Maritime history

Williamstown is a historic seaport with a rich maritime history.

Before white settlement, the Aboriginal people of the Yalukit-willam clan of the Kulin nation were living on the local shores of what later become known as Hobson’s Bay. They called it “koort-koort-boork”, meaning “a clump of she-oaks”.

Williamstown was named in 1837 after a visit by the then Governor Richard Bourke, who felt it should become the capital of the new colony. He named it after King William IV. By then, there was a regular stream of vessels making their way across Bass Strait from Van Diemen’s Land to berth in the sheltered harbor, bringing with them sheep, cattle and horses.

But Williamstown did not become the capital, largely due to lack of a fresh water supply. By 1839, the fledgling town had large shipping facilities including a pier and government stores. The first two hotels, The Steam packet and the Woolpack Inn were built about this time.

The first lighthouse was built in 1840 and the same year a water police superintendent was appointed. Two years later, the arrival of a ship with immigrants for labour arrived, although it lost 40 of its 243 passengers to yellow fever. A hastily erected quarantine site took the sick, while the dead were buried in a makeshift graveyard.

In 1849, a bluestone lighthouse was built to replace the wooden one, operating until 1860 when the Point Gellibrand Pile Light was anchored off shore. The bluestone structure then became the Time Ball Tower.

Williamstown became an important landing point for Gold Rush hopefuls in the 1850s. Prospectors arrived by the boatload and rushed off to the goldfields of Bendigo, Ballarat and beyond. The allure of striking it rich prompted many sailors to desert their ships for the goldfields. Hobson’s Bay became full of ships with no crew to sail them.

By the end of 1853, the growing colony had developed a large criminal element, so the colony’s government bought a number of ships to be used as floating prisons, or hulks. They were moored off Williamstown with some prisoners rowing to shore under guard each day for backbreaking labouring work building sea walls, wharves and roads. Among them for a short period of time was Ned Kelly, later to become infamous as a bushranger.

On January 25, 1865, the Confederate Steam Ship Shenandoah sailed unannounced into Port Phillip Bay, sending the fledgling colony into a state of panic. The warship had sunk eight Union commercial ships on the way from England to Australia. Its arrival in Melbourne to resupply and seek repairs to its propeller while the American Civil War was still raging had the Union consul in Melbourne, William Blanchard, imploring Governor Darling to seize the ship and arrest the crew for piracy. The Shenandoah was slipped in Williamstown and the crew was feted by Melbourne society. While in Williamstown, the Shenandoah’s commander, Lt James Waddell, secretly recruited British subjects as crew for the ship against international law. That move later cost England millions of dollars in reparations to the US after the end of the American Civil War for the damage the Shenandoah did to the Union whaling fleet.

His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh visited Williamstown in 1869 to lay the foundation stone for the Alfred Graving Dock on the site that eventually became the Naval Dockyards. The dockyards are now run by BAE Systems.

By 1870, Williamstown was the major cargo port of Victoria, with piers, slipways, shipwrights and gangs of wharfies. Wheat, oats and wool were major exports through the port until the late 1930s.

In fear of a Russian invasion, the Victorian Government began to build a navy in 1856 to protect Melbourne. In 1871, Her Majesty’s Victorian Ship Cerberus arrived in Williamstown to become the linchpin of harbour defence. The Victorian Colonial Navy grew to be the largest in Australia and eventually became the nucleus of the Royal Australian Navy when colonial navies were amalgamated into a single force after Federation.

Source: Seaworks Williamstown, 11 January 2016