Melbourne Docklands History

Until the 1880s ships coming into Melbourne anchored in Hobson's Bay and unloaded their cargo onto lighters which then made their way up the Yarra River to wharves such as the famous Queen's Wharf. Alternately the cargo was unloaded at Williamstown or Port Melbourne (Sandridge) and placed on train carriages that took it into Melbourne.

Often more damage would be done to the cargo during its loading from ship to lighter or ship to train than during its entire voyage from ports all over the world. And much time was lost in double handling. This was especially a problem after the 1850s goldrush period which changed Melbourne from a backward rural port to a booming city.

Finally in 1876 an act to establish a Harbor Trust was passed through the Colonial Victorian Legislative Assembly and came into force on January 1, 1877. The new Trust's first decision was to find a capable engineer to advise on re-channelling the Yarra to make it more navigable and shorter and to plan for a new harbour near the warehouses of Melbourne's commercial centre at the western end of the city and its railway lines.

To this end Sir John Coode, one of England's most capable engineers was engaged at the not inconsiderable fee of 5000 pounds. Many possible plans for better navigation into Melbourne had been in existence before this, most of them involved digging a channel from Port Melbourne to Melbourne, but this idea was put aside by Coode who felt that any channel of this kind would need so much constant dredging and widening that it was much too expensive in the long run. His idea was to change the course of the Yarra itself. The river would be made a mile shorter and much wider and more navigable. He also recommended the creation of a new dock by excavating some unused land of an area known as the West Melbourne Swamp

It was not until 1886 that the new conduit of the Yarra was completed. Work on the Victoria, or West Melbourne Dock as it was first known, began in 1889 when the great task of excavating was got under way. Two years later 2,308,247 cubic yards of land soil had been excavated. About a third of this was used to raise and improve the land adjoining the dock but much more had to be bought in to fill and raise the rest of the adjoining ground.

For the next seventy years the Victoria Docks were constantly used. They were improved and altered and remained Melbourne's key port area well into the 1960s when the method of containing cargo began to change. From this time most cargo arrived in large containers which required great amounts of open space for storage rather than the cargo sheds which lined the Victoria Dock. In 1975, the building of the Charles Grimes Bridge between the railway yards and Victoria Dock saw the closure of river wharves east of the river's span and the opening of the Bolte Bridge meant the end of any possibility of ships coming into the old Victoria Dock area.

Since then the area has become the site for the most exciting extension of the city since its boom years in the 1880s. Melbourne's Docklands were once just a dream on the drawing board and they continue to be the place where dreams are played out - but these days of a very different kind.

❊ Web Links ❊

Melbourne Docklands History

Melbourne Docklands Guide

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Melbourne Docklands

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