2008, 65 p. & notes
I came upon this publication by chance a few months back, while I was looking up ‘quarantine’ for my posting about Port Phillip during March 1842. The report had been divided up into separate PDF files, and my interest piqued, I set about finding the rest of the publication.
Update: The author has since made the whole publication available on their website. Thank you! You can find it at http://livinghistories.net.au/our-work/commissioned-histories/
The author, Jill Barnard, is one of the team from the Living Histories group of professional historians. As part of her conclusion, she cites the founding member of the Australian Association for Maritime History historian Frank Broeze , who pointed out that Australia’s maritime identity is as important as “sheep and land, railways and goldmines, bushrangers and bankers” in shaping Australia’s identity. It’s certainly an argument that has been reinforced for me in reading about Melbourne’s earliest days through the three Melbourne newspapers. The shipping news took up nearly 3/4 of one of the four pages in each issue; people were constantly falling off boats and jetties; and overseas news finally arrived long after the event, on account of the vast sea distances being covered.
This publication, sponsored by the Heritage Council of Victoria focuses as its title denotes, on maritime infrastructure and thus reflects a ‘heritage’ approach, based mainly on structures and their usages. The report is divided into two parts: Part 1 deals chronologically with 1800-1850, then Part 2 adopts a thematic approach, adopting the Australian Framework of Historical Themes (2000, 2001). No longer being involved in curriculum development and coming from a historical rather than heritage perspective, I was completely ignorant of such frameworks. The Framework is explained in detail here, and the Victorian Framework (2010) which was developed to respond to it is here (ah- Federation at work!) I suspect that the impetus for ‘frameworks’ reflects the late 20th-early 21st century desire for checkboxes, wall charts and verb-driven, economy-focussed competencies and I must confess that the whole process passed me by completely. Will I live long enough to see this whole approach to conceptualizing history itself historicized? I wonder.
I suspect that the two-part structure of this report reflects the constraints that such a framework placed on the author. As she points out, during the earliest years of Victoria’s white settlement there was a scramble by both private investors and governments to provide sufficient infrastructure to keep pace with the ever-increasing needs, and such infrastructure served a variety of purposes for immigrants, merchants, fishermen, postal services and customs officers. Her Part 1, reflecting the years 1800-1850 progresses chronologically. In Part 2 she adopts a thematic approach, with the chapters directly linked into one of the categories or subcategories of the Australian framework:
1. Improving Victoria’s Ports and Harbours (Theme 3 Developing local, regional and national economies)
2. Migrating to Victoria (Peopling Australia)
3. Moving People ( Theme 3.8 Moving Goods and People)
4. Moving Goods and Cargo (ditto)
5. Defending Our Shores (Theme 7.1 Governing Australia as a Province of the British Empire and Theme 7.7 Defending Australia)
6. Commercial Fishing (Theme 3.4 Utilizing Natural Resources)
7. Making Ports and the Coast Safe (Theme 3.16.1 Dealing with Hazards and Disasters)
8. Boat and Ship Repair and Building (Theme 3.8 Moving Goods and People)
9. Accommodating Seamen (Theme 3.22 Providing Lodgings)
10. At the Beach: Using the Sea for Recreation (Theme 8 Developing Australia’s Cultural Life)
As Barnard points out in her introduction, this thematic approach does not necessarily serve her well. Different sites have changed their functions over time and do not fit into the neat themes of ‘recreation’ or ‘moving people’ that she has selected. Moreover, the thematic approach gave rise to a degree of repetition. As she admits, “it is difficult for the reader to simply follow particular sites or themes through from the beginnings of European settlement to the present day”. She’s right.
Notwithstanding the author’s own misgivings , I found this an interesting read. Although Victoria has a long coastline, there are few deep-water harbours. The Heads made the whole entry to Port Phillip treacherous, and both Melbourne and Geelong ports were ringed with sandbars. The settlement of Melbourne on the Yarra River up on the Falls (which I’ve often mentioned in this blog ) meant that there was no direct connection to the ocean, although a canal was mooted for some time. She doesn’t just deal with Melbourne and Geelong: she also discusses Portland, Port Fairy, Port Albert, Warrnambool and Lakes Entrance, as well as fishing and boat-building ports along the Bay. Coastal shipping remained dominant for a long time because overland transport was so slow to develop, and the development of railways often bolstered port activity. Nonetheless, the infrastructure for getting goods on and off ships remained primitive for some time. She cites the example of timber-loading at Mt Martha (on the Mornington Peninsula) where logs would be tossed off the cliff-face, where they fell to the beach to be loaded onto small boats and from there, onto larger ships. No wonder the container, which reduced double- and triple- handling, made such a difference to maritime transportation.
Most immigrants and passengers arrived at Melbourne, although during the 1840s and 50’s there were attempts to channel immigrants directly to the pastoral stations that were crying out for their labour by landing them at Geelong and to a lesser extent Portland. Vessels for specifically inter-state travel continued until 1961 when they were replaced by international liners who had several ports on their itinerary. Her analysis extends up to the mid-twentieth century as she traces the demise of Station Pier and other passenger wharfs, especially after the opening of Tullamarine Airport in 1970.
It was fascinating to read about the early defence arrangements for the gold-rich Port Phillip Bay, in what are now inner suburbs like South Melbourne and St Kilda. Although sometimes the fortifications took so long to construct that military technology rendered them largely redundant, by 1890 Victoria was assessed as being “the best defended commercial city of the empire” (p.42) Fort Nepean has the dubious distinction of being the site for the first British shots fired in both the First and Second World Wars.
I’d heard of Sir John Coode and the straightening of the Yarra, but I hadn’t realized how much of a ‘go-to’ man he was for infrastructure works on all Victorian ports. The cost for infrastructure like beacons and lighthouses was borne by the colonies because they benefitted directly from the port activity, but after Federation the Commonwealth government took responsibility for ocean or ‘highway’ lights. I’ve seen sheds cantilevered over the water on the side of jetties and didn’t realize that they were rescue boats, and now I have a new appreciation for the rocket and mortar sheds where a ‘breeches buoy’ , similar to a pair of trousers, allowed a person to sit in them to be winched to shore.
My favourite part was the final chapter ‘At the Beach’ which reflected popular cultural use of the beach, as distinct from the largely economic focus of the other chapters. Promenading at the beach was more important than swimming at it during the middle of the 19th century. At first sea bathing was forbidden between 6.00 a.m. and 8.00 p.m. because men swam nude, although this restriction was relaxed in 1917. I’ve long been amused at the presence of life saving clubs at the mill-pond like bay beaches (e.g. 1912 Black Rock, Elwood and Hampton) and ‘baths’ separated out from the sea but these no doubt reflect the change from ‘taking the waters’ for health reasons to recreational swimming. The seawall that runs along Sandringham, Brighton etc. was constructed between 1935 and 1939 using stone recycled from city buildings including the old Melbourne gaol. Other fences were made of ‘basketwalling’ made of ti-tree (which I can just remember). Boat sheds and private jetties reflect the purchase of beach-houses by well-to-to Melburnians.
All in all, an informative and well-told read for those of us interested in Victorian history. It does assume a familiarity with the ports and places under examination, so it’s a fairly localized publication. It’s an interesting exercise to see the narrative limitations when a thematic framework is imposed onto a narrative, especially when dealing with an extended 150 year timeline. I also found it a challenging idea to restrict the focus to activities that leave a physical presence in the form of infrastructure. This object-based, heritage-focussed approach is not one with which I’m particularly familiar (or, I admit, completely comfortable), but is is one that probably reflects the economic and public uses to which history is put today.
I have posted this review to the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge website.