Since European settlement in the 1830s, shipping has provided a vital lifeline for Melbourne and for the wider Victorian economy. Geographically isolated from the world's major markets, and especially from those of Great Britain and Europe, which dominated the city's trade for over a century, Melbourne's development has been peculiarly dependent on overseas shipping.
Melbourne became a major overseas and coastal port following the discovery of Victorian goldfields in the early 1850s. During the late 19th and 20th centuries, the Port of Melbourne has handled general rather than bulk cargoes, and import rather than export cargoes. The adoption of containerisation has strengthened the port's competitive position; handling over a million containers a year, Melbourne is today Australia's leading container port.
From its inception in 1835, Melbourne depended on overseas and coastal shipping to provide the immigrants and imports essential for economic growth. During the years 1835-51 relatively small and slow vessels provided irregular voyages to and from the United Kingdom, the duration of emigrant voyages being gradually reduced from an average of 134 days in 1839 to 119 days by 1850. Before 1849 the British Navigation Acts determined which vessels could serve the Australian trade: passengers and cargo from British ports had to sail in vessels built in a shipyard in the British Empire, owned by a British citizen and manned by British crews. Similarly, Australian exports had to be shipped in British ships, and Australian coastal shipping was monopolised by the British. The number of vessels coming to Australia was linked above all to the level of immigration (convict and free), the Wakefield system of colonisation and the growing number of immigrants receiving assisted passages, encouraging ship-owners to enter the trade.
Coastal shipping services were primitive in the pre-gold rush era, being confined to rather irregular voyages between Melbourne and Sydney, as well as between Melbourne and Portland and pioneering voyages between Melbourne and Port Albert. News of the Victorian gold discoveries reached London late in 1851, creating an immediate demand for swift passages. No fewer than 86 000 people left the United Kingdom for Australia in 1852. Journey's end for most ships in the 1850s was Melbourne, which quickly became Australia's busiest port. The 2000-ton ships employed dwarfed those that had sailed to Melbourne before the gold rush. Ships of this size, being unable to sail up the Yarra River, had to lie at anchor in Hobsons Bay.
Abolition of the Navigation Acts in 1849 opened the trade to foreign-built vessels, and speedy, American-built clipper ships frequently visited Melbourne in the 1850s. Given favourable winds, clippers could make extraordinarily fast passages: the Marco Polo made the passage from Liverpool to Melbourne in 74 days in 1852, while the James Baines recorded 63 days in 1854, and the Thermopylae took only 60 days en route from Gravesend to Melbourne in 1868-69. The gold rushes increased the tempo of Australian coastal shipping, with four steamers and eleven sailing vessels being engaged on the Melbourne-Sydney run in mid1852, while the coastal trade of Victorian ports such as Portland and Port Albert also expanded.
While the large (3500-ton) steamship Great Britain was employed on the Australian run as early as 1852, steam took longer to replace sail in trade to and from Australia than it did in the transatlantic trade. The primitive steamships of the 1850s and 1860s were at a disadvantage in the long-haul Australian trade. Sailing ships were cheaper to construct and cheaper to operate than steamships, none of their cargo space being occupied by engine room or coal bunkers.
Substantial improvements in steamship technology in the period from the 1860s to the 1880s - including the adoption of the compound or dual-expansion engine, and the later introduction of the triple-expansion engine and geared steam turbine - enabled steamships to overcome a crippling disadvantage on the Australian route: the lack of coaling ports on the long voyage across the Indian Ocean. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 also favoured steam at the expense of sail. Steamships started to appear in the Melbourne-Europe trade in the late 1860s and became firmly established during the 1870s. However, the competitive advantages of improvements in steamship technology were partly negated by parallel improvements in sailing-ship design, especially the development of composite-built (iron frames and timber planking) and iron-hulled sailing ships. In the depressed conditions of the 1870s, iron-hulled sailing vessels proved highly competitive carriers of Australian wheat and wool exports.
However, by the late 1870s steam was rapidly replacing sail. Almost two-thirds of vessels entering Melbourne in 1880 were steam-powered, and steamships accounted for over 85% of the tonnage entering Melbourne in 1910. By 1914 a few remaining sailing vessels desperately searched for cargoes of wheat, coal and nitrates. The conventional steam-powered (from the 1920s increasingly marine diesel-powered) cargo liner dominated Melbourne's overseas shipping routes from 1900 until the advent of container ships in the late 1960s.
Mail contracts played an important role in the development of early steam passenger-shipping services to Australia. Following a period in which mail to and from the Australian colonies was carried by sailing ships, the British Admiralty awarded P&O the contract to operate a mail service every two months from Singapore to Sydney.
By the late 19th century the steam-driven passenger liner, offering reliable, speedy and comfortable travel, had replaced sail. In 1913 six shipping lines (Aberdeen, Blue Funnel, Orient, P&O, P&O Branch and White Star) offered steam passenger services to Melbourne, with P&O's 'M'-class liners (at 9000 tons) competing with the Orient Line's Orsova (12 000 tons) and Orontes (9000 tons) and the Blue Funnel Line's Aeneas, Ascanius and Anchises (10 000 tons).
Larger and more luxurious passenger liners were employed in the Australian trade in the interwar years. The Orient Line ordered five 20 000-ton sister ships, including the Oronsay and Otranto, in the early 1920s, while P&O introduced its 15 000-ton 'C'-class vessels (Cathay, Chitral) in 1925. A similar post-World War II re-equipment program led to the introduction of vessels such as P&O's Himalaya (27 955 tons), Arcadia and Iberia (29 000 tons). Expansion of the assisted-migration program in the 1940s and 1950s offered opportunities for European shipping lines such as Sitmar, Cogedar and Chandris, typically employing secondhand ships, to enter the Australian trade. As a result of the growth in trade and passenger numbers, the average size of vessels trading overseas and calling at Melbourne increased from 1500 tons in 1900 to 4250 tons in 1920, 7980 tons in 1930, 8960 tons in 1950 and 10 000 tons in 1970.
The late 1960s introduction of large jet aircraft, such as the Boeing 747, caused a marked decline in the demand for sea passages to and from Australia and the withdrawal of passenger liners from the trade. For example, the Orient Line withdrew the Orcades (1972), Orsova (1973) and Oronsay (1975). By the late 1970s the Oriana was the only Orient Line vessel to offer a scheduled voyage to Australia. However, growth in the market for shipping cruises in the 1990s saw the return of passenger ships to Melbourne's Station Pier.
Containerisation, pioneered in the Europe-Australia and Japan-Australia trades in the late 1960s and early 1970s and now the dominant method of handling general cargo, reinforced Melbourne's status as Australia's premier general cargo port. The high capital and operating costs of container vessels, coupled with the intensity of competition in container-shipping markets, has encouraged ship-owners to reduce port calls. Whereas conventional cargo liners employed in overseas trades typically called at six or more ports along the Australian coast, container ships call at only two or three ports. Melbourne now acts as a hub for South Australian and Tasmanian cargoes, which are carried to and from Victoria by coastal shipping, road or rail transport. Hub-port status, coupled with growth of trade arising from the internationalisation of the Australian economy, has led to the relatively rapid growth in the number of containers handled by the Port of Melbourne. In 1997-98 Melbourne handled over one million containers a year for the first time.