- 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)
The details of this event are well-known, and space precludes their inclusion in this article.
Back to 1858, when debate continued long and loud over the need for a graving dock (dry dock), and the Legislative Assembly decided on 20th October to build one between ‘the Government Slipway and Point Gellibrand. Primarily they were motivated by the ever-increasing inadequacy of the slipway, arising from rapid advances in shipbuilding which created large, heavy vessels unable to be accommodated on it. After several false starts the £118,633 contract was let to John Irons and Co. in 1866. John Irons erected a large cofferdam to hold the sea back from his excavations. This earth, wood and concrete dam functioned from 1869 to 1872, when severe tides collapsed a 20-foot section that had unknowingly been laid over an old wreck.
Sea water entered the half-finished dry dock, setting work back for some time, as did an 1870 design change which added 50 feet to the length of the dock, but at last the work was finished in 1873, with the metal caisson emplaced the following year. The total cost of the project was £341,686.
Built from locally quarried basalt, the new dock was named the Alfred Graving Dock in honour of HRH Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, who was prevailed upon to lay the foundation stone on 4th January, 1868, whilst visiting the Colony as Commanding Officer of HMS Galatea. The first ship to use the new dock was HMVS Nelson, which of course has an interesting, if prosaic history of her own.
For the next 20 years, apart from the Victorian Navy, the major occupants of the graving dock were the legendary clipper ships on the Australian wool run. They needed a dry dock in Victoria, with engineering support, to prepare for their journeys, and the Alfred Graving Dock, at that time the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, was ideal. Other entrants into the dock in this period were steamers, pleasure yachts and Russian warships. Industrial disputes were not unknown in those days either, such as when carpenters refused to work on Melbourne Cup Day in 1882 – not even for double pay! Environmentalists were also known then (there is nothing new under the sun!), for the residents of Williamstown lobbied consistently against any more dry docks in the town, or additions to the existing dock. In the end, as is usually the case, it was not the wishes of the citizens but mundane economics which ensured that neither alternative was adopted. However, the support facilities were updated between 1895 and 1902, thus enabling the yard to cope with the heavy spate of marine accidents and disasters that occurred around those years. One of the more unusual endeavours was the several repair jobs undertaken on the circular lightship, formerly moored off Point Gellibrand, each time it parted its moorings and struck something. Another was the lengthening of SS Peregine by 46 feet.
An outline of the Alfred Graving Dock’s dimensions, together with its long association with the Victorian Navy, will show why it has been dubbed ‘the cradle of the Royal Australian Navy’. It is 476 feet long, 35 feet deep, at its widest 100 feet, with sea walls 10 feet thick and a maximum water depth of 27 feet. It can hold 6,000,000 gallons of water, 28-pound kingfish, seal cubs and, on one memorable occasion, 8- foot sharks. Its pumping plant consists of 2 submerged 4-ton centrifugal electric pumps with a combined capacity of 18,000 gallons per minute, which means they take about 5 hours to empty the dock. It can accommodate most craft up to the size of destroyers (the old cruiser HMAS Adelaide has been docked there) and is the RAN’s main destroyer yard. Most of the pre- Federation colonies maintained their own navies, of which the best equipped was that of Victoria. At its peak the Victorian Navy could boast 15 vessels, use of the Alfred Graving Dock and the nearby Naval Depot, as well as an irregular Naval Brigade which had served in the Boxer Rebellion in China. Because of these factors it was an attractive proposition to base the new RAN at Williamstown. Although this never eventuated because the land area was too small for a fleet base, the traditions of the fledgling Royal Australian Navy were established in the Victorian Navy at Williamstown, whilst the Naval Depot became HMAS Cerberus, the principal training base, and remained within the dockyard precincts until 1920. Also the first two ships of the young Service, HMA Ships Parramatta and Yarra, had their first home docking in 1910 in the Alfred Graving Dock.