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South Australian shipping lines: Mail steamers and beach boats

Mail steamer service

Adelaide was a sixty day plus long voyage from the United Kingdom; the eastern colonies of Victoria and New South Wales were an even longer journey. When steam power was developed and applied to ships, businessmen agitated for faster links with England: but the new technology was not yet ready for the long voyage, and coaling stations at strategic locations along the route would be required as well. The gold rushes in Victoria and New South Wales stimulated the provision of speedier services, but these were still provided by sailing ships, although the leaner, faster 'clipper' ships.

The Admiralty invited tenders for a mail service to Australia in 1851 and several companies bid and tested the route, but had misjudged the costs: the outbreak of the Crimean War saved them, as they withdrew their ships from the Australian run, offering them as troop transports instead.

Again the Admiralty called for tenders; again, the successful tenderer, the European & Australian Royal Mail Steam Packet Company had under-estimated the costs of the service, failed to maintain the contract and collapsed. P&O won the next tender operating the Australian service as a branch of its India-Far East service: once again a Shipping Company had miscalculated the costs of the service, and re-negotiated the contract, with a service that bypassed Adelaide. Despite this, Adelaide still received its mail quicker as the government arranged for a small steamer to rendezvous with P&O in King George Sound.

Beach boats

Late in 1873, via the newly opened Suez Canal, the P&O mail steamers again began calling at Port Adelaide. In fact they anchored in Holdfast Bay, and mail and passengers were landed in 'beach boats' - small steam launches operated by individuals at first, but later these would combine to form small companies which provided a range of services, besides attending to the mail steamers.  P&O anchored off Glenelg from 1874 to 1888, but later moved to Largs. In 1878 Orient Steam Navigation Company was formed and operated a route to Australia via the Cape of Good Hope; in 1883 they began using the Suez Canal.  With two steamship companies operating on the Australia run a freight war began which resulted in more freight being sent by steamship instead of by sailing ship.

Improvements in steam technology and its application enabled the construction of larger, faster ships, of which Orient Line's Orient was a good example. She arrived in Holdfast Bay in 1880 after a voyage of just over 37 days; at about 5000 tons she was some five times larger than the first P&O steamers of the early 1850s. Eventually Orient Line would share the mail contract with P&O, and the rivalry between the two companies benefited Australia, and South Australians, with faster mail services, more passenger and cargo services more often, and more regularly and with lower freight rates.

The Orient Line used Largs as its anchorage, and eventually the Marine Board upgraded the navigation lights at Largs in 1888 and the lights at Glenelg were stopped: '...Two red leading lights - one on the flagstaff at the shore end of Semaphore Jetty, the other on the time-ball tower. These two lights are so arrayed that they do not show south of the bell buoy on Wonga shoal, consequently as soon as they are visible ships of suitable draught may safely steer for any part of the anchorage. By keeping the lights in line vessels are led through the deepest water up to the ocean steamer's mooring buoy...' (Marine Board Report for 1888 page 7, South Australian Parliamentary Paper 43 of 1889).

Finally in January 1908 the new Outer Harbor facilities were opened and the mail liners ceased anchoring offshore at Largs, and the mail and passengers were able to go directly ashore from the ships.

Meanwhile with the mail steamers anchored offshore at Glenelg and Largs, 'beach boats' were employed to ferry passengers to and from the jetties. The mail and any official passengers were ferried in the government steam tender.  Richard Jagoe, an Adelaide shipping reporter was quick to see an opportunity, and in 1874 imported a steam launch, Derwent to provide a service to the ships. Others were quick to follow suit. George Anderson and partners operated Fairy a locally built craft, and quickly added a second. Two years later William Wells began operations: these men quickly combined services and two companies emerged - the South Australian Steam Shipping Co. Ltd.  By June 1883 these two companies had merged to become Adelaide Steam Launch Company Ltd. This was able to do other work between servicing the mail boats, including some towage work and excursions. Eventually the Adelaide Steam Launch Company would merge with the Steam Tug Company in December 1886, which would continue to provide the 'beach boat' service until Outer Harbor opened.

Further reading

Parsons, Ron Southern passages: a maritime history of South Australia Netley, Wakefield Press, 1986.

Ethel delivers the mail
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