- Sullivan, John
- Ship design and development
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Advance, HMAS Wyatt Earp, HMAS Labuan I, HMAS Yarra I, HMAS Vendetta II, HMAS Quickmatch, HMAS Parramatta I
- September 1986 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Some 16 years ago, in the first or second issue of the ‘Naval Historical Review’, there appeared the first part of a two-part story on the history of Williamstown Naval Dockyard. The second part has never appeared! Various Committee members have been asked to contribute articles for this special issue of the ‘Review’. As an expatriate who still regards himself as a Victorian, and as a former employee of the Dockyard (albeit 40 years ago), I offered to complete the history. In view of the length of time since the first part was published, I will not just follow on from 1918, where Part I finished. In any case, many of today’s readers would not have seen the original article. I will, therefore, begin at the beginning, with apologies to the original authors, Alan Bunnett, G. Halliburton and Paul Webb. I have not used any of their story, but naturally much of the early part of my story will duplicate what they wrote. I will end my story with some personal reminiscences of my time there. Perhaps some readers will have known some of the people I will mention.
WILLIAMSTOWN NAVAL DOCKYARD is situated on Point Gellibrand, a peninsula first observed by white men in 1803. The Point is named after J.T. Gellibrand, a Van Dieman’s Land lawyer, who came with Batman to take up residence in ‘the place for a village’, which had been ‘purchased’ in 1835 from the Yarra Yarra tribe. From its infancy the Port Phillip District had a maritime association, because all its first colonists and their stock came by sea from Van Dieman’s Land or New South Wales. This meant that in 1840 it became necessary to erect a lighthouse and a signal station on Point Gellibrand. The latter operated in conjunction with another station on the site of the present-day Flagstaff Gardens, adjacent to the centre of the city area of Melbourne, to relay the news of incoming ships. In 1852 the lighthouse was demolished and replaced by a timeball tower, the purpose being to regulate all marine chronographs in the harbour by the raising of a ball on a long pole at exactly 1.00 p.m. each day. The tower is still visible near the Dockyard car park.
Shipyards, pilots and shallow berthing were available on the Yarra from the earliest days of settlement, but the discovery of gold at Ballarat in 1851 soon proved them to be totally inadequate. A flood of hopeful gold seekers arrived in ships that frequently found the shallow river unnavigable so they had to be off-loaded in Williamstown for a journey by lighter or (later) rail up to Melbourne. The drastic need for a slipway in a deep-water port to service these vessels soon became apparent to the new Government of the Colony of Victoria, and the construction of this facility was begun in 1856 at Williamstown. This was the largest Government project to date, but it was steeped in controversy from its beginnings. Many felt it was inadequate, and that a graving dock would better serve the bigger ships entering Port Phillip Bay. However, the slipway was finished in 1858, and was so solidly constructed that when its few remaining timbers were removed in 1948 they were still sound and well-preserved after 90 years.
The slipway, which was powered by a 3 hp. steam engine, sloped 1 foot in 20 and could take craft of up to 200 tons deadweight. Total cost for this new acquisition for the Port of Melbourne was £58,000, with a larger bill being avoided by a piece of Government chicanery (’twas ever thus!). The barque Trafalgar put into Hobson’s Bay in 1857 en route to Launceston with a Morten Patent Slipway as part of the cargo. Captain Ferguson, the Harbour-master, arranged with the master of Trafalgar to unload the slipway, which was purchased and erected as the Government Patent Slipway. So was born a dockyard, but Williamstown, which is named after King William IV, had had shipping activity from as early as 1838 when Firefly began a regular ferry run between Melbourne and William’s Town. Brigantines, barques, warship and penal hulks were amongst the vessels which used the slip-way. Reference to penal hulks prompts the statement that no convict labour was ever used to establish what ultimately became Williamstown Naval Dockyard, even though many convicts were housed in 5 yellow penal hulks moored off Point Gellibrand. A notorious slipping was that of the Confederate raider Shenandoah in February, 1865.