Come along with our Port Fairy Information Centre (VIC) Tour Guide and enjoy one of the many picturesque walks around historic Port Fairy!
Located on the Moyne River the old wharf and port are worthy of exploration, with a historic lifeboat, whaleboat, and buildings. There is also a variety of types of pleasure craft and fishing boats that sail up and down the Moyne River and into and out of the bay providing a nautical spectacle of ships putting in and putting out. If the weather turns foul you’ll probably see a bit of pitching and plunging. You might even see a boat heave to or shove off.
“The Port Fairy Visitor Information Centre acknowledges Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land and gives respect to the Elders, past and present, and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.”
Interspersed amongst recently taken photographs of the river and wharf is a selection of old photographs and postcards kindly provided by the Port Fairy Historical Society. They’ll help you visualise the comings and goings on the river and wharf in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Here are a couple of examples.
As you look at these historical images from the past we hope you will have fun transporting yourself back in time and comparing them with what you are seeing today.
There is a well-known adage that says there are two ‘certainties’ in life — death and taxes! When describing the development of the port of Port Fairy a third ‘certainty’ can probably be added to that adage — ‘bureaucratic bungling’!
As you stroll along the wharf we’ll take a lighthearted look at five of the biggest bureaucratic bungles that beset the development of the port in Port Fairy and, in the process, find out about the history of Port Fairy’s port!
Before we start our walk it’s important to remember that the first people to live in this area of Port Fairy were the Gunditjmara Aboriginal People. Archeological evidence suggests that they were living here for thousands of years before the arrival of the first Europeans. This Memorial stone near the VIC has an inscription reminding us about what happened to many of the Gunditjmara soon after the arrival of European settlers.
The tour starts outside the Port Fairy VIC. The area next to the VIC is called Railway Place and is where the railway station was located.
Of course, you don’t have to start here — you can join the walk anywhere along the boardwalk to the wharf on the Moyne River.
After arriving in Port Fairy in 1890 the railway ceased in 1977 which was a pity. The Folk Festival had just been established at the time and the town finally had its own reticulated water supply and flushing toilets — important services for a tourist destination growing in popularity.
A ‘Puffing Billy’ type train ride into Port Fairy would have been a fun way to arrive in the town! Today a popular bike trail allows riders to retrace the railway line between Port Fairy and Warrnambool via Koroit.
The introduction of the railway had a big impact on the activities on the wharf and in the port – in particular the livelihood of the local fishermen who were looking for a more reliable way to transport their catch to Melbourne.
This postcard shows Port Fairy fishermen unloading their catch onto the wharf in readiness to load the barracouta onto the train for transport to the Melbourne Fish Markets.
This photograph shows fishermen picking up holidaymakers alighting from the train and taking them on sailing trips around the river and bay.
Looks like it was a bit of a free-for-all to get into a fishing boat. Wonder if they were wearing life jackets?
But we are a bit ahead of ourselves on the walk — let’s return to the VIC. Before you head off to the wharf let’s look at the building next door.
The Returned and Services League (or RSL) building shown here was established in Port Fairy in 1916.
Prior to 1916 the Belfast Public Baths was located there. Social distancing was in full swing at the Belfast Public Baths in those days – men and women were banned from using the facility together. When the town’s bathing enclosure was situated on the South Beach men were fined if they were caught dilly-dallying within 50 yards of the enclosure when it was being used by women.
Walk down Bank Street in an easterly direction towards Gipps Street.
Gipps Street is named after Sir George Gipps who was Governor of New South Wales from 1839 to 1846.
It was Gipps who granted wealthy Irishman James Atkinson his Special Survey of 5,120 acres here in 1843 — a large acreage to be sure but Atkinson did suffer from ‘land hunger’.
Atkinson immediately began planning a township he named Belfast. One of the key features of his plan survives today — the wide streets in the town. Bank Street is a good example.
This photograph is taken from Gipps Street looking west up Bank Street.
Compare Bank Street to Gipps Street in this photograph.
Like Bank Street Gipps Street is also a wide street.
However, the roadway is narrower because of the Norfolk Island pines lining either side of the street.
When developing the town and surrounding land for farmland the early settlers cleared out all the vegetation. The vegetation was so thoroughly and completely removed that Belfast was once described as a ‘cold, windy, unromantic, treeless place’. The Norfolk Island pines along Gipps Street were only planted around 1900. One can understand the description of Belfast in those early days when looking at the next photograph, which was taken along James Street. There’s hardly a blade of grass to be seen – let alone a bush or a tree. Quite bleak and barren.
Walk along Gipps Street until you come to a laneway leading to the footbridge over the Moyne river. This photograph shows the entrance to the laneway from Gipps St and the footbridge over the river.
When you reach the footbridge turn a sharp right and walk down the steps to the boardwalk situated alongside the Moyne River, as shown in this photograph.
At the bottom of the steps the first thing you’ll notice is the following signage describing a catastrophic, one in a hundred-year meteorological event. It had a devastating impact on Port Fairy and the surrounding area.
Most of the time the Moyne River is a benign waterway that looks like this at its brilliant best…
But on other days when the weather starts turning nasty it can look like…
On 26 March 1946, the weather was much, much worse than this. Three days of torrential rain in the region saw the Moyne River rise nearly three metres above its normal level. The town was flooded, a number of people and many animals drowned and property damage was extensive. Why did the river level rise by so much? Apart from the sheer volume of rain water that fell, the Moyne River drains about 300 square kilometres of hinterland. There was also a King Tide. So, the river water couldn’t escape into the bay and had nowhere else to go but up to the height of the footbridge — about three metres – and surge into the town. From where you are standing look up at the footbridge to appreciate how high the water level of the river rose, as shown here.
This photograph was taken along Bank Street between William Street and James Street looking east towards the VIC and river. Dublin House is the two-storey building that you can see beyond the lamp post. At the height of the flood the water level can be seen halfway up the shops and rising to the level of the roofs of the shops.
This is the famous Port Fairy photograph taken near the Caledonian Hotel (The Stump) at the time of the flood. The action of the rower in the photograph seems to be suggesting that the water level might be several metres deep — but it was actually only several centimetres deep! A couple of locals had some fun setting up this photograph which gives the impression that the flooding was much deeper in James Street than it actually was when the photograph was taken.
Begin walking in a southerly direction along the boardwalk heading towards the wharf. The development of the wharf took place at King George Square where The Wharf Restaurant is now situated, some two hundred metres or so from where you are. As you walk along the boardwalk you’ll stop at each of the five connecting walkways you can see in the distance, shown in this photograph.
Walk to the first connecting walkway, # 1. We’ll call it the ‘Wishart Walkway’.
Two obvious questions about the early history of Port Fairy need to be answered — who were the first Europeans to arrive in the area and where did the name Port Fairy come from? In 1828, Captain Henry Wishart was hunting seals along the coast. At some stage, he was in hot pursuit of a group of escaped convicts who had stolen one of his sealing boats. He sailed into Port Fairy Bay searching for them. Look out over the river from the ‘Wishart Walkway’ to the east bank, as shown in this photograph. Port Fairy Bay is situated beyond the houses you can see in the distance – they were built on the sand dune between the river and the bay.
The bay and coastline weren’t named on Wishart’s maps and charts he was using. As was the custom in those days he was allowed to name the area. So, Captain Wishart named the area after his ship – the Fairy. Hence Port Fairy, although there wasn’t a port here in 1828.
Interestingly there is an old plaque – shown in the photograph – that is displayed on Gipps Street at the end of Cox Street about Captain Wishart. See if you can pick out two mistakes and the one correct piece of information.
Here is one of the friendly visitors to the Moyne River — a snoozing, sunbaking young seal! Seals hunt fish in the river and also feed on scraps of fish discarded by fishermen.
If you come across a seal, there are some rules you need to remember to ensure your safety and to minimise your impact on the seal.
Luckily for the seal shown previously it wasn’t alive and swimming around the south coast in the 1830s. In those days sealers roamed the islands to the north of Tasmania (known as Van Diemen’s Land at the time) in Bass Strait and along the southwest coast in search of seal populations which they ruthlessly hunted to near extinction. Once the seal populations had been exhausted, many of the sealers turned their attention to hunting whales. This led to the next group of explorers coming to Port Fairy.
Now walk to the next connecting walkway, # 2. We’ll call it the ‘Whaling Walkway’
There were two ways whales were hunted — deep sea or pelagic whaling or bay whaling.
This 1848 print shows several whaling crews hunting a couple of Southern Right whales in a bay — albeit not Port Fairy Bay! Bay whaling was the go in Port Fairy and nearby Portland. Although entrepreneur John Griffiths is the most famous whaler to set up a successful whaling industry in Port Fairy on Griffiths Island he wasn’t the first.
Before you walk to the next walkway it’s worth noting that opposite the ‘Whaling Walkway’ on the other side of the river is where part of the river’s marina is located. It’s situated in the so called ‘swinging basin’. In 1878 part of the river bank had to be excavated to allow large ships to turn around, thus creating the ‘swinging basin’. The ‘swinging basin’ is best viewed from the footbridge, as shown in this photograph.
Now walk to the next connecting walkway, # 3. We’ll call it the ‘Reibey & Griffiths Walkway’
Everyone is familiar with our $20 currency note. But did you know there is a direct link between the woman on the note and Port Fairy? Her name was Mary Reibey. She was a successful entrepreneur and businesswoman in the early years of Sydney. Her second son was James Reibey. He and his business partner Joseph Penny set up the first whaling business in Port Fairy. But they weren’t very experienced or successful and only lasted for one year — they didn’t catch a single whale! John Griffiths bought their business and his crews successfully hunted whales in Port Fairy for a number of years. They took the whales back to Griffiths Island where they extracted the whale oil and bones.
What did whalers need to catch whales in Port Fairy Bay and then process them? They needed a whaleboat and a crew of six able-bodied men, harpoons, rope and various tools to harvest the whale oil and bones. And some luck to survive the whale hunts! It was a pretty dangerous business trying to catch a big 23,000 kilograms (40 tons) and 15 metres long ‘fish’, as they were thought to be in those times.
This is a photograph of an actual whaleboat which is usually moored further down the river from where you are standing – opposite the restaurant. Closer inspection of the thin hull of the whaleboat reveals just how vulnerable those adventurous whalers were. The shipping of whalers and equipment to Griffiths Island and the exporting of whale products from Port Fairy was the beginning of the development of a port in Port Fairy. However, the whaling industry in Port Fairy and Portland eventually suffered the same fate as the sealing industry — by the mid 1840s the whalers ran out of whales to catch.
As mentioned previously the seal and whale populations along the southwest coast of Victoria were plundered to near extinction. Similarly, fishing stocks are reducing today due to a variety of reasons which include over-fishing.
Now walk to the next connecting walkway, # 4. We’ll call it the ‘Fishermen’s Walkway’
In an earlier photograph a large group of holidaymakers were shown milling around on the wharf, some hopping into fishing boats. You may have noticed that the fishing boats were distinctive and similar. They were, and still are today, called Couta boats. The one in this photograph can usually be found near the ‘Fishermen’s Walkway’. There are others scattered around the marina. See if you can spot some. Coutas were first developed in Queenscliff in the 1870s. They have a distinctive shape, large sail area and a curved bowsprit. Coutas were the popular choice as a fishing boat because they are fast, highly maneuverable and broad in the stern that allowed extensive trawling. Their nickname was the ‘skimmer dish’.
The Port Fairy fishing fleet was Victoria’s biggest and most successful up until the 1920s when for various reasons it went into decline.
This postcard shows some of the fishing fleet returning to port after a day’s sailing and fishing.
Before the advent of Couta boats, fishing boats were much simpler and slower. Here is the famous S.T. Gill print from 1857 entitled ‘Belfast Port Fairy’ showing three men fishing off Griffiths Island who are looking slightly bewildered at their ‘picture being taken’.
Fishing was and still is today a dangerous profession and a number of Port Fairy fishermen have lost their lives over the years. This memorial listing the names of these fishermen is placed in Martin’s Point.
One reason for the decline of the Port Fairy fishing fleet was the appearance of larger and more specialized fishing boats with up-to-date equipment and technology. Two big fishing boats that are frequently moored along the river are shown in this photograph. Have you seen them? Can you guess what they catch? Here are some clues: one catches squid (Carol Maree), another crayfish (Putty’s Pride).
A variety of fish, abalone, scallops and sharks are other seafood caught from the Great Southern Ocean in the vicinity of Port Fairy.
Port fairy is one of the most popular recreational fishing spots in Victoria — whether it be along the river bank, off the beach, or from a boat. The Port Fairy Angling Club is located along the wharf and welcomes new members and conducts fishing lessons along the river on a regular basis.
A BOAT IN OUR BACKYARD – THE BUILDING OF THE TACOMA
The house next to the Port Fairy Angling Club has an extraordinary fishing tale to tell. The signage on the front fence of the house tells the story.
“In 1944 three young Port Fairy fishermen, William, Alan and Hugh Haldane began to build an 84 foot tuna clipper from plans provided by the Western Boatbuilding Company in TACOMA, U.S.A. In 1951, the 120 ton, 84 ft Tacoma emerged from its rusting shed. It then took 2 months to dig by hand the 130 tons of soil and lower the Tacoma ready for launching. Tallow from the local butcher greased the slip”.
“With a rising tide at 3.30am on 5th November, 1951 Mrs. Rebecca Haldane broke a ribbon wrapped bottle filled with seawater from Port Lincoln, Tacoma silently slid into the Moyne River. It had been 7 years since the keel logs had arrived at the Port Fairy railway station. Fletcher Jones turned to the wives of the three brothers and said “girls, there goes your diamonds and pearls”. In January 1952, the Tacoma sailed for Port Lincoln to pioneer the Australian tuna industry. On board were the 3 brothers, their wives, 7 children, local twins Jack and Keith Bellamy, 2 cats and a dog. For over 50 years the Tacoma fished from Port Lincoln before being donated by the Haldane family to the people of Australia.”
The photograph shows the Tacoma under construction on the bank of the Moyne River prior to its launching.
From the ‘Fishermen’s Walkway you can also see an old bullock wagon located on the eastern bank, although horses could be used to pull the wagon as well! Horses and bullocks played a pivotal role in the development of not only the town but the colony. This photograph shows a wagon loaded to the gunnels with bags of wheat on its way to the wharf.
Now walk to the last of the five connecting walkways, # 5. We’ll call it ‘Atkinson’s Walkway’
In 1843 James Atkinson acquired a substantial amount of land in the area — 5,120 acres. He then set about creating the township of Belfast near the western bank of the Moyne River. But he had a problem — where to locate the port of Port Fairy? As the river was shallow and the river mouth was blocked by reefs there was really only one choice. It had to be the bay.
After many years and a lot of procrastinating and wasted money eventually the government funded the blasting of the reefs, dredging of the river and extending the mouth of the Moyne River into the bay – enabling large ships to sail up the river. The river finally became the port in 1872 – nearly thirty years after the town began and well after Atkinson had passed away and his family had returned to Ireland.
This photograph shows a diver about to enter the water near the mouth of the river to place explosives on the reefs to break them up.
Across the river from ‘Atkinson’s Walkway’ you can see the river’s boat ramp. As mentioned previously Port Fairy is one of the most popular recreational fishing centres in Victoria. When weather conditions are right and the fish are biting the boat ramp is a very busy place with boats being launched into the river before heading out to the bay and ocean.
Now walk along the wharf and find out about the five biggest bungles the government committed while the port of Port Fairy was being established on the Moyne River. The Government had five serious allegations to answer.
The concrete path you’ll walk along is where the train line extended to on the wharf in the days of Port Fairy’s railway. It’s where all those holidaymakers were congregating.
You’ll pass a shed with a curved roof. The Customs Shed was built in 1862 and it’s the only structure still surviving from the original port. You’ll see the shed in many of the old photographs and postcards.
Located across the river from the Custom’s Shed you can see a slipway to the left of another building with a curved roof. This building isn’t another Customs Shed – it’s the Lifeboat House. Beyond the slipway and Lifeboat House and over the sand dune is Port Fairy Bay.
The next set of old photographs show the structures associated with each of the Government’s five bungles.
Question 1: Why did the Government fund the building of a pier from the East Beach into Port Fairy Bay? (shown in the next photograph)
Answer: To allow ships that sailed into Port Fairy Bay to berth at the pier and reduce the dependence on flat bottomed barges, called lighters, which transported people and cargo to the river mouth and up the river. Lighters were unpowered and were moved and steered using long oars – called ‘sweeps’ — and the ocean water currents.
A small trip but fraught with dangers in bad weather!
Bungle 1: The pier was meant to be built in a deep part of the bay but it was built in the shallowest part of the bay so that most ships couldn’t get near it to unload people and cargo, as can be concluded from the next two photographs!
Question 2: Why did the Government fund the building of a tramway from the pier to the river? The tramway leading from the pier in the bay is shown in the photograph.
Answer: To connect the pier to a bridge over the river to allow the transport of cargo and people from the ships along the pier, across the sand dune along the tramway.
Bungle 2: The town waited years before a connecting bridge across the river was built and so the pier built in the bay and connecting tramway were useless.
Question 3: Why did the Government eventually fund the building of a tramway bridge across the river? (shown in this photograph). The tramway bridge was built near where the Lifeboat House and slipway are located today, as shown in a previous photograph.
Answer: To connect the tramway to the west side of the river and allow people and cargo to be safely unloaded onto the west bank of the river. The bridge was also meant to allow boats and ships to sail further up the river.
Bungle 3: The bridge that was constructed wasn’t a draw bridge. It had a low clearance with pylons so close together that ships and large boats had difficulty sailing further up the river to the warehouses! Not surprisingly the tramway bridge didn’t survive for very long! Can you identify some of the buildings?
Question 4: Why did the Government send a lifeboat to Port Fairy?
Answer: To help rescue people from shipwrecks in the bay.
Bungle 4: By the time a lifeboat arrived in Port Fairy in 1857 permanent moorings were established in the bay after which there were very few shipwrecks and very few people needed to be rescued! The lifeboat was never used to save a single life – it was bit of a ‘white elephant’. (The whaleboat was often used instead!)
Here is another photograph of the Lifeboat House situated on the eastern bank of the river. The Lifeboat House was constructed originally on the East Beach pier in 1861 and relocated to its current position in 1873.
This postcard shows the lifeboat being rowed by a crew of fourteen. The lifeboat still exists and is famous as one of the few remaining types of its age in the world that can self—right and self-drain! The lifeboat can be viewed in the Lifeboat House by the public and is regularly rowed on the river and around the bay by volunteer crews.
One of the most famous ships that regularly sailed up and down the Moyne River was the steam packet ship, the SS Casino. This photograph shows the SS Casino sailing up the Moyne River. It’s passing the Lifeboat House, to the left, with the wharf, Customs Shed and railway line and carriages on the right. Griffiths Island can be seen in the distance.
The SS Casino was frequently involved in incidents causing damage including many collisions with other boats, ships, rocks and reefs and even a Couta boat moored at the wharf as well as running aground and being beached on a number of occasions.
By 1932, after 50 years of service and about 2,500 trips along the coast the SS Casino was too slow and a new ship was needed. But before any decision was made the SS Casino was involved in its final accident.
While trying to unwisely berth at the Apollo Bay pier in heavy seas it sustained a damaged hull and the SS Casino capsized and sank while trying to reach the beach.
The Casino Memorial shown here is found in King George Square. The memorial has the propellor from the SS Casino. The bell on top of the memorial is the Custom’s House bell that was rung to alert the volunteers to come and help rescue people and cargo from ships in distress in the bay. The bell was called the wreck-bell.
The plaques on the memorial describe the tragedy and list the people who lost their lives on that fateful day.
Her replacement ship, the SS Coramba didn’t last long — in 1934 the SS Coramba sank off Phillip Island.
You might be wondering what the Government’s fifth bungle was and where it took place? It’s actually related to this photograph. If you are standing at the Casino Memorial, look at this photograph of King George Square. See if you can work out where you are on that photograph and what was there when the photograph was taken. You can see the Customs Shed and a gap between two buildings for the train to reach the wharf.
If you identified the enclosure with two cannons you are correct.
You may be asking why two cannons are positioned there and ominously pointing towards the wharf in a threatening manner?!
In the late 1800s a series of cannons of varying sizes were placed at strategic positions along the southwest coast of Victoria to defend the colony against a possible invasion by the Russian Pacific Fleet. But the Russians never tried to invade the colony so there wasn’t a single shot fired in anger. Port Fairy received a number of 32, 68 and 80 pounder cannons. The only problem was they were too old and didn’t work properly. Hence, they can be described as a Government bungle – the fifth.
If you would like to find out more about the cannons in Port Fairy have a look at the ‘Battery Hill & Moyne River Tour’ listed in ‘Tracks and Trails’ on the Port Fairy VIC website. The cannons will soon be returning to the shelters after restoration.
Over the road from the Casino Memorial and next to the Court House on the corner of Campbell Street and Gipps Street is the Customs House – built in 1861. The Customs House is shown here.
Your walk will finish on Gipps Street opposite the Port Fairy Museum so you’ll have an opportunity to take a look at the town’s Court House, built in 1859-60. The Court House is the home of the Port Fairy Historical Society. A fully accredited museum is also located in the Court House and has many interesting exhibits and artifacts that tell the story of Port Fairy’s history. Members of the Society, including an Archivist, will be present in the Court House ready to answer your questions.
(By-the-way, can you see the person dressed in blue? Is it an apparition? Beware – many ghosts haunt Port Fairy!)
Normally, the Museum is open to visitors each Saturday afternoon, Sunday morning or Wednesday afternoon.
Currently the Museum is closed due to COVID19 restrictions. Contact the VIC to find out when it will reopen or visit the Museum’s website here.
The following photograph shows various pieces of whaling equipment and whale bones on display in the museum.
Can you identify the flaying tool, harpoon, flensing axe and flensing knife, whale vertebra, whale ear drum and whale rib bone?
And one final, peaceful photograph of Port Fairy!.The Sun setting on South Beach…
A final Government bureaucratic bungle concerns the Customs Department’s practice of collecting taxes on food and drink in the early days of the colony of Victoria, when it was known as the Port Phillip District of the Colony of New South Wales. These taxes were an important source of revenue for a government struggling financially.
Whalers were based in faraway Port Fairy at the time. In 1839 the Superintendent of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales, Charles La Trobe, was suspicious of their activities and realized that the Government had bungled their attempts to collect taxes from the whalers who were importing their food and drink from Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land) and not paying any taxes on them. In an effort to sort out the problem La Trobe instructed his Government Surveyor Charles Tyers to call in to Port Fairy during his journey to the South Australian border, famously asking Tyers to ‘go and see what people are doing there’.
This completes the River and Wharf tour and hopefully by now you could have told Charles La Trobe what people were doing here. I hope you enjoyed finding out about the port of Port Fairy and had a bit of fun along the way.
Walking tours of the wharf are available from the Port Fairy Visitor Information Centre, where we countdown the ‘Top20’ bureaucratic bungles, share more humorous anecdotes and re-enact a whale hunt.
If it’s open feel free to enjoy a meal and or a coffee at The Wharf Restaurant or maybe have some fish and chips.
The Museum on Gipps Street opposite the Casino Memorial might be open too. Or you could continue your walk to Martin’s Point and even on to Griffiths Island. As you become more familiar with the historic buildings in Port Fairy it might be fun to review the photographs and postcards shown in the tour and see if you can recognize and name them. Enjoy walking and exploring Port Fairy.
The narrative, descriptions, historical information, photographs and historical prints supplied by Glen Foster, Volunteer Tour Guide at the Port Fairy & Region Visitor Information Centre. Historical photographs and postcards supplied by the Port Fairy Historical Society. Further reading: ‘Port Fairy — The First Fifty Years’ by J. W. Powling; ‘The Belfast Fantasy’ and ‘Port Fairy — The Town That Kept Its Character’ by Marten A Syme.
Explore everything about a region by selecting a location.
Sign up to get the latest deals, tours & events along the Great Ocean Road
Great Ocean Road Regional Tourism acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the Great Ocean Road region the Wadawurrung, Eastern Maar & Gunditjmara. We pay our respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging. We recognise and respect their unique cultural heritage and the connection to their traditional lands. We commit to building genuine and lasting partnerships that recognise, embrace and support the spirit of reconciliation, working towards self-determination, equity of outcomes and an equal voice for Australia’s first people.