Great White Fleet visit to Melbourne

By Kate Prinsley

This photograph is a view of Flinders Street Station, as seen from Elizabeth St, in August 1908. 

The Victorian Railways had erected this large painted and illuminated signboard to welcome a fleet of American battleships to Melbourne. The night photograph shows the hoarding with a prominent arch and symmetrical ends with flag crests, and an illustration of a ship sailing up the bay. Bright electric globes light up the structure.

The line of timetable clocks can be seen at the bottom left of the photograph.

The Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin, had invited the American President, Theodore Roosevelt, to send a fleet of battleships to Australia as part of the country’s early nationhood. This was a sign of Australia’s strong connection to America and desires for naval and military protection.

There was therefore great excitement in Melbourne, on August 29, 1908, when 16 battleships glided through Port Phillip Heads and sailed into Hobsons Bay, as Port Phillip Bay was then known. The fleet became known as The Great White Fleet.

Led by the Kentucky and completed with the Connecticut the ships initially entered the bay, four abreast, then went down to two abreast and finally in a single line of 16 ships as they arrived in Melbourne to dock.

The Age newspaper proclaimed a “great pageant in the bay, 16 battleships in line, and an imposing spectacle with hundreds of thousands of spectators”.

The paper reported that many pleasure steamers and other boats circled around the ships as they arrived, with bands playing the Star Spangled Banner.

The City of Melbourne and the whole of Victoria embraced the visit of the ships and their 13,500 crew. There were many celebrations in the city until the fleet’s departure one week later. The visit of the fleet to Melbourne, under Admiral Charles S Sperry, was preceded by visits to Auckland and Sydney.

The RHSV is the historical society for the city of Melbourne.

Open Monday – Friday 10.00 – 4.00 at 239 A’ Beckett St.

Visitors are always welcome.

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