Australian Ports

Hobsons Bay Railway Pier, 1878
Hobsons Bay Railway Pier, Sandridge (now Station Pier, Port Melbourne), about 1878, showing one of two small steam locomotives used for shunting goods trucks on the pier.
Source: La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria

In the early decades of European settlement, Australian ports were a life-line. The Australian colonies were totally dependent on ships for supplies and news from the 'motherland', Great Britain.

Sydney (New South Wales) and Hobart (Tasmania) served as Australia's key immigration ports in the penal era, largely because they both offered natural well-protected, deep water harbours. As agricultural and pastoral settlement spread to other Australian colonies, further ports were established at river mouths. Shallow water typically restricted large vessels from entering these ports until extensive engineering works were undertaken.

During the 1850s gold rushes, Melbourne (Victoria) became the preferred port for migrants. By the 1880s, steamers using the Suez Canal and Cape of Good Hope routes were also regularly calling at Albany (Western Australia) and Adelaide (South Australia), with Fremantle (Western Australia) only becoming a major international port after 1900.

Brisbane (Queensland) was also visited by the British mail steamers, but many other shipping services terminated at Sydney, leaving smaller coastal vessels the job of transferring migrants further north.

Port of Melbourne

The first direct overseas immigrant ships to reach Melbourne arrived in 1838. Unlike the small coastal vessels that established the settlement four years earlier, these ships were too large to pass up the shallow Yarra River. People and goods were off-loaded into small boats and carried overland from Williamstown or Liardet's Beach (now Port Melbourne), creating costly and inefficient double-handling of goods.

With the discovery of gold in Victoria in the 1850s, thousands of hopefuls came pouring into Melbourne, placing enormous pressure on the already inadequate port facilities.

The Melbourne & Hobsons Bay Railways Company conceived a scheme to improve the port by building a railway line from Melbourne to a large, deep water pier at Liardet's Beach. Known as Railway Pier, it was rebuilt in the 1920s to become Station Pier. The line linking the pier to the Melbourne central station had been Australia's first steam-powered railway.

Parties from Melbourne are requested to raise a smoke, and the boat will be at their service as soon as practicable.
Melbourne Advertiser, 1838

Port Adelaide

Aptly named 'Port Misery', the first regular landing place of Adelaide was situated a mile up the Port Creek (Adelaide River) where boats stuck fast in the mud-flats and new arrivals had to wade through the mire to reach the shore.

Over the years facilities were greatly improved and migrants found themselves stepping from ship onto solidly constructed wharves. The construction of a railway and private telegraph line in 1855 ensured that the transfer of cargo and people from port to city was more efficiently managed.

The shore is an uninhabitable swamp, and the few people who are living in the wigwams at Port Adelaide are too busily engaged … to take any notice of a party of ladies and gentlemen up to their knees in mud trying to reach the shore.
– Thomas Horton James, 1838

Sydney Cove

I despair of being able to convey to any reader my own idea of the beauty of Sydney Harbour … (it) is so inexpressively lovely that it makes a man ask himself whether it would not be worth his while to move his household goods to the eastern coast of Australia.
– Anthony Trollope, 1850s

Entering Sydney Harbour was not so lovely. Sailing through 'The Heads' was notorious, and many ships came to grief. One stormy night in 1857 the immigrant ship Dunbar crashed into the rocky cliffs. The loss of all aboard, bar one went undiscovered until morning when debris and bodies greeted incoming vessels.

With so many small coves, the developing port spread to various locations. Small privately owned piers and wharfs sprang up. The handling of goods and passengers was made easier with the development of the state railway system in the 1850s.

Port of Fremantle

Early shipowners considered Fremantle a port to avoid and demanded high freight rates in order to compensate for the risk of calling there. A rocky bar blocked the Swan River entrance, and the few jetties situated outside the river-mouth were exposed to the strong south-westerly winds (known as the Fremantle Doctor).

Frightened migrants would have to wait for the weather to calm before making their first intrepid steps to shore. In protest, vessels headed 400 kilometres south to the safe deep-water anchorage of Albany.

In 1892 work began on creating a safe, deep and protected harbour with the first migrant ships tying up at the new Victoria Quay in 1897. From this time on, Fremantle replaced Albany on the Australian shipping route.

I would not come to this port again and be obliged to discharge at this wharf, if they made me a present of the vessel.
– Captain D B Shaw, 1892


Locate historic images of the port in your state by searching the Picture Australia website: Use the term 'Port of Sydney' (or Melbourne, Adelaide, Fremantle etc) in your search.

Try to find images from different decades. What do they show about facilities for disembarking passengers?

Image Gallery

Fremantle, 1934 'Sydney Heads, 1854' 'Pioneers landing at Port Adelaide', 1839