State Library of South Australia

Ruminations about communications: Australia’s experiences

Date: 14 December 2015

England's Colonisation Commissioners were successful project managers. Their settlement of South Australia had many logistical challenges, especially the slow communication between the colony and London.

Unloading Mail at Outer Harbour South Australia PRG 280 1 12 264
Unloading Mail at Outer Harbour, South Australia (PRG 280/1/12/264)

Sea mail and cargo

For example, one ship carrying single female servants, carefully selected by the British Emigration Agents, departed from England. Simultaneously a letter in Adelaide, sent by an official, stated there was no current need for female servants. This instruction required about six months to halt the influx, until fast sailing clippers brought their more efficient form of communication. Then perhaps four months would suffice.

The Torrens held the speed record of 64 days for a clipper from England to South Australia. Its voyages were mentioned in Joseph Conrad's novel Chance. He wrote it while serving as its First Mate (1891-1893). Conrad's last voyage included the passenger John Galsworthy, another novelist. Galsworthy's famous literary character Soames Forsythe, resembled earlier businessmen who invested in the South Australia Company, without coming here.

Sea mail was indeed 'snail mail' and the advent of steam ships, embraced by businessmen, improved the pace just a tad, by contemporary standards. However, there remained some insurmountable obstacles such as this:

The India arrived at Albany at 6.15 this morning flying the yellow flag. Mr. Newbiggin, a first-class passenger, who booked at Colombo and is bound for Sydney, has smallpox. He was isolated as soon as the disease was discovered and has been removed to the quarantine quarters. The mails for West Australia were sent to the quarantine station for fumigation. (Chronicle 3.3.1900, p. 11)

In the late Victorian era mail steamers played a major role in the Australian way of life. They provided structured schedules of mail delivery throughout world ports, in particular the ports of the British Empire. Smaller inter-coastal steamers circumnavigated Australia, barring such irrelevant corners as the Gulf of Carpentaria. While ships brought contagious diseases and other problems to ports, they also carried fresh supplies and news.

Victor Harbor was briefly proposed as a port for mail steamers. The concert for the opening of nearby Middleton Institute 1899 featured a ditty (Reminiscences and History of Port Elliot and Middleton. Padman, V.R. p. 6) which included the hopeful lines:

Hoorah! Hoorah!
We'll sound the jubilee.
We'll shout the jolly chorus
From Strathalbyn to the sea
When they land the mails at
Victor Harbor.

The proposal, like the song, soon disappeared.

The ports of Western Australia were not as refined as Victor Harbor. The already competitive captains of Royal Mail Steamers hurried in and out of Western Australia, to avoid potential stowaways. Ex-convicts and escaped prisoners frequently availed themselves of such opportunities to reach the Eastern states. Isolated Western Australia had been a very different colony from South Australia. For example they imported much of their food while our early devotion to agriculture began SA's specialist food culture.

The negative affect on citizens of the practices of steamship captains was expressed in a letter from Geraldton to the West Australian newspaper (12.12.1879), signed by 'A Sufferer': a mail carrier it is most uncertain; as a freight carrier it has proved a positive loss to the exporters.....As a passenger packet the Rob Roy is most uncertain and inconvenient, as the date of departure is seldom known until after her arrival, when only a few hour's notice is given....The cargo was landed during the night, and as many of the sheep as could be thrown on board were taken, but in the midst of shipping them the cry of 'time's up', 'cast off' arose and the remainder of the sheep were left upon the jetty.

RMS ORUBA berthed at Outer Harbour PRG 280 1 1 469
RMS ORUBA berthed at Outer Harbour (PRG 280/1/1/469)

On 16 January 1908 at Adelaide's Outer Harbour the RMS Oruba docked at a new wharf with great local celebration. It was laborious to unload the mail bags onto a train for the final leg of the journey to Adelaide. The letters, newspapers, parcels and magazines were months old but still avidly perused by their lucky recipients.

Story by Rose Wilson

Back to extra - Summer 2015 - the stories

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