It is a little-known fact these days that Australia's Federal Government
once operated its own passenger shipping line between Great Britain and
Australia. The origins of the Government Line, as it was first known, start in
the early years of this century when the foundation of such an organisation was
suggested by the departments concerned with Federal transport and migration.
The idea received a most cool reception from the Government-subsidised lines,
but was 'kept on ice' until another ten years had passed when during 1916 the
Federal Government of the day saw the practicality of such a scheme especially
in view of the forthcoming European conflict and the need for large, capacious
A fleet of 16 freighters was assembled under the title of the Commonwealth
Government Line of Steamers. This fleet was later augmented by a number of
German vessels which had been impounded after the outbreak of World War I.
It was not until after the War that the Government Line turned their
intention seriously towards ordering a group of passenger liners especially
designed for the Australian trade. These ships, the famous Bays, were
constructed by Beardmore and Vickers during the years from 1920 to 1922 and
entered service immediately upon completion between London and the Australian
ports of Fremantle, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Accordingly they
were awarded names of bays in the five States they were to serve.
Apart from their capacity to transport 732 passengers, mainly migrants, the
ships offered 360 000 cubic feet of cargo space which was equipped with
insulation and intended for meat and other perishable commodities.
During 1923 the company was renamed the Australian Commonwealth Line. The
infant organisation suffered from many of the petty squabbles and the
misdirection which plagues some Government-sponsored and operated enterprises;
and lost a great deal of finance during the next five years. It was with some
degree of relief, it can be confidently stated, that the company was sold
during 1928 to Lord Kylsant's empire of shipping lines. His group included such
erstwhile names as Royal Mail Steam Packet, Shaw, Savill & Albion, Aberdeen
Line, and Thompson & Company (which managed the newly acquired steamers).
The operational title of the ships was changed to Aberdeen &
Commonwealth Line. Aberdeen Line had been engaged upon the Australian trade
since 1840 and therefore the association of names was excellent public
relations in both corners of the British Empire.
The routing of the five 'Bays' remained as it had started, and the ships ran
in conjunction with the steamers of Shaw, Savill & Albion until early 1933
when the Kylsant organisation was declared bankrupt. The 'Bays' were awarded to
the reorganised Shaw, Savill company after the debacle and served Australia
under their control for the remainder of their careers. One ship, Esperance Bay
(1), was transferred outright to the Shaw, Savill line during 1936 and voyaged
as their Arawa (3) between England and New Zealand until 1955.
During World War II all units of the fleet served their flag as armed
merchant cruisers and troop transports. Jervis Bay's duel to the death with the
vast German warship Admiral Scheer was to become an oft-recalled epic in the
chapters of World War II's maritime history.
The Government Line of Steamers, later to become the Australian Commonwealth
Line, started as a good idea and ended as a mismanaged 'monster'. Its later
career as Kylsant's Aberdeen & Commonwealth Line was hardly more
auspicious. The five fine ships of the 'Bay' class were subsequently to
experience happier days under the flag of Shaw, Savill & Albion, ironically
one of the very lines they were constructed to compete against.