Monday, 15 April 2013

Williamstown - Melbourne - Australia

City of Melbourne from the Williamstown ferry
With a few hours to spare before meeting up with family I decided to take a cruise to the town of Williamstown on the outskirts of Melbourne.  Williamstown is advertised as an historic seaport in Hobsons Bay and that sounded just like my cup of tea. The cruise takes about 45 minutes and is, to be frank, a little underwhelming.  After passing through an attractive part of downtown Melbourne it is a long slow journey through typical port industrial areas before finally arriving at the pretty boat harbour and Gem Pier at Williamstown.  The town has had a rich and colourful history from the time it was originally occupied by indigenous Australians of the Kulin nation.  It was first settled by Europeans in 1835 and saw explosive growth during the Victorian gold rush in the 1870s.  It was also the centre of the Victorian Navy and is still home to a boat building dockyard for the Australian navy.

Port of Melbourne tugs lined up ready for action
A fascinating piece of history is the fact that Williamstown was the only part of Australia to play a part in the America civil war by assisting the confederates. The warship, Shenandoah, docked at Williamstown for repairs in 1865 and stayed a month while it was repaired, the crew enjoying all that shore leave had to offer, until it finally sailed again with an illegally recruited crew. This caused huge embarrasment to Great Britain, which had remained neutral during the civil war.  The governor of Victoria refused to arrest the ship which had gone on to sink 25 US merchant ships so the colony of Victoria was seen as being an accomplice to the US south. Great Britain, as a consequence, had to make a large financial reparation to the US government.

Historic buildings, Nelson Place

Stepping off the ferry I found Williamstown to be a sleepy place, a bit scruffy around the edges and still in the throes of turning itself into an historic village.  There is an excellent information centre adjoining the reserve by the pier where you can pick up self guided walking maps and the Customs House (1874), nearby, is a fine building housing a marine themed gift shop and an art gallery. The main streets, Nelson Street and The Strand have some attractive old buildings but it was disappointing to find that they housed nothing more than a couple of non descript shops and some very ordinary eateries.

Timeball dating from 1849

It is important to get a map and to do a walking tour because the gems are well hidden amongst some very tired and run down parts of the town.  The botanical gardens are well worth a look.  Although small they are very pretty.  Walk through the gardens and you come to the lovely golden sand Williamstown beach.  Further around the coast is the rare, fully operational, Timeball Tower. This was invaluable to 19th century ships whose crews were able to set their chronometers by the timeball which dropped at exactly 1pm each day.

I wandered around for a couple of hours, seeking out the historic buildings amongst the industrial and badly run down.  One of the most bizarre things I saw was a pub called The Titanic, complete with a  replica of the ship's superstructure and funnels covering the roof.

Williamstown wasn't quite the marine heritage town I expected.  Devonport, in Auckland, outshines it on that score, however, there are signs that Williamstown is beginning to attract a new type of settler, one who values the rich and extensive history and heritage of the town, as attested by the number of  old cottages being restored.


 As I walked back to the ferry a young teenage girl fell into step with me.  She was lost and asked me the way and we walked together for some time.  She said she had arrived by train from central Melbourne to meet some friends and that her mother had been concerned about her going to Williamstown as it had had a bad reputation in the past.  She told me her mother was just remembering what it was like in her youth when it was a seedy place but that it has improved since then.  She was an absolute delight as she chatted in her disarming way....she made my day.