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Published June 7th 2012
Williamstown was the landing place for Victoria's first settlers in 1835. Originally named Fort Gellibrand, with its deep water port, it was thought to be the ideal location for a city in the new colony. Unfortunately there was inadequate drinking water and soon John Batman relocated the hub up the narrow River Yarra Yarra to the present site of Melbourne.
Subsequently Williamstown remained an important commercial settlement and became recognised as a historical jewel. It's easy to reach the town which is situated on a sleepy peninsula on Port Phillip Bay, a short distance from Melbourne CBD. Options include catching the train to North Williamstown, Williamstown Beach or Williamstown station. For many years the line extended to a 4th station, named Williamstown Pier but this station was mainly for port and granary employees to access, until the 60s when these activities ceased. Another access option is by river ferry.
If you venture to this charming and authentic community, a logical place to start wandering is Nelson Place, which has always been a hub of activity on the Hobson Bay waterfront. Here, the main Heritage information booth is located in the Commonwealth Reserve and volunteers lead walks daily. On a recent breezy day, octogenarian Keith Smith, who has lived in the area for seventy years, and taught at several of the local schools, led a group with obvious pleasure. Apart from genuine historical information he laces his presentation with personal tidbits.
The tour set off at a leisurely pace, past the old morgue and many bluestone buildings, which were previously hotels. There were once over one hundred hotels in this seafaring town. Sadly many have met their demise and several more are destined for the chopping block of development. Posters demanding – "Save Williamstown" are posted in many windows on commercial as well as residential buildings.
After hearing a descriptive presentation regarding the Gem Pier, site of Melbourne's first pier, the group continued to the Shelley Beach shore. For those needing refreshment an ice cream van was conveniently parked there.
Next on the tour, The Timeball Tower, was originally constructed in 1849, as a lighthouse, but was converted to a chronological aid in 1861. The copper ball, on a pole atop the structure, would descend slowly at precisely 1pm daily. One of only four in the world; it is constructed of locally quarried bluestone and the jewel of this historic town.
In the early days of the settlement five rotted and filthy hulks housed convicts offshore. The men were rowed ashore daily for hard labour. When a prisoner died he was buried at this location, often with ball and chain attached to his leg. No information was kept and if a headstone was erected it was usually stolen and broken up for ship deck scrubbing stones. Bush ranger Ned Kelly served time here. One day seven men were hung after a mutiny in the morning. Shortly following this incident the convicts were relocated to a more secure settlement.
Visiting another hotel the group viewed a mural of the American Confederate ship "Shenandoah" and then meandered back to the tour start point. This walk is one of many options available to learn about the history of Williamstown, but if timing allows it is a worthwhile activity to walk the whole length of Nelson Place. Some sights will include culinary choices at the sidewalk cafes along Nelson Place.
I find these articles to be so fascinating and informative. While I have done a good deal of travel, I have never been to Australia and would so enjoy a visit one day. Your articles are designed to entice people to the area or at least leave them dreaming. Thank you.