The early history of the Port of Albany coincided with the worldwide transition of wooden ship construction to iron and steel construction. The advantage of the latter is that the capability to build larger ships was met. Consequently ocean-going ships’ hulls were much longer and therefore able to move faster through the water; ships could carry more cargo and had sufficient space for steam boilers, propulsion machinery and coal bunkers to eventually supersede sail.
Lack of a proper harbour at Fremantle led to mail steamers calling at Albany, which in any case was the older settlement. A coal depot and steamer port was established there in 1852 by the newly formed Australian Royal Mail S.N. Co. These were soon taken over by the Peninsular & Orient Co, which built a jetty in 1859, and whose steamship services were to last, with intermissions, until 1900. The Albany harbour had one big drawback for sailing ships; the possibilities of an easterly wind which could delay departure from the harbour. Hence a situation evolved where most sailing ships called at Fremantle, but most steamships continued to call at Albany.
From 1892 the annual number of ship calls at Albany increased steadily to reach its maximum of 450 in 1900. The majority of these were overseas vessels. From then on a gradual decline continued to 1920 when only 297 ships called- only 45 of these were overseas vessels. From 1920 ship calls dropped significantly to a minimum of only 63 ships in 1950.
The growth of ship calls was due to the Mail Contract and the replenishment facility provided by Albany. The decrease commenced with the opening of Fremantle Harbour in 1901. The steep decline from 1920 onwards was caused by the transition of ships’ fuel from coal to oil for which Albany was not equipped.
Great White Fleet
In 1908 the united States Navy presented itself as a superior naval force to the World by sending a fleet of 16 white painted battleships on a world wide cruise. Albany, due to the large relatively protected anchorage provided by King George Sound and its experiencing in replenishing ocean-going ships was chosen for this purpose, much to the chagrin of Perth and Fremantle. The fleet called in September 1908.
Great White Fleet battleships bunkering in Princess Royal Harbour
At the outbreak of WWI Albany was also chosen for the first two troop convoys to congregate due to the large sheltered anchorage provided by King George Sound and the available bunkering facilities. They departed on the long next leg of their voyages to the battlefields of Gallipoli and Europe within two months of each other at the end of 1914. The 54 Australian and New Zealand ships of these two convoys carried a total of 40,000 soldiers and nearly 17,000 horses. They were the two largest convoys to depart from Australia for the whole of the war and together carried 10% of Australian soldiers to war. All of these soldiers embarked at east coast ports. None joined their ships in Albany.
The ships anchored in designated positions in King George Sound and in turn replenished coal bunkers and freshwater in Princess Royal Harbour. While this was happening the soldiers were landed for route marches. No shore leave was allowed.
Ships bunkering in Princess Royal Harbour
Route march along Marine Drive. First convoy anchored in King George Sound in the background.
New Zealand ships joined the convoys in King George Sound. The first meeting of the Australian and New Zealand forces is aptly described by Major Fred Waite, author of The New Zealanders at Gallipoli, as: “Thirteen days after leaving Wellington the New Zealand ships crept into the spacious harbour of Albany, Western Australia. Here were gathered innumerable vessels of every line trading in the Southern oceans. Not painted uniformly grey like our ships, but taken in all their glory of greens, blues and yellows, they rode on the calm water of King George's Sound packed with the adventurous spirits of the First Australian Division. The cheering and counter-cheering, the Maori war cries and answering coo-ees would have moved a stoic. Young Australia was welcoming Young New Zealand in no uncertain manner in the first meeting of those brothers-in-arms soon to be known by a glorious name as yet undreamed of.”
Although the first two convoys were the only convoys to depart from Albany, Albany still played a significant part in the maritime war effort. From November 1914 to May 1919 a total of 243 Australian and New Zealand troop and hospital ships called at Albany, both outward and homeward bound. Sick and wounded soldiers were treated at Albany Hospital. Unfortunately a few died and are buried at the Memorial Park Cemetery, Middleton Road.