50,000.


Between March and May 1867 the Victorian newspapers were full of complaint about NSW. That colony was attempting to steal from Victoria its expensively purchased advantage. The construction of the Graving Dock proved that Victoria was willing to pay the price. And Victoria deserved its reward for willingness to take a huge risk. The Sydney press responded with a minute scrutiny of the resolutions passed at the Conference. And one by one the delegates from New Zealand, South Australia, and Queensland felt required to express their conflicting interpretations of the causes of this impassioned squabble.


In the end, as Kevin Livingston shows, it was the Imperial government, concerned about costs, that made the final determination. There would not be three subsidised mail services between Britain and Australasia, there would be just one, via Suez. And a Suez route greatly favoured Melbourne. To hammer home this advantage, the Victorian government insisted that any future mail route between Britain and Australasia via Panama would be debarred from carrying newspapers! Here was revealed the sine qua non of control of access to the flow of information from the centre of the British Empire. NSW Postmaster General Henry Parkes in his Annual report of 1867 complained bitterly about this high handedness of Victoria. Thus Melbourne was after 1867 the beneficiary of the freshest news. But one important legacy of this victory was ill-will between the colonies. However, the rationale for the construction of Melbourne’s massive Graving Dock seemed to have been confirmed.


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