Australia: Our national stories
By Dr Robert Lee of the University of Western Sydney
Australian Heritage Commission, 2003
Chapter 1: Australia and the Industrial Revolution in Transport and Communications
Overland Telegraph pole, Hayes Creek NT.
Photo: J McKinnon/Australian Heritage Photographic Library
The industrial revolution and the establishment of the first European settlement in Australia happened roughly at the same time. As steam power was first applied to the problems of pumping water from Northumberland mines, and waterpower to the looms and mills of Lancashire, the first loads of convicts were sent across the globe to what would become Sydney. Indeed, the voyage of the First Fleet between 1786 and 1788 itself was characterised by the rational use of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. The great problems of navigation had been solved, and its captains knew where they were going and how to harness the winds to get there. They also knew far more about maintaining the health of their crews and passengers at sea than had been the case even a couple of decades earlier. Scurvy was almost unknown on the first convict ships, and, in general, the human cargo of the First Fleet arrived in Sydney in better shape than it left England.
Within a decade of the establishment of the settlement at Sydney, it was starting to acquire the rudiments of a civil society and a free economy. It could not and did not long remain a vast gaol. These changes imposed on the new colony the necessity to develop its communication and transportation links and harness the latest technology for the production of wealth. These innovations were not long in coming. The first steam mill, for instance, began operation beside Darling Harbour in 1813, just a year after the first turnpike road in the colony (from Sydney to Parramatta) had been opened. So, although New South Wales was the most remote of Britain's colonies, and enjoyed the most unsavoury reputation because of its largely convict population, quite rapidly it became integrated into the global economic system, which Britain, of course, then dominated.
The first sizeable export industry of New South Wales was based on whale products but, after the crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813, the exploitation of the vast interior of the continent became possible, and a pastoral economy began to emerge. By 1850, Australia was one of the world's richest pastoral areas, and the wool its flocks produced enjoyed a reputation for being the best on the planet. This pastoral wealth demanded transport and communication facilities, but these could be rudimentary, since wool was very light in relation to its value, so could support the heavy costs of overland transport by bullock dray. Thus, at first transport could follow routes used for millennia by the country's indigenous inhabitants, who had always traded small and valuable goods by foot. Heavier hauls, though, would soon require different sorts of routes which were more heavily engineered, although trails blazed by Aborigines remained important as stock routes in the dry interior of the continent well into the twentieth century. Postal services, regular throughout the settled districts of the colony from as early as the 1820s, similarly required nothing more elaborate than saddle and packhorses to serve the widely distributed (but rather wealthy) population which owned and worked in the pastoral industry. Nonetheless, as society became more settled and the pastoral industry burgeoned, better transportation technology was needed to cope with the traffic on offer. The solution appeared to be the building of railways, which had been pioneered in Britain (after a lot of experimentation) in 1830 and were being built in boom proportions there in the mid-1840s.
Meanwhile, the other Australian colonies were established in various ways over the first four decades of the nineteenth century. The three eastern colonies which became Tasmania, Queensland and Victoria were all offshoots of New South Wales, although the means of their foundation were very different. Tasmania (then called Van Diemen's Land) and Queensland (at simply the Moreton Bay settlement) were both conceived as depot of housing the more recalcitrant convicts, whereas the Port Phillip district (as what became Victoria was first known) was the result of private initiative to exploit a potentially rich grazing district. South Australia and Western Australia were private English colonial settlements each with a specific social and moral purpose, rather on the model of the first idealistic British colonies in North America two centuries earlier. This pattern meant that by 1860 there were six separate colonies with long maritime links between them, each dominated by a capital city which was their largest port, and in most cases a large hinterland stretching far into the interior of the continent. The dispersed and diverse nature of British colonisation of the continent, combined with its enormous and often only marginally economically productive interior, has given Australia its unusual - indeed unique - political and economic geography. Coupled with the Australian colonies' remoteness from England, this created, in Geoffrey Blainey's memorable phrase, the 'tyranny of distance' which has so dominated the patterns of investment, development, social intercourse and political discourse throughout Australia's modern history.
Under these circumstances, its is not surprising that, well before railway construction had begun, in fact as early as 1830, steamships were used in New South Wales waters. As with the first steam mill, this was remarkably early in the history of this technology, and points to the generally technologically progressive quality of early colonial British society in Australia. Railway building began in Sydney in 1849. However, the first lines were not opened until 1854. These were in Victoria (from Melbourne to Port Melbourne) and in South Australia (from Goolwa to Port Elliot), while the first railway on which work had begun (the more ambitious project from Sydney to Parramatta) did not open until 1855. Simultaneously with the beginnings of Australia's railway age came the gold rushes of 1851in both New South Wales and the new colony of Victoria. With them, the origins of an enduring and stable European civilisation in Australia were laid. Sydney and - even more spectacularly - Melbourne suddenly became no longer mere settlements, but cities with facilities to rival those of similar places in the United States. The Australian colonies embraced the new technology of the times with enthusiasm. No sooner were they invented, than Australians were using such exciting innovations with daily applicability as electric telegraphs, telephones, cable and electric trams, and gas and electric light. The establishment of subsidised mail steamship services between England and the Australian colonies in the 1850s brought regular and affordable postal communications across the globe to all. Then in 1872 the Overland Telegraph and its onward submarine cable connections through Asia and Europe brought almost instant if very expensive communication between Australia and the rest of the world. Gold gave a huge psychological as well as financial boost to Australia, culminating in the boom of the 1880s, when the basic infrastructure of its modern cities and railways as we know them today was put in place.
The Depression of the 1890s ended the boom, most definitively in Melbourne, where the orgy of speculation had been the wildest, but itself spawned Federation and a growing idea of Australian nationality. In this context, the transportation patterns as they had developed over the previous half-century made little sense. Railways had been developed independently by each colony, with little regard for future connection. Three gauges were widely used, two of them practically identical in all technical respects, yet sufficiently different to be incompatible. Customs tariffs, differing rail gauges, and manipulated freight rates all aimed to keep trade within colonies rather than encourage its spread across their boundaries. Only coastal and riverine shipping has a more national outlook, since much shipping activity cut across colonial boundaries. The postal services too, although quite different in each colony, had a certain unity of purpose since they signed common contracts for carriage of mail to England and held a common vote in the International Postal Union.
Federation at the beginning of 1901 brought with it a national identity (of sorts, albeit retaining strong imperial overtones) and a national market, but transport policy remained very much the responsibility of the individual colonies, henceforth known as states. Indeed this has remained the situation for a century since, although in general the twentieth century was characterised by a growing role for the Commonwealth Government in transportation and communication issues. This applied partly to railways, since the Commonwealth built its own lines in South and Western Australia; and even more so to roads, some of which were funded by the Commonwealth from as early as the 1920s; and almost entirely to civil aviation, which was still only a theoretical possibility when the Commonwealth was created, but a practical reality soon after. However, the most immediate impact of the new Commonwealth was on communications, as the Constitution gave it control of postage and telegraphs. Thus, it immediately took over the operation of the colonial post offices together with their ancillary telegraph and telephone services, and, over the first decade of the twentieth century, welded these diverse colonial institutions into a single national body, the mighty Post Master General's Department.
In the twentieth century, technology changed just as rapidly as it had in the nineteenth, although perhaps not with quite the same impact. After all, when the great leap was made from muscle and wind to steam power, subsequent leaps were not nearly as impressive. The motor age dawned with the new century, but, although the car had a big impact on urban planning from as early as 1910, it was not part of the experience of everyday life for most Australians until after 1950. The transformation of cities and rural transport to adapt to the motor age really occurred between 1950 and 1970, the last decades covered by this survey. Similarly, the wireless broadcast, although it brought millions in instant touch with news and culture for the first time in the 1920s, was not such a shock since people had been accustomed to instant communication over long distances by telegraph for more than half a century.
During the twentieth century new transport technologies came into being while the old technologies were refined and developed. Often, older technologies reached their apogee just as they were being displaced. Thus, Australia's finest interstate ships were built in the 1920s and 1930s, when railways (and even air travel) were taking much of their traffic. Forty years later, the best long-distance sleeping car trains were built in the 1960s, just as the jet age, which would see them wither within two decades, was dawning. Some forms of transport would disappear altogether, notably road transport by horse and bullock, while others were transformed. Sea and rail transport of freight became more specialised, concentrating on bulk shipments, while road transport took over the vast number of smaller transport tasks. This development changed the appearance of the country's ports and railway stations, as once-busy centres handling thousands of small shipments gradually disappeared.
The creation of Australia's transport and communications infrastructure was uneven and fitful, concentrated in certain parts of the continent, hardly present in others. This paper outlines the growth of that total system across the entire continent, concentrating on the most significant and notable developments. Much of the transport infrastructure developed over the two centuries or so of European occupation remains intact and is valued for its heritage. There are some surprising survivals, such as lengths of convict-built road almost intact and unmodernised dating from around 1830. There are equally surprising disappearances, notably of almost all traces of the Sydney tramway system, once Australia's largest and one of the largest (and certainly the most remarkable) such system in the world.
The uneven spread of infrastructure development is unsurprising, but the extent of the concentration of significant sites is perhaps more surprising. Indeed, it is probably as true today as it was in 1830 that Australia's most significant concentration of important transport and communication sites could be found within a five-kilometre radius from the Sydney General Post Office. In this area there is the GPO itself, the largest colonial post office building in the country (although not the oldest colonial GPO - that is in Melbourne); the AWA Tower, far and away the most imposing survival of Australia's early radio days; the country's first two underground railway stations at Museum and St James, both in magnificently original states of preservation (down to the original tile advertisements of 1926) and intensive daily use; the country's largest and finest railway terminal; the country's largest and most intact nineteenth-century railway workshops; the first two electrically powered swing bridges in the world (which are also two of the world's most remarkable timber truss bridges) at Pyrmont and Glebe Island; both the country's first and its largest dry docks (Mort's and Captain Cook); its best surviving finger wharves from the pre-container age (at Walsh Bay and Woolloomooloo); and, of course, in a class all its own, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, easily Australia's most significant transportation historical site. Travel a little out of the centre of Sydney, and there is a wealth of convict-built roads and bridges, notably the Great North Road (in original condition and closed to traffic) and the roads and bridges on the eastern and western escarpments of the Blue Mountains; the Great Zig Zag on the first rail route into the interior; and Australia's first mechanised export port facilities built by E. O. Moriarty at Newcastle.
No other part of Australia matches or even approaches the wealth of significant transportation and communication historical sites found in and around Sydney. In rural Australia, the densest concentration of sites is in central Victoria. Relative to its size, there is probably nowhere more important than Echuca on the Murray, Australia's first inland rail terminus (in 1864) and cynosure of the inland shipping trade for eighty years. Ballarat and Bendigo are also very rich in historic transport infrastructure, and Melbourne too has significant transport and communications sites, although these tend to have been much rebuilt. However, Melbourne's General Post Office, while not as imposing as Sydney's is older and also is in far more original condition. All Australian states have places of genuinely national significance. Tasmania in particular has a wealth of early convict-built road sites and fascinating rail sites from its mineral boom at the very end of the nineteenth century. Queensland was a world pioneer (after Norway) of the long-distance narrow-gauge railway and has two of the most remarkable narrow-gauge mountain railways anywhere (Helidon to Toowoomba and Cairns to Kuranda). Its outback was also the cradle of Australia's civil aviation industry. South Australia's early transport infrastructure was incredibly ambitious given its small size, and was technically highly diverse, including horse tramways, steam railways and the extraordinary overland telegraph line of 1872. Western Australia has some very long timber jetties, the heaviest haul railways in the world (built at the very end of the period of this study around 1970), and contains the longest and most arduous (if one of the least used) stock routes in the country.
In a country of distances like Australia, transportation and communication linkages have been crucial. They have dominated much of political discourse and led to the rise and fall of governments. Politicians have always prized transport portfolios for the access to patronage and policy development they bring. The careers of former Victorian Minister for Railways Robert Gordon Menzies and former New South Wales train driver Ben Chifley have demonstrated that an intimate knowledge of transportation issues can take national politicians right to the top. This was partly because in Australia almost all significant transportation infrastructure - and many transport operations as well - have been the creation of governments, built for reasons of public utility and amenity at best, or pork-barrelling venality at worst.
There are exceptions, mostly in shipping and aviation, but the history of transportation and communication in Australia has been above all the history of government enterprises. Most of these have been controlled by state governments, although municipalities have been significant, especially in the provision of urban public transport (above all tram services) and in building roads and road bridges of local significance. The most important corporate private initiatives have been in the shipping and civil aviation industries, but even these have only thrived because of the government investment in port and airport facilities, and government subsidies disguised as postal contracts. Nearly every important railway was built and operated by a government, although there was significant corporate involvement in railways closely associated with mining. Shipping has been the industry where operations have been most consistently in private hands. Road freight transport has been overwhelmingly in private hands, although has operated on roads provided at extremely modest charges by government (and continues to do so). Because road freight transport operated on roads provided almost free by the government, whereas railways were burdened with the interest charges on their infrastructure as well as its continued maintenance, state governments protected their investment in railways by regulating road freight, until this became technically and politically untenable around 1970. Bus transport has been mostly government or municipal within cities, and private in rural areas or over long distances. It is always easy, however, to find exceptions to these generalisations.
Early airlines were entirely in private hands, until the period of most dramatic growth in civil aviation between 1946 and 1990, when the largest airlines were government-owned. On the whole, though, the early private airlines survived and thrived for one reason alone - their lucrative postal contracts which in effect were government subsidies. Guinea Airways, operating in the unique situation of a colony with no roads, was the major exception. All major airports, of course, were owned by the Commonwealth. Beside these government and corporate enterprises was the small private initiative of the thousands of largely anonymous bullockies, cab drivers, drovers, and bus and truck operators, whose fragile businesses have left little tangible heritage other than memories, a place in the statistics, and the continued existence of the facilities they used.
This paper attempts to bring together the story of these various types of enterprises, and analyse how transport and communication have developed in Australia to solve all too human problems - those of moving people and goods around and maintaining contact - in the context of an expanding social and economic life. Mobility is an important theme in Australian history, and Australians in the cities as much as in the bush have prized their mobility and the means they use to attain it. These have been very diverse, from the saddle horse to the motorcar; from the cheap and frequent tram at the corner to the weekly paddle steamer clunking by the river gums; from the early intercolonial express steamship and train services (both of surprising speed and comfort) to the relative freedom of the skies offered by modern jet aircraft services. Transport of goods and people, and communication between widely dispersed individuals and institutions are essential to the division of labour on which a modern economy is based, and this paper explores that central reality of the human experience in modern Australia.