The Eastern Maar people are the traditional owners of the Port Fairy area. In the early 19th century, whalers, seal hunters, and seamen frequented the coast in this region on season hunting expeditions from across the Bass Strait in Tasmania. By 1810 the bay had been named after the vessel of sealer Captain Hames Wishart, Fairy, after he and his crew sailed up the Moyne River in search of fresh water.
During the 1930s some of the seamen began to settle the land, beginning the development of a charming fishing village. John Griffiths established a whaling station on the island at the port, which today bears his name (Griffiths Island), and a store opened in 1839. However, because the port was small, lacked shelter, and the River Moyne which flowed into it was barred by a sandpit, Port Fairy was by-passed in the settlement boom of the late 1830s.
It was rather during the 1840s that the first substantial settlement occurred, and the town began to flourish. In January 1843, James Atkinson, a New South Wales solicitor who had discovered the exceptionally fertile soil of the area, obtained a special survey purchase of 5,120 acres. His land extended from the north of the River Moyne to include virtually all the area upon which the town was to be built.
Atkinson drained the swamps, subdivided and leased the land, and built a harbour on the Moyne. In a little over six months, the land had a tenant population numbering some two hundred, and the new coastal settlement began to gradually attract business from neighbouring squatters.
After 1847 affairs improved when work began on clearing the sandspit at the mouth of the Moyne and wharves were constructed a short distance upstream on the Westbank. Behind the wharves, the small town developed, then named Belfast after Atkinson’s hometown in Ireland, although the port retained its original name. By 1850, the town’s population had reached around 500, settlers encouraged by the richness of the soil and commercial opportunities in the expanding Western District.
Port Fairy came to maturity in the 1850s. Although remote from the diggings, the 1851 discovery of gold in Victoria gave a considerable boost to the town. It benefitted mainly from the boom in agricultural products, as farmers began to supply grain, potatoes, and hay directly to the diggings as well as the spectacularly growing capital of Melbourne.
Meanwhile a spate of private and public buildings, largely in bluestone, were constructed, including churches, banks and hotels. The Victoria government particularly spent lavishly during the late 1850s on harbour improvements and on the construction of a post office, old goal, a magnificent new courthouse and a lighthouse complex at the mouth of the River Moyne.
The town officially became a municipality in 1856 and in 1863 achieved the status of borough. By this point it had a population of 2,300 and was one of the busiest ports in the colony, second only to the Port of Melbourne.
However, Port Fairy’s peak was destined to last long. Already by the 1850s, Melbourne had begun to usurp the functions of Victoria’s smaller ports. Then, as railways were built over the next decade, the capital’s hinterland extended progressively at the expense of first Geelong and then of the west ports.
A thriving agricultural community sustained Port Fairy through the 1860s, but the town suffered in the following decade when railways opened up the great wheat-growing districts of the Wimmera and northern Victoria. The town’s farmers could no longer compete, reduced to the one commercial crop of potatoes.
Slight signs of revival appeared from the late 1870s due to a sympathetic Victorian government. The great facilities were greatly improved with the virtual completion of the bluestone retaining walls of the River Moyne. And in 1880s a large post office was constructed, as well as a railway from Port Fairy to nearby Koroit.
Yet the town’s gradual decline ultimately could not be halted. The population peaked at 2,485 in 1971, and by the end of the 19th century it was effectively isolated from the mainstream of Victoria’s development. In 1887 the town was renamed Port Fairy as a result of an Act of Parliament, and soon became known as a quiet, dignified, stone seaport known as a suitable place for retirement or recreation.
Key Historic Sites
Over the 20th century and up to today beautiful Port Fairy has changed little. With a stagnant population, a large proportion of its built heritage has been preserved, and so in appearance and atmosphere it remains a town of the 1840s and 1850s. There are dozens of examples of 19th century architecture and more than 50 buildings protected by the National Trust of Australia.
The Port Fairy Courthouse is a magnificent bluestone building close to the wharves. Built in 1959-60, a portico was added in 1869 and a further three rooms at the rear in 1874 to make the building as it is today. It is unusually large for a small country town as at the time of its construction it was the only Courthouse in the Western District of Victoria and was designed for sittings of the Supreme Court. The last Court sitting was in 1988. Since 1992 it has housed the Port Fairy History Centre, complete with an extensive display of memorabilia and photographs from the late 19th and early 20th century.
John Mills Cottage dates back to 1843, and is believed to be the oldest European building in Victoria. This was the home of John mills, one of the brothers who were the first settlers of Port Fairy. From this house Mills started his importing business which saw him bringing shoes, rum and building materials to the district. The house remains considerably intact including over fifty different wallpapers layered throughout.
Motts Cottage was built sometime in the late 1840s out of timber and stone rubble, with a second storey and back section added by a local stonemason in the 1860s and 1880s respectively. It has since been restored as an example of a typical Port Fairy working man’s cottage.
Battery Hill is a former coastal defence, complete with two-gun batteries and concrete fortifications constructed in the late 19th century. The fort is strategically sited on a coastal dune overlooking the Southern Ocean and the mouth of the Moyne River.
Tour of Port Fairy
Odyssey Traveller conducts a tour of Port Fairy as part of our tour of World Heritage sites and more in the Southern States of Australia (also available via motorcycle tour). This escorted small group Australian outback tour for mature and senior travellers is a journey of learning around the Southern edges of the Murray Darling basin and up to the upper southern part of this complex river basin north of Mildura.
It provides the traveller the learning opportunity to gain an insight into Aboriginal habitation land management over some 40,000 years and then more recently the veneer of European settlement in the last two centuries on the landscape. It is part of a portfolio of Australian Outback tours offered by Odyssey for like-minded people who are curious about Outback Australia.
The 15-day itinerary starts and ends in Adelaide, heading south east initially across Southern Australia to Victoria and Port Fairy. The group then continues up through central Western Victoria to Hamilton and then Naracoote and on into the lower part of the Murray Darling basin in Mildura, to Broken Hill and then back into South Australia to Adelaide via Burns.
The itinerary takes you to visit three UNSECO World Heritage Sites, two with human cultural significance, one of mammal significance, allowing you to understand and appreciate the complexity and features of the Murray Darling Basin through some spectacular scenery. Whilst the Murray-Darling begins in Queensland, by the time the river system reaches South Australia it represents one the most complex river systems in Australia against which modern agriculture has placed substantial stress. We see the historic and contemporary evidence of this in Mildura and the lakes around Menindee. and the many landscape changes including the Mallee, observing and learning about the river woodland galleries, arid lands, saltbush plains, agriculture practices; as well as the mining and railway history of Southern Australia.
Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations designed for mature and senior travellers. We specialise in offering small group tours partnering with a local tour guide at each destination to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Tours consist of small groups of between 6 and 12 people and are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.
Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:
For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.
External articles to assist you on your visit to Victoria: