This was how matters stood in September 1872 when another intercolonial conference was called to attempt to arrive at an agreement to replace the soon-to-expire interim agreement on mail routes. Again, the Victorian negotiating position outraged Henry Parkes, by now Premier of NSW. The gentlemen representing Victoria assumed that, “of course Melbourne would be the terminus of any new route.” This meeting took place in Sydney in January and February 1873. At this conference Victoria played its trump cards. Victoria was willing to use its wealth to pay for its status as mail steamer terminus. Moreover, the Graving Dock, so long in construction, was months away from completion. Of course, Melbourne would be the terminus. And the Imperial Government agreed. Not all Victorians were cock-a-hoop. Gavan Duffy stated in the Victorian Legislative Assembly that Victorian arrogance at the Sydney Conference had postponed Australian federation for at least a generation. Duffy’s prediction proved to be startlingly accurate. And the disuniting influence of the Alfred Graving Dock on forming a nation for a continent is clear.
But by January 1873, the moment of Victoria’s crowning triumph, the world had already changed. For, six months earlier, on 6 July 1872, The Australasian announced the arrival, in ten days, of the first telegraph message direct from London. This first message, content unrecorded, was judged to be “meagre”, but was “entirely devoted to Australian matters.” The freshest and most urgent news would no longer arrive in newspapers in the holds of P&O mail steamers. And ports would never again be as important in the affairs of nations. Information and the opportunities it liberated would henceforth arrive along a copper wire.
But how might the government, taxpayers, financiers and merchants of Melbourne behave in the light of this communication revolution? The Victorian government, flushed with success at the Sydney Conference pressed its advantage. Unilaterally, Victoria offered P&O a ten year contract binding P&O to use Williamstown as its terminal for the annual fee of £90,000. This contract became known as the Francis-Langton Treaty, named for the two ministers who negotiated it. By any criteria, this was an enormous sum. Five years’ payment was sufficient to cover the entire cost of building the Graving Dock. And a perusal of the Annual Reports of P&O during this period indicates that £90,000 represented between 20% and 40% of the company’s declared profits worldwide. P&O must have exulted in the Francis-Langton Treaty.
The Colony of Victoria did not expect to be pay for the entire cost of the P&O subsidy. Rather, Victoria invoiced the other Australasian colonies and paid its £17,000 share. [Argus, 25 Feb., 1879] The benefits of this arrangement for Victoria were twofold: until the last day of 1878, Victoria would continue to receive the freshest news and the mail steamers would be serviced and maintained at Williamstown. This is how matters stood the day the Alfred Graving Dock began operations on 2 March 1874.
Without ceremony, HMCS Nelson, a superannuated ship of the line built during the Napoleonic Wars, was quietly towed into the graving dock. This event was witnessed by a handful of members of the Victorian Parliament, some high officials, and “a large number of spectators.” There was no ceremony and the reporter of the Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers perhaps voiced what was in the minds of some of those present when he referred to the “enormous and to some extent unnecessary, expenditure of public money” that had been sunk into this vast project. [Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers, 25 March, 1874] For what it was worth, Victoria, by means of the Francis-Langton Treaty clung to its monopoly control of the freshest news from Britain. But in this new world of intercontinental telegraphic communication, would the Graving Dock repay the grand hopes and dreams invested in it?
The Francis-Langton Treaty regulated the Australasian mail service until the end of 1878. As Premier of Victoria, Graham Berry, at that time fighting a vicious battle against conservative forces for democratic constitutional reform, decided to allow the Francis-Langton Treaty to lapse. For some, this was proof of Berry’s mendacity, and perhaps, treachery.