Graving Dock Aftermath

MYSTERY, a correspondent to the Gippsland Times thundered, “When a man placed in a position in which he can set independently, that is according to the suggestions of his own will, does a deliberate wrong, he does so from one of three causes — either from ignorance, from fear, or from personal considerations. This will be conceded as a fair logical deduction. That Mr Berry has done a grievous wrong to this colony in the new postal contract with the Peninsular and Oriental Company is admitted even by the subsidized Ministerial journal [The Age]. … the most serious omission of all is the entire absence of any provision making Melbourne the point of arrival and departure. It will be remembered that in the Francis Langton contract of 1873 this was the leading feature of the new postal service, and for which Victoria was content to pay £90,000 per annum for five years. By Mr Barry’s blundering, or by something worse, this important concession is lost to Victoria until the 31st January 1888, and the Alfred graving dock will remain comparatively useless for that period; for doubtless what the P. and O. Company find it most profitable to do, other owners of heavy tonnage vessels will also do, namely — dock their ships at the port, Sydney.” 

MYSTERY insisted that the perfidy of Graham Berry and his supporters went deep.

“Newspaper readers will be curious to learn that Mr A. T. Clark [M.P. for Williamstown], and the Ministerial “old hats” at Williamstown have to say to this latest job of the People’s Ministry. The Nelson was cut down at the cost of £60,000, and a fine old line of battle ship destroyed, a vessel that might have ridden at anchor in Australian waters for another century at least, a fitting memento of England’s naval glories, and for what? To “cement” that is Mr Berry’s word, the Williamstown party, the dock labourers and shipwrights, with Mr Clark at their head, who like their member, will dance to any tune their chief may demand, for it cannot be pretended that for any purposes of naval warfare, in the present day of 10-inch armour plates and 100 ton guns, the old ship is of any use what ever. Now, as the reseting process can be carried no further for want of material to operate upon, and the dockyard business has been attracted to Sydney — now that, in the language of the Age, Mr Berry has with indecent hast abandoned his postal policy (without consulting Parliament, be it remembered) conceded to the P. and O. Company all they ask, and saddled this country with a seven years’ contract, that removes with a stroke of the pen all advantages Williamstown and Melbourne obtain through Hobson’s Bay being the rendezvous for mail steamers — now that the much lauded “people’s” Minister has done all this, the question arises “What was his motive? Did he act, as already suggested, from ignorance of the business at hand; from fear of the consequences to the ‘great liberal party’ should he offend their enemies the oligarchs by doing right; or from personal considerations, either present or prospective?” That he acted from ignorance no one will believe; that with a compact and powerful majority at his back prepared to vote separation to-morrow at his bidding, or any wild legislation to save their £300, that he acted from fear of consequences may also be dismissed as equally unworthy of credence. What then were the personal considerations that moved Mr Berry in the matter of the one-sided P. and O. contract? The next few months will probably solve the MYSTERY Sale, 20 August. [Gippsland Times, 27 August 1879]

Premier Graham Berry stood charged with perfidiously signing away a signal business advantage enjoyed by Victorians. Moreover, he compounded the crime by committing desecration on the venerable HMCS Nelson for the craven purpose of featherbedding the voters who elected Mr A. T. Clarke, a member of the Berry clique.


Could these possibly be true? A consideration of the circumstances of the new agreement suggests otherwise. Closer to the truth is that there was now consensus that access to the freshest news by mail was no longer a critical issue. The Intercolonial Posts and Telegraphs conference held in Melbourne in August 1878, was an occasion for intercolonial amity. For the delegates, the days were over when control of fresh news by means of a monopoly on mail services. None of the delegations of the colonies, with the minor exception of South Australia, was particularly interested in seeking to terminate Victoria’s special status. Equally, Victoria was not interested in perpetuating it. Quietly, in an atmosphere of concord, one important rationale for building the Alfred Graving Dock expired. [The Australasian, 17 August 1878].


But there were victims of Berry’s decision to relinquish Victoria’s mail monopoly. During the period of operation of the Francis-Langton Treaty, dock labourers and shipwrights found steady employment. After the lapse of the treaty, the shipping lines deserted Melbourne. Sydney became the centre of port services and repairs.


As early as 1880, Mr T. Arkle, a candidate for the Legislative Assembly, predicted that Berry’s concession would cost the port of Williamstown at least £12,000 per annum in lost wages. [Williamstown Chronicle, 28 Feb 1880.] 


During the 1880s, Mr Arkle’s predictions came true. The commercial viability of the Graving Dock collapsed. The Williamstown Mechanics Institute collected the glum facts about the running costs of the Graving Dock. They proved that that for the seven years until 1891 that the Dock was costing the Colony of Victoria £250 per week. [Williamstown Chronicle, 12 Sept., 1891]


By 1895, The Graving Dock was an intercolonial laughing stock. “Lefevre”, a letter writer to the South Australian Register, lampooned the suggestion that a graving dock might be built at Port Adelaide: “I recommend [the proposers of the Port Adelaide scheme] to apply to the Victorian Government and request them to furnish the cost of the graving dock at Williamstown [a White Elephant], and the actual returns since it was constructed.”


Different interest groups proposed a diversity of schemes to revivify the Alfred Graving Dock. In 1891, the Mechanics Institute of Williamstown recommended expensive enlargement and modernisation of infrastructure. [Williamstown Chronicle, 12 Sept., 1891] Free Traders called for the privatisation of the Dock. [Prahran Telegraph, 4 Sept 1897.] Mr H.R. Reid, a principal in the Melbourne Shipping Company, told a public meeting in June 1897 that the Graving Dock had laid idle since March of that year. “Ship after ship passed this port to go to Sydney, and went into the private docks there. The company he represented, with more than £10,000 spent in Williamstown, found it paid to send its ships to Sydney for repairs because the dues were less than one half-there, and it took so much less time to have them docked.” [Williamstown Chronicle, 19 June 1897.] But all proposals fell on deaf government ears and were in any case never supported by an acceptable commercial proposal.


So, neither willing to liquidate the sunk costs of a non-performing asset, nor willing to modernise the Dock, the vast edifice fell into idleness. Occasionally, when the Dock creaked into fitful activity, it excited a spectacle that the Melbourne press seized on with glee. In 1894, the Argus reported:


Yesterday afternoon considerable excitement was occasioned at Williamstown by an extraordinary catch of mullet in the Alfred Graving Dock. The dock had just been pumped out preparatory to removing the blocks to their proper positions for an incoming vessel. When the water was sufficiently low a tremendous shoal of mullet was disclosed. The information spread rapidly, and in a few minutes nearly 200 persons were at work catching the fish. Sacks, baskets, buckets &c., were brought into requisition and filled. Two boats stationed at the entrance of the open caisson were filled in a very short time, the occupants capturing thousands of fish as they sought to escape to deep water. The total take is estimated to have been over a ton. [Argus, 8 August, 1893]


This vast draught of fishes was possible only because they have been left to breed undisturbed for a considerable time in the still deeps of the idle Alfred Graving Dock.


The Alfred Graving Dock had been conceived of and mostly constructed when ports represented the point of interchange of valuable information. Telegraphy changed that world soon before the first ship was towed past the caisson gates. Having made this massive investment, successive colonial governments could neither bring themselves to divest this depreciated asset nor to find any way to make it pay. 


In 1918, for the Victorian government, salvation came in the shape of the Great War. The Commonwealth Government purchased the Dock and surrounding facilities. In 1924, the Melbourne Harbour Trust purchased it from the Commonwealth. Then, again, in 1942, in the darkest weeks of WWII, the Commonwealth requisitioned the site. It is now administered by the Commonwealth Department of Defence Support, mostly unused, fenced off from public access, and largely forgotten.


The Alfred Graving Dock was an early product of the Information Age. And it was a victim of rapid advances in information technology. It quickly became an expensive White Elephant. Today, Melbourne whose rapid growth had been stunted by the collapse of the investment boom in the 1890s, is once again the fastest growing Australian capital city. Young people flock to Melbourne to work in the knowledge industries associated with information technology. There is still debate about the Rudd government’s National Broadband Network and its vast cost of construction. Would the NBN have provided a permanent stimulus for economic investment or would it prove to be a white elephant like the Alfred Graving Dock? Whatever the answer to this question, it is instructive to empathise with James McCulloch when in 1864 he propelled the infant colony of Victoria into a brave and expensive adventure.

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