PORT FAIRY HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Early Sackville Street Port Fairy
The First Nations People of south-western Victoria were the Eastern Maar Peoples which included the Peek Whurrong tribe as part of clan territory Gunditjmara. Their land extends as far north as Ararat and encompasses the Warrnambool, Port Fairy and Great Ocean Road areas. It also stretches 100m out to sea from low tide and therefore includes the iconic Twelve Apostles. Port Fairy is within this clan territory of Dhauwurd Wurrung, also known as the Gunditjmara.
The Gunditjmara people have called the lands around Port Fairy home for many thousands of years, from the time the now-dormant volcano Mount Eccles was erupting, to the present day. Gunditjmara people are traditionally river and lake people and the surrounding river systems are of great cultural significance and importance historically, economically and spiritually. The Gunditjmara used the land's natural topography and features to establish settlements along the lava flow near creeks or lakes. Traditional stories, oral histories and latest writings reveal the Gunditjmara Aboriginal population in the Western District of Victoria had established settlements in the district for many thousands of years. There are Stories of the ingenuity of these civilisations and stories of thriving Aboriginal communities.
First contact, between the coastal Gunditjmara people and European settlers and whalers, who came from Tasmania, occurred in the 1830s. Initially, relations appear to have been good, but deteriorated as pastoral activities encroached on traditional lands. It was during this period and shortly after that conflict between the European settlers and the Gunditjmara people took place.
Recorded history notes that shipping vessels arrived around this time carrying the first organised parties of whalers and that they anchored in Port Fairy Bay. By March 1835, Reibey and Penny had established a camp on Rabbit Island now a part of Griffiths Island. Subsequently, John Griffiths, Michael Connolly and James Henty purchased these whaling assets and went on to develop commercial whaling at Port Fairy. Whales were harpooned in the bay and dragged up on to the island for processing to extract whale oil and baleen. Indiscriminate slaughter of the whales led to substantial reduction of the population. 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 clearing the land and cultivating the rich volcanic soils. They brought sheep and cattle across from Tasmania and established pastoral stations.
In 1843 James Atkinson purchased 5120 acres from the Crown at the cost of £1 per acre. Atkinson laid out his township and named it Belfast after the city near his family home in Ireland. Atkinson encouraged settlers by offering the sale of land or long term leases for an annual payment and a strong Celtic influence is still evident in the area, in the place names, architecture and culture. Settlers were able to build homes on land leased secure in the knowledge that the leasehold was for up to 31 years. These terms were sufficiently attractive that the population of Belfast grew to over 2000 people. Atkinson also donated land for community purposes such as schools, churches, lecture hall and a library. James Atkinson died in 1864 and his family retained his Belfast Estates until a syndicate purchased the land for resale as freehold lots in 1885. In 1862 the disastrous collapse of the local firm, William Rutledge & Co., dealt the town a paralysing blow. In the ensuing years early settlers favoured other towns such as Warrnambool and the early promise that Port Fairy had shown was not realised. In 1887 the residents of Belfast successfully petitioned the Government to rename the town Port Fairy.
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 we are leaving a lasting legacy for the generations that will follow.
Port Fairy Historical Society Inc. * Piecing out Past Together * Assoc. Inc. A0016131A
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