Williamstown’s Early Maritime History

Before white settlement, the Aboriginal people of the Yalukit-willam clan of the Kulin nation were living on the local shores of what later become known as Hobson’s Bay. They called it “koort-koort-boork”, meaning “a clump of she-oaks”.


Williamstown was named in 1837 after a visit by the then Governor Richard Bourke, who felt it should become the capital of the new colony. He named it after King William IV. By then, there was a regular stream of vessels making their way across Bass Strait from Van Diemen’s Land to berth in the sheltered harbor, bringing with them sheep, cattle and horses.


But Williamstown did not become the capital, largely due to lack of a fresh water supply. By 1839, the fledgling town had large shipping facilities including a pier and government stores. The first two hotels, The Steam packet and the Woolpack Inn were built about this time.


The first lighthouse was built in 1840 and the same year a water police superintendent was appointed. Two years later, the arrival of a ship with immigrants for labour arrived, although it lost 40 of its 243 passengers to yellow fever. A hastily erected quarantine site took the sick, while the dead were buried in a makeshift graveyard.


In 1849, a bluestone lighthouse was built to replace the wooden one, operating until 1860 when the Point Gellibrand Pile Light was anchored off shore. The bluestone structure then became the Time Ball Tower.


Williamstown became an important landing point for Gold Rush hopefuls in the 1850s. Prospectors arrived by the boatload and rushed off to the goldfields of Bendigo, Ballarat and beyond. The allure of striking it rich prompted many sailors to desert their ships for the goldfields. Hobson’s Bay became full of ships with no crew to sail them.


By the end of 1853, the growing colony had developed a large criminal element, so the colony’s government bought a number of ships to be used as floating prisons, or hulks. They were moored off Williamstown with some prisoners rowing to shore under guard each day for backbreaking labouring work building sea walls, wharves and roads. Among them for a short period of time was Ned Kelly, later to become infamous as a bushranger.


On January 25, 1865, the Confederate Steam Ship Shenandoah sailed unannounced into Port Phillip Bay, sending the fledgling colony into a state of panic. The warship had sunk eight Union commercial ships on the way from England to Australia. Its arrival in Melbourne to resupply and seek repairs to its propeller while the American Civil War was still raging had the Union consul in Melbourne, William Blanchard, imploring Governor Darling to seize the ship and arrest the crew for piracy. The Shenandoah was slipped in Williamstown and the crew was feted by Melbourne society. While in Williamstown, the Shenandoah’s commander, Lt James Waddell, secretly recruited British subjects as crew for the ship against international law. That move later cost England millions of dollars in reparations to the US after the end of the American Civil War for the damage the Shenandoah did to the Union whaling fleet.


His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh visited Williamstown in 1869 to lay the foundation stone for the Alfred Graving Dock on the site that eventually became the Naval Dockyards. The dockyards are now run by BAE Systems.


By 1870, Williamstown was the major cargo port of Victoria, with piers, slipways, shipwrights and gangs of wharfies. Wheat, oats and wool were major exports through the port until the late 1930s.


In fear of a Russian invasion, the Victorian Government began to build a navy in 1856 to protect Melbourne. In 1871, Her Majesty’s Victorian Ship Cerberus arrived in Williamstown to become the linchpin of harbour defence. The Victorian Colonial Navy grew to be the largest in Australia and eventually became the nucleus of the Royal Australian Navy when colonial navies were amalgamated into a single force after Federation.


History of the former Melbourne Harbor Trust site (Seaworks)

The site now known as Seaworks is steeped in history. The first slip in the colony was built on the site in 1856 by William Isbister. He soon fell into bankruptcy and the lease for the slip was transferred to Robert Wright and George Duke, who traded as the Melbourne Dock Co. The slip was often referred to as Wright’s Slip.


Williamstown had a bluestone morgue built near Gem Pier in 1859. But the stench forced it to be relocated twice. The second relocation was to Ann Street in 1873 where it currently sits on the Seaworks site. During the Melbourne Harbour Trust ship building activities on the site, the morgue was used for storage of engine parts.


In 1921-22, a cargo storage shed built in 1887-88 at North Wharf was relocated to the Williamstown site on reclaimed land. The single shed was erected on the Melbourne Harbour Trust site as four separate buildings. Boyd Jetty was built adjacent to the sheds in 1922.


In 1942 and 1943, the Melbourne Harbour Trust erected more buildings on reclaimed land at the Nelson Place site, including the main shed. These buildings were used for the construction of small vessels for use around Australia’s coastline. At the same time, Workshops Jetty was built to transfer newly constructed vessels from the workshop to the water. The pier was extended in 1947.


The current area of the Seaworks site is 2.74 hectares. The former Port of Melbourne Authority ceased working from the site in 1993.

History of the Seaworks Concept

In 2004, a Williamstown history group, the Shenandoah Society, held a boat show on the former Port of Melbourne Authority site in a bid to convince the State Government of its importance in Victoria’s maritime history. About 20,000 people attended the exhibition. The Williamstown Maritime Association (WMA) was born out of that boat show. Talks began with Parks Victoria about transfer of the site to community use. The WMA began cleaning up a number of buildings and set up The Pirates Tavern as its clubrooms.


The following year, the site was renamed Seaworks and the WMA held another successful boat show to consolidate community interest in its preservation. The WMA attracted tall ships and heritage vessels from Victoria and other states to come to the site.


At the boat show, the then Premier, Steve Bracks, announced that management arrangements would be established between Parks Victoria, who had management of the site until that time, and the Williamstown Maritime Association to examine future use of the site.  A memorandum of understanding was signed by Parks Victoria, the WMA and Hobson’s Bay City Council to further redevelopment of Seaworks.

Recent History

In 2006, The Seaworks Foundation was established as the community based governance body for the site. It was noted that formal strategic planning for the site in the past had been limited and there had been many proposals put forward over the previous 10 years.


A strategic statement was prepared for the site by the Seaworks Foundation in early 2008 which formed the basis for the strategic development plan which aimed to provide a way forward and to activate the site. In 2010, a lease was signed between Parks Victoria and the Seaworks Foundation as the first step in returning the site to the community.

The Site Today

Seaworks is developing into a working Maritime Precinct.   The site covers some 2.7 hectares and includes historic buildings recognised by Heritage Victoria and the National Trust, piers, jetties, slipways and large open spaces.   The precinct is open to the public for educational, tourism and recreational activities that, celebrates and preserves our maritime history.


Now two years into our twenty one year lease with Parks Victoria, the Seaworks Foundation has established a clear set of objectives and has developed six streams of income; berthing, event and function spaces, tourism via Tall Ship visits, establishment of a Maritime Museum, tenanting a number of buildings to Maritime related entities and has been awarded Grants from the Ian Potter Foundation and the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation.


The Seaworks board is working on a short and medium term interim strategy while no “substantial injection” of capital funding is available. Short term is to ensure independent economic viability and medium term is to leverage the site profile and activities to attract funding.


The last two years have seen the foundations of Seaworks secured and built upon. A business plan was been developed to see the site continue to develop. However if the site is to realise its true potential and grow to become a world-class maritime precinct, it is recommended to pursue government funding.