Vault #3: Shipping and Trade

Shipping played a vital role in the economy and scale of the Victorian gold rushes, by transporting a vast number of gold-seeking immigrants and trade goods to the colony and carrying Victoria's precious metal to the European banks.

Very fast clipper ships evolved to meet a growing demand for faster travel. Magnificent sailing vessels like the famous Marco Polo of the Black Ball Line or the Phoenician of the White Star Line, competed to make the journey from England to Melbourne in under two and a half months. For the first time, travellers could personally attend to business in Australia and in Europe within six months.

Clipper Ships

Before the gold rush, transport between Britain and Australia was limited to slow, small, cramped and filthy ships. But with the gold rush, the "colonial trade" became an important trading route, along with the trade with California and its gold strike in 1849. The gold rushes in Australia and California and the increased trade, stimulated the need for fast travel with an acceptable standard of accommodation. The clipper ships ('to sail at a fast clip') were built to satisfy this demand, and for several years dominated the transport routes. Wealthy travellers and businessmen were able to travel in comfort and undertake business on both sides of the world in six months. There was great competition between the shipping lines, and clipper captains were given financial incentives to shorten their voyages.

To reach Australia, the clippers would sail down the coast of South Africa, and at about 51° latitude in the Southern Ocean, would turn east and head for Australia making use of the powerful Westerlies. This was known as the 'great circle route'.

Many of the ships that sailed to Australia were based in Liverpool, with enterprising firms such as Black Ball Line, White Star Line, Fox Line, Golden Line and Red Cross Line competing for custom.

The Great Circle Route

In the days before the fast clipper ships, vessels followed the route laid down by the British Admiralty. This was to sail south keeping as eastward as possible to avoid the dreaded currents of Cape San Roque in Brazil, and then round the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. In the Indian Ocean, ships needed to keep well north of the strong winds of the southern latitudes. In these times a voyage of 120 days was considered very good going. With the faster clipper ships, the currents of Cape San Roque were less of an issue, and the idea was developed to sail further south into the higher latitudes and use the strong winds circling the Antarctic. The first ship to do this was the Constance under Captain Godfrey which sailed to Australia in 77 days, causing a huge sensation in the shipping world. This feat was subsequently beaten by the Marco Polo -- "the fastest ship in the world".

A wind expert of the times called Maury, describes the preferable route:

"Australian-bound vessels are advised after crossing the equator near the meridian of 30o W ... to run down through the S.E. trades, with topmast studding sails set, if they have sea room... and soon, shaping their course, after they get the winds steadily from the westward ... until they cross the meridian of 20o East, in about latitude 450, reaching 550 South, if at all, in about 40o East. Thence the best course -- if ice etc will allow -- is onward still to the southward of east, not caring to get to the northward again of your greatest southern latitude, before reaching 90o East. The highest latitudes should be reached between the meridians of 50o and 80o East. The course is then north of east, gradually hauling up more and more to the north as you approach Van Dieman's Land. The highest degree of south latitude, which it may be prudent to touch, depending on the season of the year and the winds, the state of the ship, and the well-being of the passengers and crew."