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Warrnambool and District

Warrnambool is an Aboriginal word, which means ‘between two rivers’. Aboriginal people have lived in the area for thousands of years. They have stories passed down the generations from when the district’s volcanoes erupted, which was thousands of years ago.

There were stories of yellow men arriving in the district, and of a large boat (Mahogany Ship). This ship is the subject of much speculation and debate. Some say it was a Dutch ship, others a Spanish barque, others Portuguese, whilst others argue Chinese. There is also the possibility it was the handiwork of escaped convicts from Van Diemen’s land, or sealers or whalers. Whoever the boat belonged to, it certainly existed, as there were too many reputable witnesses to its location near Killarney Beach, and its descriptions. Why is this ship wreck important?

As long as it remains buried under the sand dunes it remains an unexamined mystery. We can only speculate. Speculation, however, is no substitute for hard historical facts. If someone could find the ship itself, and study any artifacts, such as coins, jewellery, weapons, plates, crockery, earthenware, etc, then conclusions can be drawn. The most enthusiastic searchers for this ship believe it to be a Portuguese vessel. The campaign for this view has even led to a documentary broadcast on Portuguese television, and the Portuguese government gifting the city of Warrnambool an historic memorial overlooking the ocean, a monument to Prince Henry the ‘Navigator  ( thirteenth century).

Henry wasn’t really a navigator, but he established a university in Portugal to develop the skills of navigators and ship builders. As a result of this marvellous infrastructure expenditure, tiny Portugal, of just less than a million people became a World superpower, as their little barques and caravels swept far and wide with the aid of the latest technology and educated and trained man power. There is a good possibility that the famed, legendary ‘Mahogany Ship’ of Killarney, may be one of Prince Henry’s.

And, if it was a Portuguese ship, or Chinese, or Dutch, then what conclusions can we draw? European history of Australia would have to be changed. Up until now, the credit for the discovery of the East coast of Australia goes to Captain James Cook. However, if the Portuguese or others had been on the East coast of Australia hundreds of years before him, then that would alter the history. It doesn’t mean that the Portuguese can take over Australia, but it does give historians something to ponder, and pride to the Portuguese.

The first known people of European decent to come to the district came from two directions. The Henty Brothers, their families and their hired hands came across Bass Strait from Tasmania, looking for new grasslands for their herds of cows and other animals. They settled in Portland in 1835. Others, whalers and sealers, set up stations at Belfast (Port Fairy) and other locations. People also moved down from Sydney, first attracted to the Port Phillip District (Melbourne).


In 1804, Matthew Flinders and George Bass had explored the coasts of Eastern Australia, and had mapped and named Port Phillip Bay. Their news of vast swathes of grass lands was eagerly received by the people of Sydney, which was now becoming over crowded with too many competing farms. A way had been found over the formidable natural barrier, the Blue Mountains, which had kept the struggling colony of Sydney from flourishing. People were now able to trek across with their animals to take up the seemingly unlimited grasslands on the other side.

However, this was not enough. People like John Batman and John Pascoe Fawkner, had lived for a time in Van Dieman’s land (later Tasmania), and were wanting to become land barons in this new country. They sailed over Bass Strait, desperately wanting to be the first settlers, thereby dominating the competition. They set up the Port Phillip Association and  concocted a nonsensical treaty with the local Aboriginal Tribe.  It was modelled on William Penn’s (Pennsylvania) treaty with Indians. It was written in gothic script and mock King’s James English. As with Penn, Batman gave the Aboriginal elders some trinkets, blankets and baubles and had them make a mark. If anyone thinks this was a fair and realistic treaty, justifying the occupation of a land, and the dispossession and subjugation of entire people, then it beggars belief.


A land rush was now in full force. There were less convicts being transported to Australia. The only ones that had been sent to the Port Phillip District (Victoria), were at Sullivan’s Bay in the early 1800’s, and that came to an abrupt end when it was abandoned. Only William Buckley, who escaped and lived for thirty years as an Aborigine, remained. Now, after Batman’s ‘treaty’ with the first peoples had been ‘signed’, free settlers and ex convicts began looking for land to graze animals, such as sheep and cattle. People were coming to Australia aboard faster ships. The pressures in Britain were great. News of unlimited farm and grazing land attracted many people in England. Caroline Chisholm, the great champion of women and working class people throughout Australia, used her growing fame and influence with the powerful figures in Britain to send more women and families to Australia. Her friend, Charles Dickens, was one such advocate of her scheme. There were other reasons, too, that people kept coming to Australia.


Caroline Chisholm

Many immigrants, however, couldn’t stand the climate of Australia, and its unfamiliarity. The seasons were around the wrong way, the sky seemed too high up, the star constellations were strange, the plants were ugly and the animals bit, stung and were venomous. Water supplies were irregular and substandard; there were very few traversable roads, bridges and other infrastructure. The main type of transport was by foot, horse or ship, depending on location.

The hike to Warrnambool was a long one, but early pioneers with their flocks did just that. People like the Allans Brothers. Others came by ship along the coast. Most of supplies came by ship from Sydney.  A ship full of Irish and Scottish settlers emigrated to Portland. They trudged as a group to the Warrnambool District. The Irish, escaping the Potato Famine in Ireland, settled around Koroit. They were mostly Catholic, but were sponsored by a Protestant. He was their neighbour in Ireland, and he wanted his Catholic villagers to have a new start in Australia. He purchased the land from the government, and allowed the Irish Catholics to pay off their leases after sixteen years. After that time they owned the properties. That is why there are so many people of Irish descent in the district. The group of Scots moved across to the North and West of Warrnambool.

The new immigrants and pioneers  brought  their traditions, religious beliefs and values with them. They were hard working and god-fearing communities and they were blessed to be in such a rich agricultural land.  The rain fall was excellent, the climate mild and the soil was extremely fertile. They were close to the sea, and parts of the countryside reminded them of their own lands. To this day, a rich Irish and Scottish heritage dominates the cultural landscape of the district.


The township of Warrnambool was officially surveyed and mapped in 1847 by the government’s deputy surveyor, William Pickering. He was a slow, meticulous worker, often to the chagrin of John Hoddle, his boss. However, the job was completed, and all the street names were given assigned.  Land sales were held in Melbourne, but only a few of the new owners bothered to move to the new town. They were just speculators wanting to invest money.  Those who did went on to be important members of the community and helped to establish Warrnambool as  great town.

The first Christian service held in Warrnambool was a Methodist meeting, probably held in a tent. The details are sketchy, but it was a cold Sunday, and few people attended, but it was the beginning of many services. The first Catholic Bishop of Sydney rode on horse back to the district, as did governor Charles Latrobe.  The first Church of England minister and the first Catholic priest were both Irishmen, and despite their different faiths, became firm friends. They would ride around the south west and west of Victoria together keeping each other company. The Catholic church, Saint Joseph’s, was begun just before the Anglican Church, but both clerics used the same architect.

Governor Latrobe rode around Mount Warrnambool on his way to the district, and is said to have approved the name Warrnambool, for the town from this landmark.

Warrnambool’s fertile location made it a great source of produce and other food. Ships could call in at Lady Bay with goods from other places, such as coal from Sydney. The ships would then take on farm produce and animals from Warrnambool and its hinterland.  This is an ideal entrepreneurial arrangement. Whaling was an important industry. Whale oil and other whale products, such as bone and baleen were important: whale oil for lamps, machinery and cosmetics, and bone and  baleen for women’s dresses and corsets. The Victorian fashion of big, bulging dresses created a huge demand for whales.  Warrnambool and Port Fairy (previously Belfast), made the port an integral part of the British Empire.

Life in Warrnambool for much of the 19th Century would have been challenging. The smell from the whaling and sealing, the new tannery factories and other outlets dealing with the processing of carcasses and offal, would have made a huge stink. Then add to this ‘aroma’ the manure of horses, cows and pigs, and the rudimentary human sewerage and septic systems, then you would soon know that it was challenging.

However, life, compared to other areas of Australia was marginally better. When the gold was discovered near Ballarat in 1851, good money was to be made by staying on the farms in Warrnambool, as everyone, including miners, needed food. When there were periods of economic down turns in the century, such as the 1890’s, the people of Warrnambool were largely unaffected, because they were privileged to live in such a fertile district, and people were generous and looked after those who needed a hand.

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