The Journey by Steam

Postcard c. 1903
Postcard c. 1903: 'Mail Steamer Leaving Melbourne Port'. Steam stacks and sail capacity are clearly evident.
Source: La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria

The first iron-hulled steam ships made the journey to Australia in 1852. However, these early steamers, known as auxiliaries, still carried a full set of sails, as their inefficient engines and the lack of coaling ports en route to Australia prevented the use of the new steam technology over long distances.

Whilst speed was not initially improved by the introduction of steam, comfort and strength were. The change from traditional wooden hulled ships to iron hulls enabled steamships to be larger and stronger, with much greater space below the decks.

In the 1860s the more efficient compound steam engine, in which steam was expanded in successive cylinders, was introduced. This enabled ships to make the voyage to Australia entirely under steam power. However, it wasn't until the 1880s after the introduction of a government mail subsidy, that steam ships became profitable and began to carry the majority of immigrants. Less reliant on wind, they travelled at a constant speed and provided power for electric lighting, refrigeration and ventilation. Grand saloons were able to be provided for first class passengers, and small cabins instead of sleeping berths were provided in steerage class.


Visit the website of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, to discover more about steam ships:

Make a list of the advantages of steam ships compared with sailing ships.