- 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)
In 1911 the Victorian Government, desiring to be part of an expected boom in local naval shipbuilding, established the Victorian State Dockyard, which incorporated the Alfred Graving Dock, the Patent Slipway, and an area known as ‘the Hill’, and on this hill two new building berths were created. Although the area is now used as a carpark, those berths were then a vital part of the yard and enabled the demolition of the now obsolete slipway when they were completed in 1913. The premiere effort of the new shipyard was a suction dredge, W.H. Edgar, for the Gippsland Lakes. Up till then all work, however complicated and skilled, had been totally refit and repairs.
Williamstown Naval Dockyard has had connections with Antarctic exploration going back to 1912, when the steamer Aurora, on its way to the Southern Continent, was brought into the graving dock for a refit. Sir Douglas Mawson fitted out his ship, Discovery, on his outward journey in 1930 and on his return in 1931. HMAS Wyatt Earp was damaged by the extremes of sub-Antarctic weather off Heard Island, and she entered the dock for repairs in 1948. Following a second trip to Antarctica she returned to the yard in the same year, where she was laid up until her disposal four years later. LST 3501 (later HMAS Labuan) replaced Wyatt Earp, and was also refitted at Williamstown in 1948 after her first trip to the ice. She made three more trips in 1948, 1949 and 1950, each trip beginning and ending at Williamstown Naval Dockyard. The French Antarctic Research Ship, Commandant Charcot, refitted at the yard in 1949 and 1977 saw the dockyard’s final contact with Polar exploration. In that year, Thala Dan, a supply ship chartered by Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE) was holed and rushed back to Williamstown for emergency repairs. With the transfer of ANARE headquarters to Hobart a colorful era came to an end.
Industrial unrest was rife in the Victorian State Dockyard in 1914, a state of affairs that was not magically calmed by the outbreak of World War I. The German merchant ship Pfalz was turned back at the Heads with a prize crew from the Naval Depot, but the main role in the war years was the prosaic task of converting freighters into troop transports. Shift work was introduced to keep up production, but this became unpopular with those who couldn’t get it, as did overtime with Melbourne’s many unemployed tradesmen. These issues and others led to many stoppages, so that a civilian General Manager was appointed in an attempt to solve the problem. It is not recorded in what manner the yard was managed prior to this, but from the above comment it would appear that it was under the control of Naval officers – whether RN or RAN is also not clear. The troubles besetting the yard were beyond the capabilities of one man to solve, so the yard was sold to the Commonwealth in 1918. The aim was to restore productivity and so more successfully prosecute Australia’s considerable war effort. The first evidence of this new resolve was the decision to build six new freighters, but hostilities had ceased before the first was launched in 1919.
By 1921 it was increasingly clear that the grand days of shipbuilding were being ended by world conditions and high local costs, so the yard diversified into outside work. Pipes were constructed for soldier settlements and boiler-making performed for a Broken Hill firm, thus commencing the yard’s long tradition of providing specialised support for outside industry when work schedules permit.
However, this diversification still did not make the yard a viable proposition, and the Commonwealth sold it back to Victoria in 1924. As the property of the Melbourne Harbor Trust, the yard was now engaged in the construction of dredges and barges and the refitting of all manner of Harbour Trust craft. Naval vessels continued to use the Alfred Graving Dock when required, but the emphasis was mainly civilian in the years between the World Wars. As a consequence of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1924, Australia agreed to limit its naval forces, and three ‘J’ class submarines were sent to be broken up at Dockyard Pier, where one sank and required many months salvage.