Port Fairy. The Public Library which was once the Mechanics Institute. Built 1865-71. Became the library in 1984.
Image by denisbin
Like nearby Portland Port Fairy was settled by whites before New South Wales created a settlement district in that region near the SA border. Sealers and whalers had visited this bay from the early 1800s with voyages from Van Diemen’s Land or from America. Captain Wishart of the whaling ship called the Fairy named the bay Port Fairy in 1828 after he had sheltered here during a raging storm. Temporary whaling and sealing camps were set up here from around 1830, including camps by the Mills brothers of Launceston who began as sealers and then progressed to being whalers. The bay is situated at the mouth of the Moyne River adjacent to Griffiths Island, now a sanctuary for Shearwater or Muttonbirds or Puffinus tenuirostiris as they are officially known. John Griffiths had established a whaling station on the island in 1835. Permanent white settlement began at Port Fairy from 1843 when James Atkinson had a Special Survey undertaken by the NSW government. At £1 per acre he purchased 5,120 acres. Further inland near Koroit and Tower Hill William Rutledge also purchased 5,120 acres through a Special Survey. A condition of the Special Survey was the establishment of a town and encouragement of settlers. Atkinson, who was born in Ireland, named his town Belfast to attract poor Irish settlers. William Rutledge of Koroit was also an Irishman and he sponsored Irish immigrants to lease his lands. Rutledge established a wool and trading company in Port Fairy with his business partners. Atkinson also leased land to Irish immigrants to grow potatoes as they had back in Ireland.
Once Portland became an official settlement area of NSW in 1840 similar conditions had to apply to the Port Fairy district. Governor Gipps in Sydney declared the Portland Bay District open for pastoral leases in 1839 and Commissioner LaTrobe was put in charge of the Portland and Port Phillip Bay districts as pastoralists flooded in to take up lands. But it took three more years before Port Fairy became official with Atkinson’s Special Survey in 1843. Atkinson’s town was Belfast but the government port and jetty here was known as Port Fairy from around 1843. In fact the town of Belfast was only changed to Port Fairy by Act of Parliament in 1887. Once Atkinson purchased his land he leased some sections to Charles Mills of Launceston who became the first permanent white farmer and he also leased all town blocks in Belfast. It was not until 1887 that the Atkinson estate allowed the leased town blocks to be sold as freehold. Atkinson was not liked by the townspeople and it is for that reason that they petitioned the government to eradicate his town name of Belfast in 1887! (Despite the leasehold on all town blocks the town grew very quickly and by 1857 it had a population of 2,190.)
Charles Mills took up around 400 acres for £52 a year rent along the lagoon near the mouth of the Moyne River which he called Picanini Ponds. This occurred in 1844. He soon changed the name of his property to Woodbine. His fine two-storey residence called Woodbine was erected in 1847 once he had obtained a 31-year lease of the farm from Atkinson. He subleased some of his land to his brother-in-law, a ticket of leave man from Van Diemen’s Land, named James Glare. Charles Mill’s brother John Mills lived in Belfast at 40 Gipps Street. He captained whaling and later trading ships along the coast. Whaling finished in Port Fairy in 1848 the last year that a whale was caught near the town. Atkinson also leased the rest of his rural land to tenant farmers who only obtained freehold from the late 1870s onwards. But there was plenty more fertile land near Port Fairy. In 1852 the new Victorian government (Victoria was created as a new colony in 1851) resumed pastoral leases around Port Fairy and subdivided and sold 8,000 acres mainly in 100 or 200-acre farms. Most of those who took up the land were dairy farmers, wheat farmers or potato growers. The town of Belfast continued to grow and today it has over 50 heritage-listed buildings with many dating from the 1840s and 1850s. Although Atkinson only gave leasehold in Belfast he donated land for the Anglican and Catholic churches, the first school at the rear of the Anglican Church, the library and the meeting hall.
Buildings to look for in Port Fairy:
•Walk begins if you choose at 44 James St. Site of former Wesleyan Methodist Church (1855) in a distinctive Greek/Georgian style melange. Next door is the wooden parsonage 1899. The bluestone Sunday School was built 1870 and also used as a town school. This land donated by James Atkinson from his special survey.
•Walk back to the next intersection on the corner James/Bank Streets where you will see the Caledonian Inn (1844)- oldest licensed hotel in Victoria but now a motel; continue down Bank Street towards the sea.
•At the next corner of your left is Barkley St. Walk down here if you want and see the Anglican Church with its fine encircling stonewall. It opened 1856 replacing an earlier wattle and daub church built 1847.
•Next you will see the former Council Chambers with the clock in the pediment. Once also used as a Post Office. Almost next door is the Star of the West Hotel (1856) built for a black West Indian.
•Then turn right into Sackville St. Immediately on your left are the classical style old Lecture Hall (1889) and the Library (former Mechanics Institute 1865.) There are many fine buildings in this the main shopping strip.
•At the intersection with Cox St. are three old fine looking bank style buildings on each corner. The bank on the right in bluestone was the Australasian Bank erected in 1857, one of the earliest banks in Port Fairy. Seacombe House (1847) was built as the Stag Hotel. On the nearest corner is the former Post Office, 1881.
• Then turn left into Cox St and beyond the first street on your left is a former bank built in 1870. Now the Municipal offices. Next door is Emoh Cottage 1840, added to 1885, the former home of William Rutledge the owner of the Koroit Special Survey. The façade is grand but narrow. It is now a Youth Hostel.
•Continue towards the sea and turn right in Gipps St. First on your left is Captain John Mills’s cottage from 1850s at the rear of the later home from 1880s. Whilst here walk down to the waterfront to enjoy the Moyne River wharfs. Almost on the next corner is the Court House in bluestone from 1860.
•Now turn right into Campbell St but glance left and on the other corner is the former Merrijig Inn (1841), once the social and political centre of early Belfast.
•At the second street on your right up Campbell is Sackville St. Turn into Sackville St. and on your right is Motts Cottage built 1845, 1860 and 1890. Once home to two early sailors. The single storey front part is clearly the 1845 cottage. The two-storey part added to the rear was erected in 1860.
•On the next corner of Sackville/Cox Streets the walk ends. If you want to see the grand Presbyterian Church and manse go to 29-33 Albert St.( the main highway). It was built in 1854 to replace the 1843 Scots church. Romantic Talara (1855) is on Princes Highway which we saw earlier and the Catholic Church (1859).
The road into Koroit will allow us to look down in the crater of Tower Hill yet another of the volcanic features of Australia Felix. The crater is a maar crater believed to have been formed about 30,000 years ago. Maars are formed when hot lava comes into contact with cold ground water resulting in many explosions hurling rock, scoria and volcanic ash into the air. Most of the material falls around the rim of the crater creating layers of volcanic tuff – rock, scoria and stones – which create a broad, relatively flat volcanic crater. They are not associated with lava flows. Maar caters like Tower Hill are broad with an almost level crater floor as the magna or lava would have cooled as soon as it came into contact with cool ground water. Later activity in the maar crater led to several smaller volcanic cones (scoria cones) appearing in the crater floor. The soils are fertile and there was thick vegetation on Tower Hill but this was cleared by early settlers. The crater edges were denuded. But in 1892 this scenic area was declared as Victoria’s first National Park. It is now home to many emus, kangaroos, echidnas etc. Replanting of the crater slopes began in 1981 using a detailed painting by Eugene von Guerard in 1855 to determine which species were originally growing here! The crater itself is 4 kms long and 80 metres high. The Koroitgundidj people ran an information centre.