Journey's End: the Port Phillip Heads
The treacherous heads of Port Phillip Bay marked the end of very long journeys for emigrants arriving by ship. Over 200 shipwrecks lie in watery graves in the Port.
Maps Librarian Judy Scurfield helps us reimagine the perilous entry into the bay, with the help of early navigation maps held at the State Library of Victoria.
My name's Judy Scurfield, and I'm the maps librarian here at the State Library of Victoria. I'd like you to try and imagine yourself on board a sailing ship in the 19th century, approaching the entrance to Port Phillip Bay, a particularly dangerous harbor entrance, being very narrow, only 2.5 kilometers across, fringed with rocky reefs and turbulent because of the bay tides meeting the ocean swells of Bass Straight. If you were the captain, you would have needed an accurate chart showing you the sea depths, the coastline, and its hazards, but also, the navigational aids, such as light houses and beacons which would help to guide you into port.
You would have also needed a book of sailing directions, called "Notices to Mariners," which would describe these conditions, and which were issued by the British admiralty, and later, by Australian authorities. The State Library has a large collection of these sailing directions. But even more importantly, it has a large collection of the nautical charts. One of the earliest accurate chats of the bay was this one, drawn by Matthew Flinders during his voyage in 1802, 1803, and published in his "Voyage Terra Australis" in 1814.
Flinders was not actually the first person to sail into the bay. John Murray had beaten him by about 10 weeks in 1802. But Flinders wrote about his experience and described it like this. I find it very difficult to speak in general terms of Port Phillip. On the one hand, it is capable of receiving and sheltering a larger fleet of ships that never yet went to sea, whilst on the other, the entrance in its whole width is scarcely two miles and nearly half of it is occupied by the rocks lying off point in a pin and by shoals on the opposite side.
The depth in the remaining part varies from 6 to 12 fathoms, and this irregularity causes the strong tides, especially when running against the wind, to make breakers in which small vessels should be careful of engaging themselves. By the 1870s, this entrance to Port Phillip Bay had been rather more accurately surveyed, and navigational aids, such as the beacons, the first lighthouses, at Point Lonsdale and at Queenscliff, and flags indicating the tidal changes were in place. Here, it says, Tidal Flag.
A pilot service has been established as early as the 1840s, using experienced sailors to guide vessels in through the heads. However, this did not prevent some cereal shipwrecks, including those of pilot vessels. One, called The Rip, after the treacherous stretch of water-- this is actually known as The Rip, was caught in stormy conditions in 1873, near Corsair Rock, with the loss of the pilot and three crew members. The "Illustrated Australian News," at the 12th of August, 1873, has a graphic illustration of the disaster which befell the pilot boat, Rip, and described it thus.
Mar, one of the sea men, was at once, swept away overboard. He clung to the main mast, which was carried away by the same sea which swept him out of the schooner. And when he saw that the wreck hampered the vessel, he motioned to his mates to cut the mass adrift. His comrades bed him goodbye, and he nodded his farewell, and was seen no more. The bravery of one of the crew members inspired the theatrical entrepreneur, George Coppin, to form the Victorian Humane Society in 1874. George Coppin's name is also associated with the Sorrento Back Beach area, which he helped to develop in the 1870's.
This part of Point Nepean was also used as the quarantine station for ships which may have had people with infectious diseases on board, and later, fortifications at Point Nepean itself, remains of which can still be seen today, as part of the Point Nepean National Park. What can also be seen under the water are the remains of several of the ships which were wrecked near the heads. There were possibly as many as 200 of these all together, which provide interesting dive sites. These include vessels, such as the Cheviot, which ran aground on Cheviot Bay, in 1887.
Many of these wrecks themselves pose shipping hazards, and have had to be blasted away, as has much rock, and sand to keep the shipping channels clear for the larger and larger vessels, which are entering Port Phillip Bay. These channels are far from being direct routes between the heads in Melbourne or Geelong, and ships must negotiate very carefully the channels between sand banks and mud islands, which may have as little as one meter of water over them at low tide. They have to plot their courses between Pope's Eye, South Channel Fort, South Channel pi-light, and the Hovel pi-light before turning north, opposite McCrae Lighthouse, and making their way up the bay, towards Melbourne.
We can see the depths marked in the sea, the old church, such as we've been looking at. They're in fathoms, a fathom being about 1.8 meters, and later on, on charts such as this, in meters. Today, most large vessels have on board satellite navigation systems, and their charts will be viewed on a computer screen. These are the successes to a very long tradition of charting the seas to enable safer navigation of difficult sea patches, such as the Port Phillip heads.
Entrance to Port Phillip: map
Port Phillip Heads. Ebb Tide. Clipper Ship Lightning & Pilot vessel.
Postcards of Port Phillip Heads
Sandridge Pier on Sunday afternoon
Sketch on Sandridge Pier
Defences of Port Phillip
Queens Wharf painting
Railway Pier, Sandridge
The Flying Squadron - Naval Review in Port Phillip Bay
Sandridge From Hobson's Bay
Shortland Bluff and lighthouse, Queenscliff Vic.
Melbourne. Port Melbourne Railway Pier.
A day on the sands, Queenscliffe
The Disaster to the pilot schooner "Rip."
Views of the South Coast of Terra Australis : Plate XVII
Detail of Plate vi featuring inset of Port Phillip Bay
John Bowman Diary
Mark Nicholson diaries
Story education resources
Education Museum Victoria: Station Pier
These resources focus on the history of immigration to Australia, and the role of Melbourne’s Station Pier as the arrival point for many of Victoria’s migrants. They relate to the Station Pier: gateway to a new life exhibition at the Immigration Museum. The kit consists of excursion resources and additional resources. These activities support the VELS standards. They are designed for years 5-7 and 7-8.