The importance of maritime trade—both international and coastal—to Australia’s economic prosperity is underwritten in an oblique manner by shipping news. In addition to items appearing in various newspapers concerning arrivals and departures, from the 1870s to the 1970s there were eight different papers dedicated to publishing news about shipping movements in and out of Australian ports. The origin of most of these papers was the weekly Australasian Shipping News (1877–1900), which was succeeded by the Daily Australasian Shipping News (1900–07) and published under various names, ceasing publication as the Daily Commercial News and Shipping List (and also including airways news) in 1972.
As much as can be determined, these papers were published by the over-arching association of merchant shipping companies and marine insurance underwriters. Their purpose was to collate information concerning arrivals, departures, speakings (records of sailing ships hailing one another at sea, to then pass on name of vessel met and location once in port), casualties and miscellaneous intelligence. To read the papers is to realise the central importance of technological developments in communications and maritime transport in relation to the provision of more reliable information regarding shipping movements: the telegraph, by which information could be relayed port to port; the advent of steam, meaning more precise times concerning voyages; the provision of weather reports, beginning in the 1940s; and the advent of radio contact between ships and shore, which seems to have been firmly established only by the beginning of the 1960s.
The shipping papers also reflect key features of Australia’s maritime history. They show Melbourne’s evolution as the premier port in the country, from being the colonial era centre of maritime trade that helped underpin ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ to becoming one of the world’s first fully containerised ports in the 1970s.
Of even greater interest is the still under-appreciated importance of Newcastle, which, before the Panama Canal was completed in 1913, was the centre of the Pacific rim’s coal-distribution network. Newcastle exported to the American west coast (many ships backloaded with lumber from Puget Sound), the Pacific Islands, the Philippines and South America (Valparaiso in Chile and Callao in Peru). After World War II, Newcastle saw a considerable increase in trade with South-East Asia and Japan.
The demise of the shipping papers in the 1970s is best explained by the advent of long-distance radio, satellite communications and computers, which collectively rendered obsolete the need for dedicated papers relaying shipping news.