The Overland Mail to Victoria

The Overland Mail to Victoria

In the early years of the Colony of South Australia, before there were any made roads, water-borne transport provided the most efficient method of transporting passengers and goods from place to place. The waterways were already in existence and quite large loads could be transported by sailing ships and steamers. Even if there had been well made roads the methods of road transport at the time could not have been able to match their efficiency. The early development of the Colony reached out from coastal ports such as Port Victor, Port Elliot, Kingston or Port MacDonnell and the main mode of transport to these districts and on to Melbourne continued to be by sea for many years.

Next in efficiency was a railway system, whether horse drawn or steam powered. The level steel tracks made it possible to haul heavier loads per power unit than on even a well-made road, let alone an unmade bush track. This is the reason we find many of the early railway lines in South Australia did not radiate from Adelaide but joined one of the existing ports to the nearby hinterland.

The Kingston-Naracoorte line was a classic example, giving the people of the South East access to existing maritime transport systems. In the case of the Goolwa to Port Elliot line the intention was slightly different— to join two important waterways, the Murray River and the Southern Ocean and open trade with vast areas of the Eastern Colonies.

In spite of all the advantages which travel by sea had to offer, the voyage to Melbourne could be a hazardous one. The shores of the South East and the islands and reefs of Bass Strait are testimony to the numerous ships which did not complete their voyages. For this and other reasons an alternative overland route to the South East and Victoria gradually evolved and eventually became the Royal Mail route.

From 1867 to 1886 the Royal Mail Steamers plying between Milang and Meningie were a vital link in this lnter-Colonial service.

1 April 1877 brought in some important changes to the overland route to the South-East and Victoria which provided travellers with increased comfort and shortened the travelling time to Mount Gambier.
•    The new mail contracts required that coach horses be changed every 15 miles to eliminate overworked animals.
•   The service was increased to six days a week in each direction.
•   The Lakes crossing was greatly improved with the launching of the purpose-built P. S. Dispatch.
•    The horror stretch between Kingston and Naracoorte was transformed by the introduction of a daily steam train on the recently-built railway line.
•    For most of the way between Naracoorte and Penola a proper metalled road replaced the previous clayey track.
•    The journey from Adelaide to Mount Gambier was now only 39½ hours.

Hill & Co Coach in Strathalbyn.

The coach service between Adelaide and Milang ran three times a day, six days a week and was conducted by John Hill & Co who had been responsible for the route for some years since Cobb & Co had closed down in South Australia. The distance of 47 miles was travelled at 8 mph.

John Hill & Co’s Coach House in Milang.
John Hill & Co’s Coach House in Milang.

The coach service between Meningie and Kingston ran once a day, six days a week. The distance was 94 miles, travelling at 7 mph in a four-horse vehicle. The service was conducted by Mr Frederick Crews, licensee of the Ship Inn in Kingston, which was also the booking office for the coach. By arrangement with the other operators Mr Crews was able to offer a single ticket for the journey from Adelaide to Kingston: £2-10-0 one way; £4-19-0 return.

The Naracoorte – Mount Gambier service was conducted by another hotel licensee, Albert James Edwards from the Prince of Wales Hotel at Penola.

P.S. Dispatch at Narrung, Point Malcolm in the background.

Following the call for tenders at the end of 1876, Mr A. H. Landseer provided a new steamer for the mail run to Meningie, which would be contracted for by his partner, Mr W. P. Dunk. It was constructed in less than nine weeks by Thomas Smith and Frank Potts at Milang and launched on Saturday 24 February 1877 by Miss L. Landseer.

As she performed the naming ceremony Miss Landseer made a play on words based on the name of the new vessel. ‘You have been built for the conveyance of Her Majesty’s mails, and as such service requires to be despatched with dispatch, you are now named “The Dispatch” and we trust that you will prove your title to your name by always despatching the duties you are called on to perform with the utmost dispatch.’

The drama of the occasion was somewhat marred when it was found that there was not enough water for her to float off and she had to be pulled off by the P.S. Jane Eliza.

The Dispatch was 117 ft (35.7 m) and could carry 60 passengers comfortably the 33 miles across the lakes at an average speed of 10 mph as required. There was a “handsome saloon” for the passengers, 21 ft x 12 ft (6.4 m x 3.7 m) as well as cabins providing bunks for 8 female and 12 male passengers. When it was first launched, the Dispatch was commanded by Captain Tait but for many years afterwards its captain was George Jeffrey Wallace.

Before 1877 Kingston to Naracoorte was the worst section of the mail route. Although only 59 miles, none of the track had been properly constructed and things were even worse during the winter months.  Before the construction of drains through the South-East the whole countryside would be under water and the mail driver would have to rely on his memory of the ground to steer a safe course. Travel was often only 4 mph instead of the usual 7 mph on other routes.

V9, one of the V Class locomotives is now preserved in aracoorte.
V9, one of the V Class locomotives is now preserved in Naracoorte.

The construction of the railway transformed this situation. The 3ft 6in track was completed in June 1876 and before the end of the year passengers and mail were being transported in a horse-drawn covered-in freight truck. This was more reliable than the coach had been and the time taken was reduced by a couple of hours to just 6½ hours. When the new V Class Tank Locomotives arrived from England at the end of the year and a regular train service began, the travel time was reduced to just 3 hours.

The Inter-Colonial Mail Route at this time crossed the border between Penola and Casterton, where the coach service linked with the daily mail service from Melbourne. This involved coach journeys from Casterton to Hamilton and then on to Ararat where it met the train which travelled to Melbourne through Ballarat and Geelong.

"Book Time Table of the Victorian Railways" page 39
“Book Time Table of the Victorian Railways-June 1880” page 39

By the end of the year it was possible to travel by train all the way from Hamilton, as the line was extended.

The Overland Mail ceased to travel through Milang in 1886. By then trains were running between Adelaide and Bordertown and the line from Melbourne had reached Diapur, only 30 miles from the border and a coach service connected the two trains. Mail left Adelaide at 6.50 am and arrived in Melbourne the next day at 10.45 pm— a total of 34¾ hours.

ADELAIDE:     Mon-Sat     dep     3.00 pm
John Hill & Co Coach Service— 48 miles

MILANG:     Mon-Sat:     dep    9.10 pm
R.M.S. Dispatch- 33 miles

MENINGIE:     Tue-Sun     dep    2.00 am
F. Crews & Co Coach Service— 92 miles

KINGSTON:     Tue-Sun     arr     4.25 pm
Train Service— 52 miles     dep    4.45 pm

NARACOORTE:     Tue-Sun     arr     7.45 pm
A. J. Edwards Coach— 62 miles     dep     8.40 pm

MT GAMBIER:     Wed-Mon     arr     6.30 am

A total of 287 miles in 39 hours 30 minutes  

Vines & McPhee Coach Service     6 days a week

Coach Service         6 days a week

Coach Service         dep     6.00 am

ARARAT:        arr     3.00 pm
Train Service         dep     3.50 pm

MELBOURNE:         arr     11.00 pm