09 April 2020
VIRTUAL FUN WITH HISTORY - WEEK 2by PORT FAIRY & REGION VISITOR INFORMATION CENTRE
Did you know that Port Fairy was called Belfast?
Do you want to dig deeper into the roots of Port Fairy’s history and find out why? Well, you’ve come to the right place!
Let me introduce you to James Atkinson…
James Atkinson was born in 1804 in Northern Ireland in the town of Armagh, about 50 km from Belfast.
After marrying his first cousin Emily Macartney in 1828, he came out to Australia to take advantage of the investment opportunities, buying land in the newly developing colony. He was a wealthy man and was also acting on behalf of other wealthy Irish investors to secure land.
The government opened this opportunity up, as they needed the money to fund an immigration scheme to bring out migrants to colonise the colony.
Atkinson and his wife arrived in Sydney in 1828, and immediately Atkinson was said to have ‘Land Hunger’ and spent the next 20 years travelling around the colony, buying land to claim as his own. During this time Atkinson’s wife spent most of her time raising their 11 children!
On this journey, Atkinson traveled through Port Fairy and saw that the squatters and whalers were settling in the area. He realised there was an opportunity to establish a town and Port to service these early settlers.
In 1843 he purchased 5,120 acres from the Crown at the cost of £1 per acre. A condition of buying the land at this low price (called a Special Survey, a scheme by the government) was that the buyer was required to establish a town and encourage settlers. Atkinson laid out his township on his 5120 acres and named it “Belfast” after his birthplace.
Atkinson operated his township under the tenant system where the occupier of the land would pay rent to the land owner. The settlers would build a house at their own cost on the land they rented or bought from Atkinson.
To continue establishing the town he donated land for churches, a post office, banks, hospital, court house, customs house, cemetery, jail ect, and continued to lease/sell his land to more and more residents. Eventually by 1857 the town had a population of 2,190 settlers.
The town’s progress stagnated after 1862 when his land agent in Port Fairy, William Rutledge, had become insolvent, and was unable to pay back all of his debts. Atkinson died in 1864 in Sydney at the age of 60.
After Atkinson passed away, his family held onto his land and achievements until 1885, where they sold it to a syndicate where it became available to purchase at a public auction in 1887.
Soon afterwards the townsfolk decided to change the name of the town back to it’s original name, Port Fairy, named by Captain Henry Wishart in 1828, after his ship the “Fairy”.