But it took a big push from the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce to induce government to vote public funds to the construction of a graving dock. In 1861, Melbourne’s merchants were gloomy. Their Chamber declared that the colony was suffering a commercial depression. The gold rush was faltering. And crucially, would-be immigrants were shunning the long, arduous, and expensive, journey from Europe.
Yet there were remedies at hand. Rapid advances in steam technology would enable a safer, more dependable passage to Melbourne. But that opportunity imposed costs. The owners and operators of these new ships needed an inducement to operate out of Melbourne.
Chief among these inducements must be a graving dock. This facility was an “urgent necessity”, especially for the steamers of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. The Chamber of Commerce learned that the cost of repairs on the P&O mail steamers alone was no less than £100,000 annually. At present, there was no place in Melbourne where this work could be done. And fortuitously, the Chamber were assured, the current lease for the repair facilities in Sydney were about to expire. Sydney’s difficulty would be Melbourne’s opportunity. And fortune would favour the brave. Melbourne must think big. The graving dock should be large enough to accommodate the Great Eastern, since 1858 (and until the late nineteenth century), the largest ship afloat. The Chamber of Commerce could not be accused of thinking small.
And there was another matter that epitomised the struggle for pre-eminence between Sydney and Melbourne. P&O held the British government contract to carry the Royal Mail. Possession of the Australian terminal of this service conferred prestige and distinct commercial advantage in this era before intercontinental telegraphy. The Melbourne Chamber of Commerce were determined that Melbourne would be the dominant entrepôt in this informational exchange. If the price of this advantage were a huge graving dock, then, in the opinion of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce, the government of the colony must rise to the challenge. [Argus, 20/04/1861]
And indeed, during the decades of the 1860s and 1870s, when the Graving Dock was being projected and built, Melbourne interests were dominant in the intercolonial struggle for the freshest news from Britain. As can be seen from Kevin Livingston’s map of the mail routes between Britain and Australia between 1850 and 1874, Melbourne’s financiers and merchants got first use of the mails. But this dominance was not achieved without bitter and sometimes underhanded conflict with Sydney interests. And in the end, perhaps Victoria paid far too high a price for this advantage of diminishing importance.
In 1861, the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce had access to fresh news at the front of their minds when it lobbied the Government of Victoria for the construction of a graving dock. The Chamber found a willing ally in the energetic and combative Premier, James McCulloch. McCulloch was a banker, democrat, social reformer, and nation builder. After scant public debate or consultation, the McCulloch majority in the Legislative Assembly ordered that £100,000 would be set aside to build a dock big enough to accommodate a ship fifty feet longer than the Great Eastern. In poker terms, the McCulloch government saw the grandiosity of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce and raised it fifty feet. In answer to questions about the likely rate of return on such a vast facility, Mr Michie observed soothingly that a similar dock in Sydney returned a respectable 6% pa. (There was no similar dock in Sydney). Perhaps sensing trouble, the proactive McCulloch interjected that such calculations were superfluous because there was “no experience by which they could estimate the probable revenue.” But rather, the government were driven by necessity. “[A]t present,” he insisted, “there were no means in Melbourne by which ships could be repaired; and vessels were sent to sea without examination, to the great danger of those on board.” [Geelong Advertiser, 06/02/1864]
Thus, in McCulloch’s opinion, even if the reasons offered by the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce for building this graving dock were insufficient, the exorbitant cost of insurance should clinch the argument. And so, by these hasty means, the McCulloch government committed itself to the most expensive public works project in the short history of the colony. It was necessary only to decide on the site. Mr James Francis stated that “after considerable investigation, the site selected as the most suitable was one a short distance to the south of the patent slip, at Williamstown.” It is perhaps noteworthy that no other site was mentioned. [Geelong Advertiser, 06/02/1864] What might be the consequences of making such an expensive and irreversible decision upon such a flimsy foundation, only time would tell. What could possibly go wrong?