The Wharf

The vast majority of people in Port Phillip during Judge Willis’ time arrived there by boat.  It was possible to travel overland, but at this stage it was easier and quicker to come by boat.  Steamships plied between Melbourne and Geelong, Queenscliff and Williamstown,  and the shipping columns of the newspapers record the to-ing and fro-ing between Launceston, Hobart, Corner Inlet, Western Port, Portland Bay, Port Fairy and Sydney as well as London.

An underwater bar at the mouth of the Yarra prevented large ships from sailing up to the centre of settlement eight miles away.  Ships had to anchor in Hobsons Bay and goods and passengers came ashore at Port Melbourne.  But how then to get from Port Melbourne to Melbourne itself?  You could transfer onto a lighter or steamship to take you up the Yarra (at an exorbitant price), or you could take a carriage from the enterprising Mr Liardet’s hotel.  No wonder the Sandridge line was first significant railway in Australia, opened by the Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay Railway Company in 1853 at the height of the gold rush. But during Judge Willis’ time the wharf on the Yarra was a bustling spot.

Coles Wharf was constructed between William and Queen Street by George Ward Cole (who later married into the McCrae family)in 1841 along the banks of the Yarra by building on sunken ships’ hulls ( . At the time, the Yarra was bisected by falls roughly at the bottom of Queen Street. Above the Falls was fresh water- crucial to the small village, and below the Falls was saltwater. The maintenance of the falls to separate freshwater from saltwater was of vital importance initially, even though the presence of this chain of rocks across the river prevented ships from traveling further upstream. Much time and attention was to maintaining the Falls but by 1880 they were finally removed as part of river engineering works.

Here’s a description of Coles Wharf from The Times 22nd August 1853 that is perhaps a little less glowing than Liardet’s picture above.

There are two landing-places, and the steamers stop at the worst, called Cole’s Wharf. An enormous amount of traffic has certainly been thrown suddenly upon this spot; but, considering the revenue derived from it by the proprietors, something might have been done to redeem it from being, as it is, a disgrace and scandal to the city. Goods are tumbled on to the bank, and the drays back up to them to be loaded through pools of black mud, in which they stand nearly axle-deep. Boxes, cases, and bags (no matter what their contents) may roll into the slush, and stay there soaking till called for. Expensive as horseflesh is, half the power of the animals is wasted in getting out of these pits and the deep ruts of the roadway, which a few loads of stones would fill and level. There is no shed to protect goods liable to be damaged by rain. Reckless indifference to everything but collecting the enormously high freights up the river, and the still higher rate of carriage to the city, seems to be the rule. Combined, these charges have frequently amounted to more, for a distance of six or seven miles, than the freight of the goods from England. The other landing-place, the Queen’s Wharf, is a little higher up the river, and here the accommodation is much superior, a proof that improving is not so impossible as represented.

I stood where the wharf was today. It’s hard to picture it. The smell of chip oil is too strong as it wafts from Flinders Street Station and the roar of the traffic is a constant background noise. I’m sure that the air must have been saltier and tinged with wood smoke from the paddle steamer. Perhaps it sounded like Echuca, with the steam whistles, the shouts while loading and unloading goods and the sound of horses’ hooves in the streets behind. The sky would have seemed bigger with no high-rise towers, and the green of the bush would have crept up to the river banks in places, or formed a backdrop against the horizon. But today, like then, there is a stiff breeze that blows across from the water.

19 responses to “The Wharf

  1. Very interesting. While I have read a lot about the Yarra, I don’t recall hearing of Coles Wharf.

  2. I am very keen to know more about the construction of the Wharf as one of my ancestors, James Mahoney constructed it for Captain Cole. Can you tell me anything more about it?

    • In “Making their Mark” (p. 18)Susan Priestley says that Capt George Ward Cole had 120 feet of the bank excavated to build a wide docking platform backed by a bond store late in 1840. Until then, goods were just dumped on the riverbank. Further downstream Joseph Raleigh later built another platform with a block and tackle apparatus for hoisting goods. By 1852 Cole was the sole owner of the whole landing platform and storage sheds which were enclosed by a 9 foot wall. The government took over all the wharves in 1852.

      The “Melbourne Encyclopedia” dates the building of Coles Wharf from early 1841, and says that an earlier plan to build a wharf had foundered for want of convict labour.

      According to AGL Shaw’s note in ‘Gipps-LaTrobe Correspondence’,(p. 103) apparently La Trobe wrote to Governor Gipps about the wharf on the Yarra on 25th August 1841. It might be worth looking for the letter. It’s Superintendant’s Outward Correspondence 41/965 at the public record office in Melbourne. (I must admit that I just had a look at PROV’s catalogue under VPRS 16 – outward corrresponce- and couldn’t find it).

      Kristin Otto in her book ‘Yarra’ (p. 123) says that Raleigh built the first wharf, which was later taken over by Cole.

      Garryowen’s ‘Chronicles of Early Melbourne’ has passing mentions of Coles Wharf, but not as much as I thought he might have had.

      And that’s about all I can find!

    • Dear Katrina , I am in the early stages of a full length biography of Captain George Ward Cole R.N. M.L.C. , a great man and a founder of the Melbourne Waterfront . I can send you lots of info on the Wharf , if you like , and I am very interested to hear about your ancestor , Mr Mahoney . Would you like to trade stories ? yours , Warrick Lisle . most earnest regards to the Resident Judge , too .

      • residentjudge

        Hello Warrick. I have contacted Katrina privately in case she doesn’t see this. Good luck with your biography.

      • Warrick/Katrina,
        My family as are many others are descended from James Mahoney. The story of how he came to Melbourne is documented fairly well. There is an entire history of his family as recorded in the Bacchus Marsh newspapers and many other accounts. I do find though that there are some liberties taken with information and many people reference information that is not primary or secondary source. James and family initially arrived in Hobart Town on the Bussorah Merchant in 1837. This ship suffered heavily with many deaths at sea on the voyage. The ship and its passengers were quarantined for some time. Also, as documented in some of the newspapers, the married passengers were not entirely welcomed in Tasmania. If it wasn’t for the slow communication of the times, this ship may have never left the British Isles. Tasmania was desperate for single women and that was about all they wanted. Presumably most of these skilled migrant families were just looked upon as more mouths to feed. Shortly after the Quarantine ended, the Mahoney family packed up and arrived in the newly formed Melbourne about March 1838. The story goes that there were too many convicts in Tasmania for the Mahoney’s liking and that is why they left. I perhaps wonder if the Mahoney’s were specifically brought to Melbourne by one of the founders to help build. James Mahoney was a stone mason and he had a 16 year old boy, Cornelius, who would have made an excellent apprentice. The fact that 4 stone masons had arrived in Hobart Town on the Bussorah Merchant was well published in all of the newspapers. In fact the Hobart newpaper had their names published. Therefore, it would seem logical that Tasmanians that were starting a new colony in Melbourne would look to these immigrants to help build the first permanent structures. This is all conjecture of course, but seems perfectly logical given the rejection of the married families in Hobart and the need in Melbourne.
        The family story continues that Captain Cole offered or sold 200 acres of land in Bacchus Marsh as payment to James Mahoney for his services in building the original Cole’s wharf on the Yarra. I have not had a chance to chase this up further, but it seems logical as well. The Mahoneys moved out to Bacchus Marsh about 1844. After the Mahoneys moved out to Bacchus Marsh, their involvement in the stone mason trade appears to have ended.

        I and probably many other descendant families would be very interested in any other information you have on Captain Cole and the wharf. I can send you links and some files for you to use. I started with Neil Beatty’s research and self published manuscript entitled “From Stone Walls to Farm Fences: History of the Bacchus Marsh Mahoney Family” and have since been able to add many of the primary and secondary sources to my collection through the Trove website, of which I am sure you are very familiar. Let me know what your email is and I will send through what I have. I look forward to ordering a copy of your book when its complete.


      • John Daniels

        Warrick. I’d love to make contact with you re Melbourne wharves of Cole & Raleigh. John.

      • Happy to be in touch with you too and other family members identified here.

  3. Pingback: This Week in Port Phillip 1841: April 1-7 1841 | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  4. Hello there!

    My name is David MAHONEY…I am a direct descendant of “Cornelius Mahoney” of Bacchus Marsh and I would be interested in corresponding with you and anyone else about the “Mahoney Family History”!

    I live in Box Hill North…Melbourne and my Brother Howard lives in Ballarat!

    • Hello David. I’m afraid that my interest in Port Phillip is at a more general level, but here’s hoping that someone who knows the Mahoney family might find you here. Regards Janine

  5. No prob’s Janine!

    I simply did a Google search yesterday on “Mahoney Family+Bacchus Marsh” and your blog was referenced! Needless to say I found it rather interesting!?


    I have subscribed to follow you in any case…

    Cheers: DAVID.

  6. Nick Sharwood-Smith

    Hi guys, hello from England, where other descendants of the Mahoney line also live! My grandfather was Ernest Andrew Mahoney (but always known as ‘Mick’) who was part of the Mahoney family who moved to NZ.

  7. My husband is related to James Mahoney through his daughter Ellen who was born in Victoria about 1838 so I am very interested in any information regarding this family.

    • Hello Carol. I only have information (and it’s just a name on a petition) about a Cornelius Mahony, who signed a petition in support of Judge Willis when he was suspended. I see that Paul Mullaly mentions James (William), James, Johanna, John and David Mahoney in his book ‘Crime in the Port Phillip District’ but they may not be your family. Perhaps someone else will be able to help you.

  8. Hi Carol
    I contacted you a while back about Ellen Mahoney. Like your husband, i too am a descendant of James Mahoney. Very happy to discuss the family history with you.

  9. Hi John Daniels
    I am familiar with the details about the Mahoney family Daniel outlined in his post of 2014. As he says, these things are well documented in primary sources. I would also like to make contact with Warrick but haven’t heard from him for a while.

    Cheers, Katrina

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