THE TOWNSHIP OF PORT FAIRY - WORTHY OF EXPLORATION
Come along with our Port Fairy Visitor Information Centre (VIC) Tour Guide and enjoy one of the many picturesque walks around historic Port Fairy!
The old township of Port Fairy, located near the Moyne River and with many historic buildings, is worthy of exploration. The main thoroughfares of the town are Sackville and Bank Streets. Because Port Fairy is primarily a tourist town you won’t be surprised to see many of these streets’ shops catering to the thousands of tourists that come to visit and stay each year. And yes, you could spend your time dawdling along the streets, gazing at the shop windows and browsing inside, enjoying the café culture. Or admiring the many beautifully restored heritage dwellings with their well-manicured gardens and lolling around the spectacular, panoramic beaches. But there’s a popular saying at the VIC – “Don’t just visit Port Fairy, visit Port Fairy’s history!” So why don’t you ask yourself one question: “Why was Port Fairy once called Belfast?” If you want to explore this question and find answers - read on! But before you do there’s one caveat – Port Fairy’s history is a rich tapestry of people, events and buildings. This tour is an informative (hopefully!) and humorous (maybe!) take of only a small portion of them.
In 2012 Port Fairy was voted the most livable small town in the … well, let’s be upfront … in the universe! Townsfolk were pretty excited about that announcement, judging from the photograph. Then in 2019, Port Fairy was voted the best tourist town in the nation. But why? What gave Port Fairy an advantage over other towns? Was it because the CBD doesn’t have any traffic lights, pedestrian crossings or parking meters? Or because there are no pokies in the town? Or fast-food chains? Was it because of our famous links golf course? Possibly … but I hope you can keep a secret, ‘cos between you and me, if the judges had tasted the local tap water …?
Interspersed amongst recently taken photographs of the town 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 in the town in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Here’s an example - a shop in Sackville Street, circa 1880. Quotes from the times will also be incorporated into the narrative to help “colour in” the scenes being described. As you read about these historical images we hope you’ll have fun transporting yourself back in time and comparing them with what you’re seeing today. And at the end of the tour you’ll be able to understand why Port Fairy won those prestigious awards.
The tour starts outside the Port Fairy VIC. The area next to the VIC is called Railway Place and it’s where the railway station was once located.
Of course, you don’t have to start here – you can join the walk anywhere along one of the streets you’ll be visiting.
Let’s clear up one aspect of that question posed before – where did the name Belfast come from? Read the signage near the VIC and you’ll discover that a wealthy Irishman, James Atkinson, purchased 5,120 acres of land here in 1843. Apparently, he was well aware of the increasing trade in the area, particularly in whale oil and bones and farm produce, and the influx of settlers. Possibly he had an epiphany. If he did, Atkinson’s thought processes may have been: “Why don’t I create a town (and a port, but that’s another story) for these settlers to live and work in? Ahh to be sure, I’ll make a fortune selling and renting the land to them.” And he did. By-the-way no one knows what he looked like – there are no known photographs or paintings of him. Here’s a guess at his profile.
Start walking in a westerly direction along Bank Street.
Guess what type of establishment was one of the first in Atkinson’s Belfast? No surprises really – it was a pub. The first of many. The building shown in the photograph, which is located across Bank street and diagonally opposite the VIC, operated as the Commercial Hotel from 1865 until the 1990s. It was originally called the Royal Oak Hotel. A verandah was later added to the front of the building, as shown in the next photograph.
The Royal Oak was built in 1857. Today the building is being used by businesses and as boutique apartments. However, in the early years the hotel provided accommodation, food, grog and entertainment for the mainly male population of the young town. Entertainment included music, magicians and fire-eating wizards. And Madam Eva Evans brought her entourage of young ladies to the hotel – their “performances” were wildly popular. Let’s go on a pub crawl around Port Fairy. But it’ll be a very short pub-crawl as there are only three pubs in Port Fairy today.
Keep walking along Bank Street to the intersection with Sackville Street.
On the northwestern corner of the intersection is the Star of the West Hotel, shown here. It was built in 1856. If you’re going to call your pub the “Star of the West” it had better be upmarket. And the Star of the West certainly was. I don’t think Madam Eva Evans was invited to bring her “performers” to the Star of the West.
The Star of the West was described as the “largest and most commodious in the Western District”. Its ballroom was “decorated with flags, flowers … tables liberally spread with the finest delicacies of the season … after justice had been done to the supper, dancing was resumed until ‘daylight did appear’ … there was a desire amongst the Port Fairyites to give a ‘right good welcome’ to their guests”. While the Commercial Hotel tended to cater to the blue-collar workers, like fishermen, farm labourers, shop assistants and the like, the Star of the West entertained the Establishment, principally the Squattocracy. This postcard shows an interesting assortment of people and modes of transportation in front of the hotel.
And squatters loved mucking around on the upstairs verandah which was described as a “wide and capacious balcony commanding views of the finest scenery and is frequently the scene of acrobatic performances by funny squatters on the burst”. It’s easy to imagine the squatters horsing around up there - like our two spiffing toffs on horseback shown here.
Speaking of horses the Star of the West was also a staging post for the Cobb and Co stagecoaches, shown here (could they take colour photographs in those days?). Today we take it for granted that we can drive to Melbourne from Port Fairy in about four hours. But a Cobb and Co stagecoach to Geelong and connecting train to Melbourne took the best part of two days for the same journey. And it was expensive – equal to about two weeks wages for a working man. Comfortable trip – no way. Bumpy at best. There were no sealed roads. Or suspension in those wooden wheels.
Horses were absolutely vital to the early settlers – if you didn’t own a horse then walking was the only way to get around, unless you could hitch a ride on a bullock wagon. While cattle could be bought for fifteen shillings to a pound per head, a horse would set you back twenty-five pounds for a ‘hack’ and up to sixty pounds for a younger, fitter horse. If you were found guilty of stealing a horse you were incarcerated for two years with hard labour.
Today there are only two other pubs in the town. The Caledonian Hotel, or The Stump, is shown here in an early photograph, circa 1861. The hotel is situated further up Bank Street, at the intersection with James Street. Operating circa 1844, the Caledonian Hotel claims to be the oldest continuously licensed hotel in Victoria.
Opposite the Caledonian Hotel is the Victoria Hotel. There’s been a hotel on this site since 1850. One of its more modern entrances is shown here. The Victoria Hotel is famous for trying to establish a licensed pool of poker machines in 2009. The Council undertook a poll at a cost of $25,000 to find out what residents wanted – 91% of residents rejected the license – a great victory for the town.
On the southeast corner of the intersection of Bank Street and Sackville Street is Fiddlers Green, shown here. The term “Fiddlers Green” means “a place where people can enjoy music, dancing, mirth and have fun”. Fiddlers Green provides a great venue for having fun in a wide variety of outdoor activities in Port Fairy throughout the year.
Next to Fiddlers Green is the Lecture Hall, built in 1881-82. It can be seen in the background of the previous photograph. This photograph shows the façade of the Lecture Hall. Here’s a quote from the late nineteenth century: “The moral condition of Belfast is not rated very high, because of the all-prevalent habit of intemperance”. At the time, there were about thirteen pubs in Belfast for a small population compared to three today for a much larger population. John Wild, a local watch-maker (he had plenty of time), and other, more sober members of the community tried to encourage temperance. They even organised a lecture in the Lecture Hall with the rather optimistic title: “The Superiority of Pump Water over Intoxicating Liquors”.
A Total Abstinence Society was established, followed by the Temperance Society and then the Temperance and Philharmonic Society, mentioned in the plaque on the wall of the Lecture Hall shown here. Presumably the idea was that by listening to classical music drinkers will be tempted to turn to temperance. Not surprisingly these societies came and went without a great deal of success.
Continue walking along Sackville Street to the bluestone Commonwealth Bank building halfway along the street, shown here.
It was built in 1925 and became the Commonwealth bank in 1991. Prior to 1991 the State Bank of Victoria occupied the building.
What was Sackville Street like, in the early days of the town? Here’s a quote describing the shops along the street: “a miserable unsightly row of shanties”. At that time building materials were in short supply and so merchants constructed their shops out of any bits and pieces of timber they could find and few shops had veranda's, as shown in the photograph. Not surprisingly a lot of them didn’t look great.
In the days before gas and electricity people depended on open fires for cooking, heating and lighting. The only problem was that many homes and shops were made out of wood. Consequently, they were prone to catching fire and burning down. A major fire in 1880 destroyed a large section of the shops you’ve just walked past. The Commonwealth Bank was built on land on which a warehouse was destroyed by fire, like many of the shops along the street. Being without a reticulated water supply meant no fire brigade. Buckets of water were the go-to. Eventually a fire brigade was formed, as shown in this photograph.
One of the oldest shops on Sackville Street is across the street opposite the Commonwealth Bank. It was built in 1868. Can you recognize it from the windows in this photograph? Thomas Osborne published the Belfast Gazette here after establishing the paper in 1849. The local newspaper was very important as the only media within the town in those early years before the advent of the telegraph and telephone. The paper was published until 1989.
Walk to the intersection of Sackville Street and Cox Street.
Looking at the surface of Sackville Street in this next photograph it’s not hard to imagine it being dusty in summer and boggy in winter with multiple puddles of water. Mix in the “poop” from all kinds of animals roaming the street – need I say more. The surface of the street was once described as “dangerous to the limbs if not lives of the public … persons are liable to fall down large quarry-holes or break their legs over heaps of stones”. But Cox Street was much worse. You may have read about the dangers for ships sailing through a stretch of water called the “Bay of Biscay”? Sections of Cox Street became “horror stretches” to travel along in a bullock wagon, especially in winter when many wagons were “lost” down deep potholes – it was so bad the street became widely known as the “Bay of Biscay”.
One of the redeeming features of Cox Street was, and still is today, the impressive buildings on each corner of this intersection with Sackville Street. Let’s start with Seacombe House, also known as the Stag Hotel, shown here. It was built in 1847 so it’s one of the few surviving buildings from the earliest days of the town. There used to be a balcony at the front of the building, as can be seen in the next photograph. Seacombe House has a colourful history as an accommodation inn and eatery.
Two notable innkeepers were Abijah “Clockey” Brown and Aquila Duck (true name). “Clockey” Brown tried to raise the standard of his clientele by trying to entice the squatters away from the Star of the West to his Stag Hotel. Squatters were part of the Squattocracy and were often, perhaps unkindly, referred to as “those shiny arsed knights of the saddle with their women in satin and silks”. But that didn’t deter “Clockey”, although his regulars didn’t like the way he tried to ingratiate himself with them - in true Basil Fawlty style. In retaliation, they liked to hide his expensive, enormous gold watch, the source of his nickname. Aquila Duck was a real character in the town. He loved “waddling” up and down Sackville Street with his wife (probably Daisy) baiting the local fishermen with their wise-quacks (sorry).
The impressive bluestone building, opposite Seacombe House and shown here, was built in 1857. It was the Bank of Australasia - described as “the handsomest house in the town – universally admired for its taste”. The bank eventually became the ANZ Bank. It was designed by Nathanial Billing.
Billing also designed St John’s Church of England, shown here, which was built in 1856. The church is located on Regent Street between Sackville Street and James Street.
In 1859 Billing was the building supervisor for St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, shown here. The church is located on the Princes Highway at the western end of Polding Street.
By 1828 the first “letter carriers” on horseback started delivering the mail over vast areas of the Australian countryside, travelling thousands of kilometres each week. This imposing Post Office building on the northeast corner of the intersection was built in 1881. In those days Government architects built enormous Post Offices in major provincial towns as statements of the authority and presence of the government. It ceased being a Post Office in 2007.
Turn left and walk along Cox Street in an easterly direction towards the Moyne River. Stop when you reach the carpark.
Look across the street at numbers 9 (on the left), 11, 13, 15-17 (in the distance) shown in the photograph. All very different dwellings. Can you guess when they were built? Number 13 is the most recent and was built mid twentieth century. It’s the classic double-fronted brick veneer house so popular during the 1950s and 60s. Number 9 on the corner was built in 1890 and was the first polychrome brick house built in Port Fairy. It also features a tessellated verandah and a prominent bay window. Numbers 15-17 were built in 1849 with a two-storeyed section at the back. It started as an Apothecaries Hall, and later the Bank of Victoria, then a doctor’s surgery, a cordial factory and eventually the Colonial Bank. However, the most interesting of these dwellings is number 11, shown in the next photograph. Let’s find out why.
Cross the street.
The bluestone dwelling at 11 Cox Street was built in 1858. It was the town’s first Telegraph Office. The social impact of the arrival of the telegraph in Australia was revolutionary. It had a similar effect to when electronic mail became available in 1993. What form did the messages take when transmitted? (Morse Code) Exchanging messages between the cities and towns of Australia took days. The local Victorian Electric telegraph reduced this to minutes. One of the first messages sent in March 1854 gave news of the Eureka rebellion on the gold fields at Ballarat. Before the Overland Telegraph, news and mail could take three months to reach England. The Overland Telegraph reduced this to hours.
Walk along Cox Street and turn right into Wishart Street. Walk to number 16, Seafield, shown here.
Built in 1852 this dwelling is the oldest in the street and is shown here. It was built for Captain Lewis Grant who ran a lightering business on the Moyne River. In 1846 the population of Belfast was recorded by a census as 601. The ratio of single men to single women was about 2:1. So, it was very difficult for a single man to find and marry a single woman in Belfast. One common solution to this problem was to marry your cousin. James Atkinson did this (they had 11 children). Another common solution was to marry a very young woman.
While staying in Aukland, New Zealand, Captain Grant eloped with the daughter of the publican at the inn where he was staying. He was 38 … she was 15! They had one son and eight daughters – so they did their bit to raise the single women numbers in the town! The photographs show Captain Grant and his wife Mary Jane. Another common attempt to find a wife was to go door-knocking along a street and beg to marry a daughter of any resident family, even if unknown. Apparently this happened to Captain Grant. Not sure of the truth of this story but apparently one afternoon a man knocked on Grant’s door and asked: “Captain Grant, I want one of your daughters for my wife”. “Well” Grant replied, “Before I agree to swap, I want to see your wife.”!
Continue walking along Wishart Street in a southerly direction towards Campbell Street. Most of the present houses were constructed between 1885 and 1910. Note the distinctively different architectural styles on either side of the street, shown in the next two photographs. On the east side of the street - to your left - the houses are single-fronted (apart from one further down the street).
On the west side of Wishart Street - to your right – the houses are double-fronted (also apart from one further down the street). The street trees, Norfolk Island Hibiscus, were planted shortly after WW2. The street was known as Fishermen’s Street at the turn of the century because many fishermen lived here.
At the intersection of Wishart Street and Campbell Street and across the road behind the houses is Southcombe Park, shown here. At various times in the past the golf course and horse racing track were located here. Today the park is primarily used as sports fields but each year over the Labour Day weekend (apart from 2021) the park is transformed and becomes the venue for the famous Port Fairy Folk Festival.
Turn left and walk along Campbell Street towards Gipps Street.
You’ll pass Atkinson Street, shown here on the street sign. The street was named after James Atkinson, the founder of Belfast/Port Fairy.
You’re probably aware of the new fad in “Tiny Houses”. Shown here is Port Fairy’s very own “Tiny House”. It was built back in the 1860s. Was it the Police Station? (people were much shorter in those days) Of course, it wasn’t. This little ol’ bluestone house was the old gaol’s dunny. The gaol was originally situated where the current Police Station is located, shown in the background of the photograph. The first Police Magistrate was stationed at Belfast in 1847 but the police and a court were present in 1844. By 1851 there were five petty constables receiving 2/6d (25 cents) per day.
Being a police officer has sometimes proven to be a dangerous profession. A police fatality in Port Fairy happened way back in 1859. Sergeant George Dodds died as a result of injuries after being stabbed in the abdomen when escorting a drunken patron from the Star of the West who he was taking to prison. The reserve, shown here, is at the end of Atkinson Street, the street we just passed. It was established in his honour, in recognition of the ultimate sacrifice he paid.
Stop at the corner of Campbell Street and Gipps Street.Look to your right.
Across Campbell Street you can see the Merrijig Inn, built in 1846-51. This early photograph of the Merrijig (circa 1861) shows just how big it used to be. The next photograph shows how it looks today.
The Merrijig Inn is one of oldest stone buildings in Port Fairy (made of limestone, not bluestone). Its size changed a number of times over the years as did its owners. The Merrijig had many functions other than as an inn. It was a court house, municipal offices, police headquarters and police barracks where fourteen “foot and horse” constables were lodged – hence the extension out the back.
Turn left and walk along Gipps Street.
You’ll see two bluestone buildings – the Customs House on the corner and the Court House next door. An early photograph of these two buildings is shown here, circa 1861. Note the windmill to the right. Windmills were a common sight in the town and were used for pumping water.
Prior to 1861 when the Customs House, shown here, was built an urgent customs issue confronted the Government. Because Belfast was administered as part of the Port Phillip District of the Colony of New South Wales (much simpler when it became Victoria) the Government was entitled to collect important revenue from taxes on imported goods from Launceston in Tasmania (known as Van Diemen’s Land until 1856), particularly from the whalers living on Griffiths Island. However, that wasn’t happening very successfully because the whalers kept their goods offshore in their ships and so technically didn’t have to pay taxes until they were brought onshore. But then the goods were eaten, drunk and smoked very quickly.
The Court House, shown here, was built in 1859/60 as a Supreme Court and a County Court. A veranda was added in 1869 - people got sick of standing outside in the rain. The Supreme Court is the highest judicial court in Victoria. The last sitting as a Supreme Court was in 1915 but minor courts and administrative hearings continued. It closed as a Court House in 1988. Inside there is a cell for prisoners and a special room, which was described at the time as a “walk-in mortuary for the dead”. However, I’m not sure the dead would be capable of much walking - although is that a “resident apparition” from the mortuary peering out from the window on the right?
The Court House became the headquarters of the Port Fairy Historical Society in 1992. 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. When you visit the museum members of the Society, including an Archivist, will be present in the Court House ready to answer your questions.
Continue walking along Gipps Street towards Cox Street. Stop outside number 40, Mills Cottage.
Mills Cottage is one of the oldest dwellings of its type in Victoria. Look down the side of the cottage and identify the three sections, shown here. The rear section, to the right in the photograph, was probably erected prior to 1843, the centre weatherboard section around 1848, and the front section – an imported prefabricated structure – in 1853. Rare wallpapers (59 layers) survived. Bluestone stables were built on the northern boundary in 1859.
The plaque on the bluestone fence at the front of the cottage is shown here and recognises the important roles in the development of the town played by its earliest owner, Captain John Mills.
John Mills (on the left) and his brother Charles (on the right) grew up in Launceston. The Mills brothers hunted seals and then whales in Portland before coming to Port Fairy in the 1830s. They hunted whales in Port Fairy Bay with John Griffiths off Griffiths Island. John Mills is also famous for possibly having seen the fabled “Mahogany Ship”. Some people believe that if it exists the “Mahogany Ship” may have been a 16th century Spanish or Portuguese caravel or galleon possibly laden with treasure. The wreck may be located somewhere between Port Fairy and Warrnambool. Best of luck trying to locate it – many have tried and, so far, all have failed.
Speaking of the oldest dwellings in the town, the second oldest dwelling in Port Fairy is Motts Cottage, located at 5 Sackville Street, shown here. It was built in 1843. The front section is a low ceiling two-room wooden cottage. The two-storey rear section was added in 1851 and is made of limestone.
Continue walking along Gipps Street until you reach Cox Street.
The first store in Port Fairy was established in 1839 - well before Atkinson bought the land here. It was situated at the end of Cox Street by John Cox and it provided essential goods to the whalers.
Walk up Cox Street to Wishart Street.
The street was renamed Wishart Street in 1910 from Market Street as a memorial to Captain Henry Wishart. In 1828 Captain Wishart became the first European to sail into Port Fairy Bay and explore the area. Have you been wondering where the name Port Fairy comes from? We can thank Captain Wishart. He named the area after his ship – the Fairy. By-the-way, notice the spelling mistake in the street sign shown here?
Walk across the street to 8 Cox Street.
Did you know that Port Fairy once had a Royal Family? (not really) Their “castle” was, and still is today, called “Emoh” (spell it backwards). It survives along with the outbuildings as the local youth hostel, shown here. Originally “Emoh” was the home of the so-called “King of Belfast” – William Rutledge. Why was he called the “King of Belfast”? Rutledge created a mercantile business in Belfast that monopolized trade in the southwest and made Belfast the fastest growing centre of trade and financial development outside Melbourne. Rutledge was a Mr Bunnings and Mr IGA all rolled into one.
Many of the bluestone walls surrounding Rutledge’s commercial estate survive in adjoining properties. One section is shown here, along Cox Street. They aren’t the walls of a gaol. Rutledge printed his own money - called “On Demand” or “Promissory” notes; but his notes caused his financial ruin. When he became insolvent in 1862 many investors took their businesses elsewhere and Belfast stagnated economically for many years. However, this helped to save the heritage buildings in the town because developers lost interest in Belfast and went elsewhere.
Next door to “Emoh” was the Bank of Victoria, shown here. It was built in 1870. There are only three Bank of Victoria buildings with this “French rustic style” in Victoria – here, Numurkah and Nathalia. The bank operated until 1942 when it became a Semco textile (cotton) factory then a restaurant and a private home. It became part of the Moyne Shire headquarters in 1994. Run your hand along the fence – it’s not an iron fence but is made of wood and is called a “broomstick fence”.
Turn right into Princes Street.
The former Church of England school at 4 Princes Street is shown here. It’s an intact two-storey Colonial Georgian stone building. Can you guess when it was built? (check the year over the front door)
Over the years there were many schools established in Belfast - large and small and run privately or by different denominations. Shown here is one of the most well-known schools from the early years in Belfast, the Consolidated School, built in 1874. It assumed the name Consolidated School in 1949. The bluestone it’s made from was quarried on the site. Ironically the land the school is built on was earmarked to be the site of the town’s jail.
Dr. Thomas Braim was invited to establish a school in Belfast by James Atkinson in 1848. Braim House (shown on the left in this photograph, circa 1861) was built in James Street in circa 1854 as a boys’ boarding school and later became the Belfast Grammar School in 1856. Dr. Braim was the first Anglican minister in Belfast and one of the town’s first school teachers. As with many heritage buildings in Port Fairy today, Braim House is now a privately-owned dwelling. Next door to the school is the Uniting Church. It was built in 1855 as a Wesleyan Church.
What were the students like in Belfast? Look at the photograph of a group of Belfast school children. They appear to be a quiet, refined and well behaved group. However, this quote describing some of the students in Belfast at the time seems to suggest otherwise: “wild and unbroken colts … some full of vice … some had the reputation of being able to smoke and drink and swear with any of the toughest bullock drivers”.
The year when 4 Princes Street was built – 1851 – is significant. There’s a saying that things happen in threes - in 1851 things happened in fours for Victoria.
For starters, the new colony of Victoria formed that year. Everyone must have been relieved with the name change. The “Port Phillip District of the Colony of New South Wales” was a bit of a mouthfull. Then the gold rush started. When the gold rush began, towns like Belfast and Warrnambool became deserted with many residents rushing off to the goldfields seeking their fortune. Thirdly in 1851 there were devastating bushfires that burned from Geelong to South Australia. Belfast survived because of a wind change as the fire was heading towards the town. Finally, while the land burned Victoria lost the first inter-colonial cricket match played in Australia. It was played against Tasmania in Launceston on a horse racing track. Some clever underarm bowling by the Tasmanians caused havoc for the Victorian batsmen on a “rough” pitch.
One of Australia’s famous cricketers from the nineteenth century was born in Port Fairy – Hugh Massie. The plaque shown here is placed in Southcombe Park. Massie played in the famous Test Match in 1882 at The Oval that gave birth to “The Ashes” rivalry between Australia and England. He scored 55 runs in 57 minutes of 60 deliveries.
Port Fairy is also the birthplace of a number of other notable sporting personalities, including Essendon and AFL legend John Coleman.
Walk along Princes Street towards Railway Place.
Along the way on your left you’ll see two semi-detached double bluestone houses. These hip-roofed cottages were built in 1861. Notice the difference in the chimneys in the two buildings – on the left there’s one chimney shared between the two attached cottages while the twin cottages on the right have two separate chimneys, one each.
Cross Bank Street to Railway Place and the VIC.
We’re back to where we started – we’ve come to the end of the line. Because in a railway sense we have indeed come to the end of the line. The Port Fairy railway was opened in 1890. The railway complex here in Railway Place included a station, a goods shed and a station master’s residence as well as the platform and tracks, as shown in the photograph. The station lines and station were removed after the railway closed in 1977. You can still see the Railway Goods Shed. The extinct railway line has become the Port Fairy to Warrnambool bike track – the Rail Trail. The trail goes via Koroit.
The end of the line came for James Atkinson in 1864 when he died in Sydney. After Atkinson’s death his remaining family returned to Ireland. Atkinson’s family finally ended their ties with Belfast in 1884 when his son sold the remaining properties from his father’s Special Survey to a syndicate of three men. In 1885 there was a public sale of this land. A copy of the Land Sale Catalogue is shown here – a significant document in the town’s history. Finally, in 1887 the separation of Belfast from the family of James Atkinson was complete - the name of the town was officially changed back to Port Fairy.
Looking back over the incidents, people and places you’ve visited during this tour, which of them do you think represent the most significant turning points that changed Port Fairy’s destiny? Here are four possibilities. See if you agree. The first turning point was when Captain Wishart arrived here in 1828 followed by the whalers who arrived in the early 1830s. An influx of permanent settlers soon followed. Their arrival led to the demise of the local Gunditjmara who had been living in the area for thousands of years. Located near the VIC and shown here is a bluestone memorial with an inscription about the Gunditjmara.
The second turning point was in 1843 when James Atkinson purchased his Special Survey of 5,120 acres and began developing a town he called Belfast. Shown here is a copy of a map from 1850 outlining the borders of Atkinson’s Special Survey and his plan of the town and surrounding land.
The third turning point was in 1862 with the collapse of William Rutledge’s business empire that he’d built up in Belfast over a period of twenty years. His insolvency had a profoundly negative effect on the development and progress of the town. Developers and investors turned their attention to other towns and places. The photographs are of William and his wife, Eliza. Both were leading philanthropists in the town.
Finally, during the 1970s the Port Fairy Folk Festival had its humble beginnings when the first performers played on the back of a truck in the Botanic Gardens. From there it has grown into a huge festival attracting local, national and international performers, visitors and tourists each year – and everyone has a lot of fun, as shown in the photograph. In addition to the Folk Festival, the town has an extensive year-round program of exciting activities that attract a continuous stream of thousands of visitors such as the Moyneyana Festival over summer and the Winter Weekend programs. Image: Port Fairy Folk Festival
We can only wonder what the next, the fifth, turning point will be. As you stroll around the town and meander along the river you might end up at the lighthouse on Griffiths Island, shown here. If so take the time to recline on the seat, enjoy the vista and muse over what might next change Port Fairy’s destiny? Image: Lesley Foster
This completes the Town Tour. I hope you enjoyed this brief history tour of Port Fairy/Belfast and had a bit of fun along the way. An actual walking tour of the town will return when we are allowed to gather again post COVID restrictions. During the tour, we’ll share more amusing anecdotes about the people and places from Port Fairy’s past and have some fun re-enacting the financial disaster that beset the “King of Belfast”, William Rutledge.
It should now be pretty obvious why the town was voted the best in 2012. In addition to a vibrant community spirit and many dedicated working groups involving hundreds of volunteers, there are the beautiful heritage buildings and shopping strips, stunning vistas along the river and beaches and a colourful and wonderfully entertaining history. Port Fairy is the complete tourist package that its townsfolk are proud of and work very hard to maintain. We are willing and happy to share the “Port Fairy Experience” with anyone in the world … or universe! Happy walking and exploring Port Fairy – virtually or in person.
The narrative, descriptions, historical information and recent photographs 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.