The Port Fairy Historical Society Museum and Archives

The Port Fairy Historical Society may be known for providing such knowledgeable facts and displays about the history of the town. But the building they operate from also holds a historical significance within the town! Read along to find out what may have once been going on behind the blue stone facade…

During 1843, the process of establishing a town for early settlers was taking off at a fast pace! The township of Port Fairy was acquiring more residents daily and therefore had started to introduce practical buildings such as churches, a post office, banks, hospital, court house, customs house, cemetery, jail etc.

However, the customs office, court and lock-up was not as successful and efficient as it sounded…

The Prisoners were usually treated in a "free and easy" manner, often be allowed to go home on a promise that they will return. And when prisoners were confined to the “lock up”, they also were frequently able to break out!

This was due to the fact that most of their buildings were not meeting the standard of infrastructure required. The lock up consisted of a timber slab hut situated behind the "courthouse," and the customs office also comprised an unstable timber structure.

As the township developed, the adequacy of all these facilities and treatment began to be called into question. It became obvious that these simple timber huts and the freedom of the prisoners was not maintainable for the growing town!

Public agitation regarding the state of the courthouse and lock-up continued to increase during the early 1850s, prompting the Bench of Magistrates to petition the government for land and funding for proper facilities.

Through the increasing demand for new facilities, James Atkinson was made to provide a convenient site within the township for these new legal system to operate.

In 1855, their request was fulfilled and Atkinson provided the government with a vacant piece of land, situated towards the southern extent of the town, on the corner of the intersection between Campbell and Gipps Street.

The government's first priority was the establishment of a suitable gaol - as the timber hut was considered "unfit for human beings to be placed in.” By March 1855, plans for the gaol had been prepared, approved, and started construction.

Five years later in 1859-60, the Courthouse was built by James Mason, with the portico added in 1869, and a further three rooms at the rear in 1874, to make the building as it is today.

At the time of construction, it was the only Courthouse in the Western District of Victoria, and housed sittings of the Supreme Court and County Courts as well as General Sessions.

The Port Fairy Courthouse had taken a big step up and was later named one of the finest early Court Houses in Victoria.

However, by the end of the 1880’s the gaol was unfortunately still considered unsuitable and inadequate. It appears that the gaol buildings were subsequently demolished by the end of the 19th century and the land was divided and sold for residential purposes.

This meant that convicted offenders sentenced to imprisonment in the Port Fairy courthouse were sent to Geelong gaol.

The courthouse remained in use until 1988, when its last function, as a Licensing Court, was transferred to Warrnambool.

Over the years it has been virtually untouched and remains a superb example of an early courthouse. For this reason, it is one of over fifty buildings in Port Fairy classified by the National Trust as essential to the heritage of Australia and which must be preserved.

The building now serves a new purpose as the Port Fairy Historical Society Museum and Archives. Which is very relevant due to its own rich historical connection to the town.

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Follow the yellow and blue 'i' signs to the Visitor Information Centre in Port Fairy for tips, maps, brochures and advice on how to make the most of your stay. The Centre contains a comprehensive display of local attractions, wildlife and accommodation options that will help bring to life your Great Ocean Road experience.

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