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Station Pier Welcomes Liners

Crowds welcome the Empress of Britain
Crowds welcome the Empress of Britain

Imagine an MCG Grand Final crowd thronging around Station Pier. That is what occurred 6 April 1938 when one of the Golden Age of ocean liners, the Empress of Britain, berthed there. This crowd estimate was published in The Argus the following day. At 42,500 tons (43,181 tonnes), it was the biggest vessel ever to visit Australia. To the strains of Auld Lang Syne, the crowd farewelled the ship as it sailed for New Zealand. This was the time when ships – not aircraft – were the only way to travel overseas.

As a gateway to Victoria, Station Pier’s history is etched with the arrivals and departures of cruise ships. From 7 October, with the arrival of the Dawn Princess, to 24 May with the Sea Princess, the pier will welcome almost 80 cruise ships.

The Empress of Britain, owned by the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company, was only in Melbourne for one day. A little over two years later the vessel, being used as a troop carrier, was sunk by a U-Boat torpedo on 27 October 1940.

The pier, formerly known as Railway Pier, marked its 160th year of operation on 12 September. Station Pier has hosted household names such as the Queen Elizabeth 2 and the Canberra. P&O’s Canberra made her maiden voyage to Australia in 1961, stopping at Melbourne before going onto Sydney. The lavish World of ResidenSea – owned by those onboard occupying 165 apartments – visited Melbourne in May 2012.

In his column The Passing Show, The Argus’s columnist Oriel captured the colour and excitement seeing “the good ship Orion off” on 1 March 1938. He wrote:

It was all very exciting and vicariously costly, seeing the good ship Orion off yesterday afternoon.

At sixpence a roll of streamers 1,000 passengers, averaging four streamers each, absorbed £100 worth before the water and the wind wafted all this paper wealth away; about 800 cars returned £40 to the Harbour Trust; about 1,000 telegrams, heaped in confusion around the purser’s office, yielded at least £50 to the Post-master-General’s Department; and bouquets and floral tributes cost at least £200. Shall we say £400 to say ‘Bon voyage’?

Oriel saw a girl wearing a spray of frangipani, liliums, gardenias, tuberose, and lilies of valley (out of season and probably out of ice) that cost at least £2; and a grande dame with blue-rinsed hair that looked like nothing on earth and cost far more; and Viscount Nuffield, scrambling out along the deck-rail so that he could recover a streamer thrown from the wharf below, Inscribe a farewell message thereon, and toss It back to the fair unknown sender.

Then an avalanche of cars descended, and Oriel knew no more. Is it cheaper to stay behind or go?”  

The names of some of the ships which visited Melbourne live on in street names in Beacon Cove, such as Canberra Mews, Ellinis Mew, Mariposa Place, Orcades Mews, Orion Mews and Strathaird Mews.

References and further information

Crowd Farewells Empress of Britain

Empress of Britain           Photo courtesy Museum Victoria



  • Doug JONES
    Posted March 14, 2023 3.58 pm 0Likes

    I saw the Empress of Britain depart from Port Melbourne with my father and sister. We were on a wharf at Williamstown.

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We respectfully acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet and work, the Bunurong Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung peoples of the Eastern Kulin Nation and pay respect to their Elders past, present and emerging.