The Early Days
The first regular European visitors to this area were Bass Strait sealers on seasonal hunting expeditions from Tasmania. These were tough hard working men who had little time to leave written records so the exact dates are uncertain. It was probably around 1828 that Captain Wishart, on a sailing expedition in his cutter “Fairy”, became caught in a storm. Luckily he found shelter for the night in a little bay and to his delight, at daybreak, he found that he was at the mouth of an excellent river. He named the bay “Port Fairy”, in honour of his tiny ship.
News of this safe anchorage and fresh water soon spread and two men Penny & Reiby established a bay whaling station on an island at the mouth of the river. In 1835 John Griffiths purchased the whaling station and the island now bears his name. Whales were harpooned in the bay and dragged up on to the island for processing. So many whales were taken that the supply was exhausted by the 1840s and the station closed.
During the 1830s some of these early seamen crossed over from the island and began to clear and cultivate the rich volcanic soils. They brought sheep and cattle across from Tasmania and established a permanent settlement.
In 1843 James Atkinson and William Rutledge each purchased 5120 acres from the Crown at the cost of £1 per acre. A condition of buying the land (called a Special Survey) at this low price was that the buyer was required to establish a town and encourage settlers. Atkinson laid out his township and named it “Belfast” after his birthplace. William Rutledge failed to establish a town on his survey and it was considered a failure. Irish immigrants were encouraged to settle here and this strong Celtic influence is still evident in the area, in the place names, architecture and culture.
Atkinson operated his township under the tenant system where the occupier of the land would pay rent to the land owner. Settlers would build a house at their own cost on land they rented from Atkinson. Because of this system it appears that Atkinson was disliked although this was perhaps unfair as he gave land for community purposes such as schools, churches, lecture hall and library. Atkinson died in 1862 however his family held onto his lands and it was not until 1886 that the land became available to purchase freehold. In 1887 the residents of Belfast petitioned the Government to rename the town Port Fairy.
In 1862 the disastrous collapse of the local firm, William Rutledge & Co. dealt the town a paralysing blow. In the ensuing years investors abandoned Port Fairy in favour of other towns such as Warrnambool and the early promise that Port Fairy had shown failed to materialise. Today we have that economic downturn to thank for the many historic houses and buildings from that era that remain.
We honour the memory of the pioneers of our district and we believe that by recording their stories and the events that shaped Port Fairy that we are leaving a lasting legacy for the generations that will follow.