The P&O steamer Chusan, which was launched at Newcastle-on-Tyne, UK, in November 1851.
For most of the early decades of settlement, the people of Melbourne were dependant on the uncertain arrival of sailing vessels for communication with the UK. Often weeks, even months, passed between one mail delivery and the next.
The letting of two contracts during 1852 to deliver the mail using steamships brought hopes for a regular service. The two shipping companies concerned were each to provide a two-monthly service, covering alternate months, to provide a monthly service to the Australian colonies. One was a service around the Cape of Good Hope; the other via the Mediterranean, overland to the Red Sea, Singapore and finally to Australia. The Suez Canal was not opened until November 1869. The latter contract was with the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O).
In preparation for its service, P&O sent its new barque-rigged auxiliary steamer the Chusan to Australia, departing from Southampton on May 15, 1852. Launched in November of the previous year, the iron-hulled vessel was 58m long. Driven by a single screw, it could achieve 9.5 knots (17.6km/h) under steam power. The new steamer arrived in Melbourne on the night of Thursday, July 29, having spent most of the voyage under sail. An Argus newspaper article the following Saturday read in part: “As the precursor of a long line of similar arrivals, she has placed the key-stone to that bridge by which we may consider that we are now united to the Mother-country.” The Chusan left Melbourne on Sunday morning, August 1, and arrived at Sydney on August 3 to complete the first mail service to Australia by steamship.
The Chusan, together with another P&O ship, continued to provide a regular mail service to Australia by way of Singapore until April of 1854. The other company, which had been awarded the mail contract via the Cape of Good Hope, had problems with its ships and the contract was withdrawn in April 1853. Fortunately for the colonists in Australia, the 1850s was the time of the great sailing clippers which delivered the mail in times which could not be matched by the steamers of the era.
BY MAURIE HUTCHINSON
President, Peninsula Ship Society