Historical Towns Directory

By clicking on a state or territory on the map, you can access a regional guide to Australia's historic towns, including a wealth of information about organizations, museums and locations.

We invite organisations to submit information for inclusion on this site. Please click here to email your information to the Directory Editor, Ros Stirling.



Find Williamstown

Now a suburb of Melbourne, Williamstown was established at the same time as the future Victorian capital and operated as its first port. It sits at the end of a small peninsula bounded by Hobsons Bay on the north and Altona Bay to the south.

Williamstown was originally named Port Harwood by the party of John Batman who arrived to assess the Melbourne site for pastoral settlement in mid-1835 . Settlement at Melbourne began in August that year. The site was visited by Governor Bourke and Captain William Lonsdale in 1837 and they gave Williamstown its current name in honour of then-King William IV, believing that it would develop into the main centre of settlement. The inaugural land sales also took place that year.

A stone jetty was constructed in 1838 using convict labour at the site of the current Gem Pier. The first store, police and schools soon followed, including the St Mary's Catholic School (1842), which is now Victoria's oldest continuously running school. Despite being Melbourne's major port, in 1850 Williamstown had not developed into much more than a settlement of shoreline boarding houses and alcohol stores. The bluestone section of the Time Ball Tower was built using convict labour in either 1846 or 1852. The tower was used so that ships could accurately gauge the time. This was done by lowering the Time Ball at precisely 1pm daily so that ships could set their chronometers. The brick upper portion of the Tower dates to the 1930s.

The gold rushes during the 1850s saw activities at the port increase as prospectors arrived from interstate and overseas en route to the gold fields. The gold rush also resulted in an increase in criminal activity and five floating penal hulks were established in Hobsons Bay to accommodate the increase in prisoners, which included bushrangers Dan 'Mad Dog' Morgan and Captain Melville. By 1856 the settlement at Williamstown had developed to include hotels, shops, residences, banks and churches, some of which are still standing today. The Naval Dock Yards were established in the 1850s and Fort Gellibrand was developed from 1860 to 1890.

Amongst the ships to dock at the port around this time was the 'Victoria' gunship in 1856 – the first that the British government presented to the Australian colony. In 1865, during the US Civil War, the Confederate raider, the 'Shenandoah', docked at Williamstown to undertake repairs, despite the US consul's objections. This ship captured or sank 38 Union ships before turning itself in. An 1871 hearing at the International Court in Geneva awarded damages of £820 000 against Britain to the US government for use of the port.

Williamstown was proclaimed a town in 1886 and a city in 1919. It is now connected to the city of Melbourne via the Westgate Bridge. In 1994 Williamstown, Altona city and sections of Werribee and Footscray cities were combined into the City of Hobsons Bay. Today Williamstown's maritime charm and many restaurants and cafes on Nelson Place make it a popular tourist destination.

Williamstown Historical Society
Information: The Society was founded in 1956 and aims to collect and preserve the history and historical objects of the City of Williamstown. The Society's Museum in the Mechanics' Institute, Electra Street, Williamstown is open from 2pm to 5pm Sundays and at other times by arrangement for bus trips and school outings.
Publications: 'Timeball Times' is published every second month.
Events: General meetings where a guest speaker talks on various subjects.
President Phone: 03 9397 1534
Contact: Miss Janet Long

PO Box 189
Williamstown VIC 3016

Williamstown Visitor Information Centre
Phone: 03 9399 8641
Fax: 03 9399 8650

Corner of Nelson Place and Syme Street

Email: visitorinformation@hobsonsbay.vic.gov.au



Index of all
Australian Heritage articles