Ports, piers, and pubs

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For more than 150 years Williamstown has been associated with the waterfront, having transformed itself several times over since the 1830s

Walking around Williamstown you get a sense of a by-gone era. The buildings still tell stories of their beginnings and there is still much of the original architecture evident. Each of these buildings has a unique place in Australian history, all painstakingly put together without the machinery we have today. Back then it was back breaking work.

Europeans settled the area in the 1830s, but before that it was home to the local Aboriginals.

Initially, Williamstown was the major port for Melbourne. The first pier was constructed in 1838 and was used to ferry passengers across to Melbourne. This pier has been rebuilt several times and is known as “Gem Pier”. Today, it is used as a pick up and drop off point to ferry passengers between Melbourne and Williamstown, and also a meeting place for much of the local bird life—including the swans and pelicans.

During the 1840s, passengers arriving to Williamstown, had to be carried off the ships on the shoulders of the seamen. At that time, the shoreline was muddy and lined with saltbush. It was a time when life was hard for both men and women alike. They often “eked out” an existence in appalling conditions and what we today consider as “unsavoury” occupations.

Men were abundant, but females in short supply and high demand. This often caused problems between the local Aboriginals and the European settlers.

The streets of Williamstown were slowly transformed as the British sailors, soldiers and convict gangs transformed the shore and built massive port works. A naval base, customs house and shipyards were built and for more than 150 years Williamstown has been associated with the waterfront.

Other industries took hold in Williamstown, such as the wool industry, (mills), railway workshops, forges and the workshops associated with the Melbourne Harbour Trust.

During the 1850s there was a strong thirst for “liquid gold”. With the discovery of the real thing, Williamstown was inundated with people passing through. Thousands of diggers came to Victoria and ships crammed into Hobsons Bay. With this insatiable thirst came pubs. In fact, it is said “there was a pub on every corner in Williamstown”. Shops sprang up and the economy of the area was thriving.

Then 1870 came, and Williamstown became known as the major cargo port of Victoria. Gangs of wharfies, slipways, piers and shipwrights ensured Williamstown had a place, which was secure, in the shipping industry. The Customs Department, pilots, the Navy and the Harbour Trust also established bases in Williamstown.

This created employment and Williamstown flourished. Williamstown, as evidenced by the buildings boasted both the wealth of the successful, and also the average “working classes” plight. Many of these buildings stand today and you can take yourself on a self-guided walk around the area with the assistance of the local tourist information centre. They provide comprehensive maps and information about the buildings.

And if you are up for it—you can do as I did and participate in one of the Ghost Tours, run regularly around Williamstown. I viewed it as a “bit of fun” and didn’t get too caught up in the actual reality of whether ghosts existed or not. However, I must say, the tour guide set the mood for the evening. She built the excitement and anticipation of ghostly presences amongst us, and I made sure I always had a quick exit route planned.

As we step into the Williamstown of today, we see Nelson Place as a thriving café/restaurant culture. There’s no end to the different types of cuisine on offer and the quality of the food and service is second to none. It caters for all budgets, from the “gourmet hamburgers” to the fine dining experience.

There are several ways to get to Williamstown; either by car, train or ferry.

By ferry you cruise down the Yarra. Get on board at South Gate and take in the city views from the water. This takes about 50 minutes and the captain will give you a great insight on the history of industries along the Yarra and the history of Melbourne. You arrive at Gem Pier and step into the modern day Williamstown, knowing it was once the first settlement in Melbourne and considered as being a contender as the capital of Victoria. Inadequate water supplies prevented this.

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HMAS Castlemaine is situated at Gem Pier and for those naval enthusiasts this is a real treat. It is open to the public on weekends, public holidays and by arrangement. You are able to explore the ship and see how the crews lived and worked during the war years. This ship is a proud part of our naval history. It is maintained and has been lovingly restored by a bevy of volunteers who are passionate about passing this history on.

Honestly, Williamstown has something for everyone, including the kids. Close to Melbourne central, being a western suburb of Melbourne, it has everything the inner city has and more. The botanic gardens, first established in 1860, still retain that original design and flow. It’s a great place to go and is a rival to the larger metropolitan gardens. Across the road from the Botanic Gardens is the beach.

Williamstown Beach was always popular with working class families from the western suburbs. It has also been a favourite place to go for summer holidays, when country visitors would make their way to Williamstown and stay at one of the many boarding houses of the day. Williamstown is still an all-time favourite being so close to town, especially with the day-trippers.

Williamstown has its own railway station, which is another means to get to there. This station is the oldest in Victoria and one of the oldest in Australia. The Station is amongst a small number of surviving wooden public buildings and was finished in around 1859. A trip to the Station is worth the effort as it in itself tells a story of the area.

Another iconic feature is the Timeball tower, built of local bluestone. It was first built as a lighthouse and later served the purpose of a timeball tower through from 1861 to 1926. Its function was to allow ships to accurately set their chronometers, as accurate navigation was essential to a successful voyage. Later, as radios became popular, the timeball tower was no longer essential, and when it’s keeper died, so did this tradition of setting the timeball.

I guess everyone knows the story of the Titanic voyage. But did you know you can actually still experience that voyage? Well, not really—however once a famous pub of the area, this pub has been transformed into the Titanic of today. Operating as a restaurant it offers a walk back in time. It has all the fun and thrills of a great night’s entertainment.

Over the coming period, I plan to run Bollywood themed events at the Titanic, in conjunction with David, the owner. Look out for your chance to be a part of the pre-Christmas festivities that will take place there.

Come aboard!

And then we have Nelson Place along with all the other charming streets that offer endless shopping and eating experiences. Nelson Place is right on the waterfront—so is one of my favourite streets in Williamstown. I love sitting at one of the eateries along Nelson Place, especially on a sunny day, drinking hot chocolate and just taking it all in.

With Williamstown being so close to Melbourne—why not head out that way and check it out for yourself.

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