to the Melbourne CBD from Williamstown
Williamstown (including Altona)
Historic bayside tourist resort which was
Melbourne's first port
Williamstown developed at the same time as
Melbourne and served as its first port. Located
at the mouth of the Yarra River, it is now
effectively a metropolitan suburb located 13 km
south-west of the city centre at the tip of a
peninsula which projects out into Port Phillip
Bay. On its northern side is Hobsons Bay and on
its southern side is Altona Bay.
In recent years Williamstown has received a
face lift and become a major tourism drawcard.
It retains the coherence and charm of a maritime
village, due, in no small part, to the many
historic buildings. A proliferation of cafes and
restaurants are a major feature of Nelson Place
which runs adjacent the foreshore while boats,
yachts and dinghies decorate the shoreline and
ships sail through the estuary en route to the
Port of Melbourne.
There are some up-market galleries and a
range of accommodation - mostly self-contained
or bed-and-breakfast. There are no motels but
there is some corporate accommodation on the
waterfront which looks across to the city's
skyline, West Gate Bridge (connecting
Williamstown to the city by road), and the docks
and container terminals of Port Melbourne. A
link with the past is retained in the form of
the old naval dockyard, now owned by Tenix,
which, together with the Port Phillip Woollen
Mill, reflects the industrial dimension of
The mouth of the Yarra River was inspected in
May and June of 1835 by the party of John Batman
who recognised the potential of the Melbourne
townsite for settlement. They named the site of
Williamstown Port Harwood after the captain of
one of their ships. In August John Pascoe
Fawkner's 55-ton schooner, the Enterprise,
carried the first settlers into Port Phillip Bay
and up the Yarra to commence the settlement of
Melbourne. Fawkner himself, a fractious
ex-convict and son of a convict who was also a
pioneering newspaper proprietor and hotelier,
landed at Hobsons Bay in August of that year.
When Governor Bourke and Captain William
Lonsdale visited the emergent settlement at Port
Phillip Bay in 1837, they both felt the main
site of settlement would emerge at the estuary
and they renamed it Williamstown after King
William IV, then the English monarch. It served
as Melbourne's first anchorage and as the centre
for port facilities to the Port Phillip district
until the late 19th century.
The first land sales took place in 1837. A
30-metre stone jetty was built by convict labour
in 1838 where Gem Pier now stands. That same
year a ferry service between Melbourne and
Williamstown was established aboard the steamer
'Fire Fly'. It was used to convey passengers, as
well as sheep and cattle from Tasmania. The
first cemetery in Victoria was established at
Point Gellibrand at this time.
A store was set up in 1839 with a water
police superintendent appointed in 1840. St
Mary's Catholic School was established in 1842
and it is now the oldest continuously operating
school in the state. In 1847 Steamboat Pier was
built and a permanent customs house was set up.
The water police and customs officers remained
here until the Melbourne Harbour Trust developed
river channels closer to the Melbourne CBD in
Although it was the major port for Melbourne,
Williamstown, in 1850, was an unattractive
centre. There were a few grog shops and boarding
houses on the shore with debris and rubbish from
the ships and the town lining the shore. The
streets remained unsealed and there were few
amenities or houses.
With the Victorian goldrushes of the 1850s
Williamstown's port functions meant that it
experienced a tremendous increase in
through-traffic as immigrants and interstate
travellers disembarked en route to the fields.
Many ships were left floating in Hobsons Bay
when crews deserted for the fields. Some became
floating boarding houses.
A stockade was built in 1853 and, in 1854, a
gun battery and observatory were erected and the
first telegraph in Australia was established
between Melbourne and Williamstown. By that time
a number of penal hulks had also been set up
aboard five vessels in Hobsons Bay, owing to the
sudden increase in criminal prosecution
generated by the goldrushes. Two prisoners who
served time on the hulk 'Success' were the
bushrangers Captain Melville and Dan 'Mad Dog'
Morgan. Conditions were appalling and the
discipline harsh. Convict labour from the hulks
was used to build the breakwater. The hulk
'Deborah' was used as a reformatory school for
children from 1864.
The first gunship to be presented to the
Australian colony by the British government was
the 580-ton 'Victoria' which sported seven
32-pound guns. It docked at Williamstown in 1856
and was utilised by the Royal Australian Navy
which was founded at Williamstown. The ship was
later loaned to New Zealand for use in the Maori
wars. It was also sent to the Gulf of
Carpentaria to bring back the survivors of the
ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition.
In 1856 Williamstown was declared a separate
municipality. By that time it had been
transformed into a substantial settlement. The
streets had been sealed, kerbed and widened.
There were excellent hotels, shops, residences,
banks and churches of stone and timber. Many of
the town's historic buildings date from this
A railway line from Geelong to Newport was
operating by 1856 (with passengers carried over
the river by ferry). This private line was
bought up by the government in 1858 (it was the
first government-owned railway line) and
extended across the river to Melbourne. Work
began on a state shipyard (now privately owned)
in 1865. The foundation stone was laid by the
Duke of Edinburgh.
The 'Shenandoah', a raider belonging to the
Confederate army in the US Civil War, requested
permission to dock at Williamstown in 1865 after
developing propeller problems during a
commercial voyage. Permission was granted over
the objections of the US consul. It left after
22 days before the consul could realise plans to
seize the ship. After capturing or sinking 38
Union ships it surrendered at Liverpool in
England. In 1871, at the International Court in
Geneva, the US government was awarded £820 000
pounds from Britain because the ship had been
granted the facilities of Williamstown.
The HMVS Nelson was given to the colony of
Victoria by the British government in 1867. It
dropped anchor off Point Gellibrand the
following year. Launched in 1814, it was
originally 74.5 metres long, weighed 2617 tons,
required a crew of 875 and sported 126 guns
(later reduced to 72). It became a reformatory
for errant boys for 4 years and was increasingly
disfigured until broken up in 1908. The anchors
now adorn the foreshore, a catting block is in
the historical museum and its weaponry
distributed to numerous country towns.
A new customs house was built in 1873, the
year a steam ferry at Newport was established by
the local council. The largest graving dock in
the Southern Hemisphere was built in 1874. The
borough of Williamstown was declared a town in
1886 and a city in 1919.
A ferry across the lower Yarra River
facilitated more direct access to Melbourne in
1931 and a crude oil terminal was built in the
1950s. In 1970, during the construction of the
West Gate Bridge, an accident resulted in the
deaths of 35 men. The bridge was completed in
1978. A power station was built, amidst
controversy over its environmental impact, near
the western end of the bridge in the late 1970s.
Things to see:
Tourist Information and Tours
The Williamstown Hobson Bay Visitor Information
Centre is located on Commonwealth Reserve at the
corner of Nelson Place and Syme St. It is open
daily from 10.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m., tel: (03)
9399 8641. You can obtain brochures here
outlining self-guided walks which take in the
town's historical buildings, features and sites.
Guided walking and coach tours of
Williamstown are also conducted for a fee by
Williamstown Tours (tel: 03 9391 2970) and
Hobsons Bay Historic Tours, tel: (03) 9397 6023.
Both also offer specially designed educational
tours for school groups.
Commonwealth Reserve is the site of a craft
market on the third Sunday of each month.
Tide Water Gauge House
Also on the Commonwealth Reserve is Tide Water
Gauge House, a finely detailed building which
was built between 1858 and 1860 at the foot of
Breakwater Pier. It featured a rare example of
an automatic device for gauging the tides.
Gem Pier and the Ferries
At the end of Syme St is Gem Pier which was
named after a paddlesteamer that once operated
between Williamstown and Port Melbourne. A
30-metre stone jetty was built here by convict
labour in 1838 although the original has been
Ferries now operate daily between Gem Pier
and Southgate and, on weekends, between Gem Pier
and St Kilda.
Williamstown Maritime Museum
Permanently stationed at Gem Pier is the HMAS
Castlemaine (1942) - a World War II minesweeper
which was built at the local shipyards. It is
now used as a maritime museum. Aside from the
ship itself there is a collection of nautical
memorabilia and exhibits within its confines. It
is open from midday to 5.00 p.m. on weekends and
public holidays or by appointment for groups,
tel: (03) 9397 2363 on weekends or (03) 9853
0823 before 10.00 a.m. on weekdays.
Chartered trips are available on weekends, on
board the 'Enterprize' - a timber replica of the
55-ton sailing schooner which carried the first
European settlers up the Yarra to Melbourne. It
picks up passengers from Gem Pier although the
ship is docked at the end of Anne St. Visitors
who merely wish to see the ship must go to the
end of Anne St where the exterior can be
observed. Tours of the interior are available
for groups who undertake bookings. For either
inspections or charters ring (03) 9397 3477.
Anne St runs between the water and Nelson Place.
Therein lies what is thought to be the state's
earliest morgue - a single-storey bluestone
structure with an arched entrance erected in
Initially, coroners' examinations were
conducted in hotel basements where the bodies
were suspended from the ceiling by ropes to
forestall the attentions of rats. As many bodies
were in a state of decomposition they caused
olfactory offence and so the morgue was built.
It was moved from its initial site close to Gem
Pier to the current address in 1873 as its
presence at that well-attended spot continued to
Nelson Place and Galleries
The streetscape of Nelson Place is very
attractive and it has been restored in recent
years. There are numerous cafes and restaurants
are a number of interesting features. On the
other side of the road to the information centre
(126 Nelson Place) is the Customs Wharf Gallery,
located in the former Customs House - a
Classical Revival structure dating from 1873.
Open from 10.00 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. daily it
features up-market arts, crafts, antiques and
collectibles with an art gallery on the upper
floor, tel: (03) 9399 9726. At 149 Nelson Place
is The Haven Gallery which sells souvenirs and
also features a gallery on the top floor, tel:
(03) 9397 2045.
Other buildings of historic interest are the
former 'Advertiser' newspaper building at 205
Nelson Place and the former Port Health
Officer's residence at no.231. Holy Trinity
Church of England is a Gothic bluestone
structure built between 1871 and 1874.
The Former Prince Of Wales Hotel
At the end of Nelson Place (no.1), opposite the
dockyard, is the Titanic Theatre Restaurant,
situated within the former Prince of Wales Hotel
(1850s) - a building with a Georgian design
featuring a cast-iron verandah. The 1 in 10
scale model of the Titanic atop the building
caused some controversy but the rest of the
facade and the interior have been quite nicely
restored, including the cellars which still
feature shackles in the wall to which sailors
were bound before being shanghaied.
Time Ball Tower
The Time Ball Tower is also located at the
bottom of Nelson Place, opposite the beach, on
the foreshore at Point Gellibrand. The lower
section of the building was constructed by
convict labour out of bluestone either in 1846
or 1852, depending on which source is credited.
It replaced a wooden tower erected in 1842. The
purpose of the time ball was to tell ships what
the time was. At exactly 1.00pm each day the
Time Ball was manually lowered to allow ships to
set their chronometers accurately. A cylindrical
brick upper extension was added in the 1930s.
The Time Ball was restored in the 1990s and it
now operates according to a computerised system.
The gun emplacements, earthworks, parapets,
drains, magazines and infantry revetments of
Fort Gellibrand have also been restored to
original condition in the 1990s. The fort
developed between 1860 and 1890. It is only open
to the general public occasionally as it is
still used by a commando unit. However, it is
expected that it will open on a more regular
basis in the future.
The first cemetery in what is now Victoria
was established in this area in the late 1830s.
When the fort was built the bodies were removed
to a vault.
Science Works and Planetarium
The Science Works is a hands-on highly
interactive science museum for all ages which
features different programs throughout the year.
The emphasis is on fun. It is located in Booker
St and is open from 10.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m.
daily, tel: (03) 9392 4800. A new digital
planetarium is located on the grounds and is
part of the complex. It is open in the evenings.
The Historical Museum is located in the former
mechanics' institute (c.1860) at 5 Electra St by
the intersection where it meets both Parker St
and Melbourne Rd. It is open from 2.00 p.m. to
5.00 p.m. Sundays and by appointment during the
week. They have a large collection of maritime
material, photographs, records and other items
pertaining to the settlement's venerable and
quite crucial history. There are several walking
tours of the town's historic features outlined
in brochures at the museum and plenty of
published material, including a free potted
history of Williamstown. There is also an
historical kit for school groups, tel: (03) 9397
5423 or (03) 9397 5933.
Williamstown Botanic Gardens are located at the
corner of Osborne and Giffard Sts.
Some Other Historic Buildings
The Steam Packet Hotel at the corner of Cole St
and Aitken St is a two-storey Classical Revival
structure built in 1863 to replace a mid-1850s
Stevedore Uniting Church (in Stevedore St)
was built of bluestone c.1870 as a Gothic
Revival for the Congregationalists. An
asymmetrical design it features a fine tower
capped by an octagonal lantern and spire. The
entrance, west windows and detailing are all of
The former Presbyterian manse at 27 Lyons St
is a two-storey bluestone building erected in
1856-57 and sold by the church in 1886. It is
asymmetrical with projecting wings, bay windows,
multi-pane windows and a hipped slate roof.
At 64 Pascoe St (corner of Lyons St) is the
former 'Ashton Villa' - a single-storey
bluestone house built in 1859 for Customs and
Immigration official George Ashton.
'Mandalay' is a substantial two-storey
residence at 24 The Strand which was built of
stuccoed bluestone in 1858 for Captain William
Probert. A symmetrical design it features a
single-storey verandah with a gabled porch at
the centre of the facade. It is considered
typical of the houses which fronted Hobsons Bay
in the 19th century. The two-storey weatherboard
house at 63 The Strand was built c.1859. It
features a timber verandah and single-storey
gabled wing at one end.
The two-storey stone house at 1 Yarra St was
built in the early 1850s for merchant William
Langhorne. It was stuccoed in 1861. An original
two-storey verandah has been removed and the
upper doors converted to windows. The timber
wing was added in the 20th century.
At 3 Cox's Gardens is a single-storey
mid-1850s cottage built partially of
prefabricated timber for Samuel George Cox. It
is a rare surviving example of an 1850s worker's
The Australian Railways Historical
Society's Railway Museum
The Railway Museum is located 200 metres from
the North Williamstown railway station in
Champion Rd. There are some 20 railway engines
with many carriages and wagons. It is open from
midday to 5.00 p.m. on weekends and public
holidays and from midday to 4.00 p.m. on
Wednesdays during school holidays. For enquiries
ring (03) 9397 7412 or (03) 9772 1287 after
hours. Mid-week school and group visits are by
arrangement: tel: (03) 9596 3249.
The Jawbone Wetland area is about 8 minutes from
Williamstown off Kororoit Creek Rd which departs
westwards from Williamstown as Ferguson St. It
features a boardwalk, birdhides and a lake
Another wetland area is located under the
West Gate Bridge to the north of North
Williamstown, en route to the Melbourne CBD.
Boardwalks lead to areas where you can view the
ships of Port Melbourne. A mangrove swamp is
Altona Miniature Railway
Families with children may be interested in
taking a ride on some miniature steam trains on
the third Sunday of the month from midday to
4.00 p.m. in Blenheim St, Altona North (just to
the west of Williamstown). There are picnic and
barbecue facilities and a kiosk, tel: (03) 9741