Williamstown is approximately 15 minutes by car from Melbourne via the West Gate Freeway or a 30-minute train journey from Flinders Street Station. Ferries from Melbourne's Southgate Arts & Leisure Precinct take approximately 1 hour, whilst a 30 minute ferry ride can be taken from St Kilda Pier to Williamstown on weekends and public holidays.
Aboriginal people occupied the area long before maritime activities shaped the modern historical development of Williamstown. The Yalukit-willam clan of the Kulin nation were the first people to call Hobsons Bay home. They roamed the thin coastal strip from Werribee to Williamstown/Hobson’s Bay.
The Yalukit-willam were one clan in a language group known as the Bunurong, which included six clans along the coast from the Werribee River, across the Mornington Peninsula, Western Port Bay to Wilsons Promontory.
The Yalukit-willam referred to the Williamstown area as "koort-boork-boork", a term meaning "clump of she-oaks", literally "She-oak, She-oak, many". Around Point Gellibrand people used to be invited to join in ceremony, an indigenous peace festival and food festival where there would be an exchange of water and the leaves of a gum tree as well as feasts of bird meat and fish and shellfish.
Industrial development, land segregation, racism and a typhoid epidemic saw Aboriginal presence at Point Gellibrand rapidly decline after 1835.
In November 1835, Captain Robson Coltish, master of the barque Norval sailed from Launceston, then crossing Bass Strait with a cargo of 500 sheep and 50 Hereford cattle which had been consigned by Dr. Alexander Thomas. After reaching the coastline of Port Phillip, Captain Coltish chose the area now know as Port Gellibrand, as a suitable place to unload his cargo. Within weeks of the first consignment, a stream of vessels began making their way across Bass Strait. Because of the sheltered harbour, many of these new arrivals decided to settle in the immediate area.
When Governor Richard Bourke and Captain William Lonsdale visited the emergent settlement at Port Phillip Bay in 1837, they both felt the main site of settlement would emerge at the estuary and they renamed it William's Town after King William IV, then the English monarch. It served as Melbourne's first anchorage and as the centre for port facilities to the Port Phillip district until the late 19th century.
As William’s Town, was named for the British sovereign and Melbourne, on the other hand, was named after the British prime minister Lord Melbourne, it has been said that the place was originally intended to be the capital of the new Colony, and the first streets of old William’s town were laid out in 1837 with that in mind. A lack of adequate fresh water at William’s town meant that it became necessary to change the city centre to the inland site of Melbourne.
The first land sales in the area took place in 1837. A 30-metre stone jetty was built by convict labour in 1838 where Gem Pier now stands. That same year a ferry service between Melbourne and Williamstown was established aboard the steamer 'Fire Fly'. It was used to convey passengers, as well as sheep and cattle from Tasmania. By 1839, Williamstown had large shipping facilities including a pier and government stores all built by convict labor. During these early times the business heart of the town was centred on Nelson Place. About 100 buildings were built, including two hotels (the Ship Inn and the Woolpack). The first cemetery in Victoria was established at Point Gellibrand at this time.
The first lighthouse, a wooden one with an oil-burning beacon at the top, was erected at Point Gellibrand in 1840. In that same year a water police superintendent was appointed to Williamstown (and Williamstown is the present-day home of the Victorian Water Police).
The first census in Williamstown was taken in 1841 and the population was recorded as about 259 people. However, it is believed the true population was considerably more. There were three hotels in Williamstown by 1841 and most of the men worked at occupations related to the port. Being a busy port, there were numerous lodging houses and a constantly changing population. The years 1842 and 1843 there was an economic recession in the Port Phillip District and Williamstown's population somewhat declined.
In 1842 the appearance of the ship Manilus threw the small colony into a frenzy. The ship's immigrants were part of a British labour scheme that paid captains a bounty to deliver passengers in good health. The captain of the Manilus, known in the Victorian Shipping records as the "Plague ship", would not receive his bounty as forty-five of the ship's 243 passengers had been lost to yellow fever during the journey from Scotland's shores. The sick were taken to a hastly erected quarantine camp. Those that died were buried in a makeshift graveyard.
Also in 1842 the St Mary's School (the oldest continuously operating Catholic school in Victoria) was established in a small timber chapel with a wood shingle roof. Mr. John Wilson was the first teacher/principal. The earliest available record of enrolment figures is 6 boys and 8 girls, in July 1844.
In 1847 Steamboat Pier was built and a permanent customs house was set up. The water police and customs officers remained here until the Melbourne Harbour Trust developed river channels closer to the Melbourne CBD in the 1890s.
A bluestone lighthouse was built in 1849-50 to replace the original wooden one. It only operated as a lighthouse until 1860, when a Pile Light was built and anchored off Shelly Beach, after which it served as a time ball tower.
William’s Town had been a primitive settlement until the Victorian gold rush of the 1850s, but after the gold seekers began to arrive, many from the tin mines of Cornwall, and many more from the Californian gold fields, the settlement’s growth was phenomenal.
After the separation of the Port Phillip District from the Colony of New South Wales and the creation of the Colony of Victoria, Williamstown was granted municipal status in 1851 and the first Council was elected in April 1856. Meetings were held in the Williamstown Court House, near the corner of Cecil and Thompson Streets. By the mid 1850s many shops, business and residences had begun to be established in and around Newton (which is now known as Williamstown North).
During this period Williamstown played a key role in the Colony of Victoria and its connection to the world beyond. In 1853 an astronomical observatory was constructed at Point Gellibrand by the timeball tower (but it was moved to the Domain in Melbourne ten years later). Australia's first telegraph line began operating between Melbourne and Williamstown on 3 March 1854. At this time the timeball was moved to the Telegraph Station at Point Gellibrand. The Williamstown Chronicle, the first Victorian suburban newspaper, was established in 1854.
The first railway in Australia was established by the Hobson’s Bay Railway Company in 1854, and ran from Flinders Street Station to Station Pier in Sandridge (Port Melbourne). It went bankrupt, and this vital part of Victorian era infrastructure was only permanently established in the new colony by the Victorian Colonial Government. The first government line in Australia (1857) ran from Point Gellibrand to Spencer Street, at the western end of Melbourne’s “golden mile.”
Wealth created by the Victorian gold rush translated into increasingly sophisticated development of the town. By 1858, Williamstown's two hotels had grown to 17. By 1864 there were 26. The Williamstown Botanic Gardens were established in 1855, and are believed to be the earliest intact botanic gardens in Victoria. They were officially opened in 1860. The layout was designed by William Bull, and the seeds and plants were provided by Baron Ferdinand von Muller, the government botanist, and ‘father’ of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. The Victoria Yacht Club was established in 1856 as yachting on Hobson's Bay became more popular. Also in 1856, a baths complex beside Williamstown Beach was built at the end of Garden Street. The baths were run by Mr Lillington, and was specified as 'ladies only' in 1859.
Not all in Williamstown were becoming wealthy, and with some impoverished settlers turning to crime, floating prisons on the President, Success, Deborah and Sacramento in Hobson’s Bay. By the end of 1853, 455 prisoners were held on these hulks. A fifth hulk, the Lysander, was added in 1854. By 1856 there were over 6,000 prisoners on these prison hulks, some as young as nine years of age.
The first lightship to mark the reef off Point Gellibrand was the former barque New Constitution which the Government purchased in October 1856 for £1050. It took up station on 25 July 1859. In May 1860, tenders were called for construction of a new lightship off Point Gellibrand. The new lightship consisted of two white lights of equal height, 24 feet apart, and was shown from a temporary anchor in 4.5 fathoms of water. This lightship guarded Gellibrand's Point reef from 1861 until 1895.
Williamstown Post Office (the oldest post office building still standing in Victoria) and a Mechanics Institute were built in 1860. By 1861 Williamstown had 13 slips for boat repairs and building, and pier accommodation for 40 vessels. In 1864, the town boundaries of Williamstown were expanded to take in Newport and Spottiswoode, later to become Spotswood. Piped water from Yan Yean water supply subsequently arrived, allowing more rapid growth.
The Williamstown Racing Club, founded in 1864, was once one of the senior thoroughbred racing clubs in Victoria. Built in 1872, the Williamstown Racecourse, with its large and elaborately decorated grandstand facing out to the sea, was considered one of the finest in Australia. The Williamstown Football Club, an Australian rules football club was formed in 1864.
The Confederate States Navy warship CSS Shenandoah, which had successfully attacked several Union ships in the Indian Ocean, sailed into Hobson's Bay on the afternoon of 25 January 1865. Captain J. I. Waddell said he only wanted to put the ship onto the Williamstown slip for repairs, and to take on food and water. The visit was ostensibly for a day or two whilst repairs were effected, however she ended up staying for a month. Melburnians flocked to view the raider and newspapers advocated her arrest. But the Victorian government ignored police reports of attempted recruitment of crewmen. Forty-two were actually recuited in colonial Melbourne and this breech of Victoria's neutrality proved costly to the British government. An 1871 hearing at the International Court in Geneva awarded damages of £820 000 against Britain to the US government for use of the port at Williamstown by the CSS Shenandoah.
Between 1857 and 1889 the main railway workshops of the Victorian Railways were at Point Gellibrand, and at their height covered 85% of Point Gellibrand. Imported steam locomotives were assembled here. After 1889 the extensive workshops were moved to nearby Newport.
By 1870 Williamstown was known as the major cargo port of Victoria, with piers, slipways, shipwrights, and gangs of wharfies, all working along the shore opposite Nelson Place. As well, the Customs Department, pilots, the Victorian Navy, and the Harbour Trust all established bases in Williamstown.
The foundation stone of the Alfred Graving Dock was laid on 4th January 1868 by HRH Prince Alfred, KG, Duke of Edinburgh, who arrived in the Royal Navy’s first ironclad, HMS Warrior. Large excavations were necessary before the construction of the dock commenced. It was necessary to build an immense cofferdam, consisting of two curved walls, 1,000 feet in length, constructed of hardwood sheeting five inches thick. It was completed in July 1869, when boilers, engines and pumps were placed in position and pumping operations commenced. The cofferdam continued to perform its important function until March 1872, when following a south westerly gale, a portion of the north western area collapsed, and the dock was flooded to within four feet of the top of the masonry. It was subsequently discovered that the cofferdam in this section was erected over a vessel that had been sunk at the spot some years before. Four weeks elapsed before repairs were completed. When the water was pumped out, it was found that the masonry had not been appreciably damaged. The graving dock was completed on 14th September 1873, but the dock caisson was not finished and in position until February 1874. HMCS Nelson was the first to enter it (in 1874). Following the opening of the graving dock, many ships of various sizes and types were docked and repaired over the next 30 years.
The Alfred Graving Dock is historically significant as the first graving dock in Victoria and the third in Australia at that time, for its role in the development of the shipping industry in Port Phillip, for its continuous use as a Dockyard since its completion and for association with William Wardell during his term as Inspector General of the Public Works Department.
Williamstown Baptist Church was officially founded in 1868, though a congregation had begun to form eight years earlier in response to an advertisement in the Williamstown Chronicle dated Saturday, 24 November 1860. Baptismal services were performed at the back beach at Williamstown from 1861 through to 1868, the first being performed 10 March 1861 by the Rev. David Rees of South Yarra. The Oddfellows' Hall was rented for services from December 1868. The Presbyterian schoolroom in Cecil Street was later used, followed by the Temperance Hall from April 1870. The Tabernacle, now the Church of Christ on Douglas Parade, was used after this. In January 1876 services reverted to the Oddfellows' Hall. In 1884 the Baptist Church building on Cecil Street was officially opened.
Williamstown North Primary School was established in 1874 and in that same year part of the market reserve was purchased from the Williamstown Council by the Education Department in order to build the Williamstown Primary School No. 1183. The school had first opened in 1873 at the Mechanics Institute, with increasing numbers of pupils necessitating the leasing of additional rooms for classrooms in the Temperance Hall in 1875 and the Methodist Church in 1876. In 1877 tenders were called for the erection of a new school building, a bluestone neo-Gothick edifice which was completed in 1878. Prior to its completion, children not enrolled in private schools in the area were taught at the Mechanics’ Institute. A model of the school was sent to the 1878 Paris Exhibition, and it was cited as the best school in the Australian colonies.
A rifle range was opened at Williamstown in July 1876. This became the focal point for target rifle competition in Victoria for over a hundred years.
A Sailor's Rest establishment was built on Nelson Place in 1878, but for those sailors who sought more intoxicating entertainment there were innumerable local hotels.
In 1885 the prison hulks moored off Williamstown were ordered to be broken up. Success escaped this fate. In 1890 it was bought by entrepreneurs and fitted out as a floating museum with life-like wax figures wearing prison clothes and manacles to depict the sensationalised stories of the convicts who had filled its cells while a prison hulk.
The Williamstown CYMS football club was formed in 1886 and remains one of the oldest sporting clubs in Australia.
The Williamstown Hospital opened in 1894 when the community responded to the increasing risk of accidents from a busy port, the railway workshops and the growing industrial area of Newport, Spotswood and Footscray to establish Melbourne's first suburban public general hospital.
The Williamstown Lacrosse Club was founded in 1898 at a meeting in the Williamstown Baptist Sunday School called by Arthur Whitley (son of the Minister). Arthur Whitley became the first Captain and Fred Scott the first secretary.
By 1904 the population of Williamstown was about 15,000. The description of Williamstown in the 1904 edition of The Australian Handbook notes that principal hotels in Williamstown at that time were: the Steam Packet, Royal, Newport, Prince of Wales, Yacht Club, Morning Star, and Pier. There were also a further 34 hotels in the area.
In 1906, one of the largest undertakings attempted by ship repairers in Australia was successfully accomplished at the Williamstown Dockyard. SS Peregrine, a 1,660 GRT vessel of the Howard Smith Line, was lengthened amidships by 40 feet. This was perhaps the first jumboising operation undertaken in Australia.
On the 29th August 1908, a visiting American Fleet, consisting of sixteen battleships and six auxiliary vessels, steamed up Port Phillip Bay. This was the famous ‘Great White Fleet’ of the USN. During the `Fleet Week’ celebrations that followed, a collision occurred in Hobson’s Bay on the 4th September between the collier USS Ajax and the steamer SS Leura. The latter vessel was crowded with sightseers. The tug James Patterson went alongside and took on board the passengers from the SS Leura. The vessel was towed up the river Yarra for repairs. The Alfred Graving Dock was hastily prepared for the USS Ajax, which proceeded there with pumps working continuously to keep down the in-rushing water. The USS Ajax was docked and a new stern, 63 feet in length, was constructed and fitted.
The Shipbuilding Yard at Williamstown was officially opened by the Governor of Victoria, Sir John Fuller, on Monday 7 April 1913. Soon after the Declaration of War on 4th August 1914, the Commonwealth Government requested the Williamstown Dockyard to undertake the conversion of merchant ships into transports. By 30 November the employment figures at the Dockyard had reached the record total of 1,500 men. Over the next two years, continual disputes between the State and Federal Governments over the use of non-union labour in the Dockyard led to a gradual decrease in the orders for fitting out troop transports.
The Williamstown Hospital was expanded with the addition of the Male Ward in 1911 and the Female Ward in 1917.
Williamstown Sailing Club was formed in 1914.
Extensive remodelling of the 1878 Williamstown Primary School building was undertaken in 1915.
Heidelberg School impressionist artist Walter Withers painted numerous landscapes of Williamstown around 1910, at a time when fellow Heidelberg School impressionist artist Frederick McCubbin was also painting the Williamstown landscape. Between 1909 and 1915, McCubbin visited Williamstown on numerous occasions and produced sketches and watercolours of the foreshore and the old shipyards. He also produced a major oil painting of the Williamstown docks in 1915.
In 1919, when Melbourne was struck with the dreaded Spanish flu, the Williamstown Primary School was closed and used as a makeshift hospital for the ill.
In 1920 the Williamstown railway line was electrified.
The Williamstown Swimming and Life Saving Club was formed in 1922 and its clubhouse at the western end of Williamstown Beach was built in 1935.
In 1930 a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into certain matters affecting the municipal government of the City of Williamstown.
In 1934 the bluestone time ball tower (the former lighthouse) was extended by 30 feet with a circular brick tower on top. The extension was then painted with a coat of aluminium paint and it was re-established as a lighthouse due to the loss of singularity against the light of the City behind the Point Gellibrand Pile Light. It was electric, gave a green and red light, had a visibility of 15 nautical miles and operated as a lighthouse from 1934 to 1987.
The Williamstown Dressing Pavilion was constructed at Williamstown Beach in 1936. Also constructed in 1936 was a pool on The Strand. It was constructed as part of sustenance works program.
Racing at Williamstown Racecourse ceased in 1940. The course, like the Melbourne Cricket Ground, was used to house troops. Racing was due to recommence after the war’s end, but fire destroyed the two grandstands.
Also in 1946, nine Williamstown residents met to form the Williamstown Little Theatre Movement. Through the 1950s and '60s, Williamstown Little Theatre had several homes in Williamstown; from the Mechanic’s Institute to the Williamstown Town Hall Supper Room and the former Missions to Seamen building in Nelson Place. In 1967 the theatre company moved into its current venue, a converted bakery on Albert Street.
In 1948 an electoral redistribution saw Williamstown included in the new Australian Federal electoral Division of Gellibrand, named after Joseph Tice Gellibrand (1786-1836). It was proclaimed in 1949 and was first won in that year by the Australian Labor Party candidate, John Michael Mullens. He held the seat until 1955.
The Rotary Club of Williamstown has established in March, 1949.
The HMAS Anzac was commissioned at Williamstown Naval Dockyard on 14 March 1951 under the command of Commander John Plunkett-Cole RAN.
In the 1950s and '60s, the popularity of Williamstown declined and it was viewed as a run-down industrialised centre. The Merritt Rifle Range at Williamstown was the rifle-shooting venue for the 1956 Olympic Games. In May 1962, the City of Williamstown annexed 83 hectares (205 acres) from the Shire of Altona.
The Pile Light anchored off Shelly Beach in 1860 was destroyed in 1976 when it was hit by the Melbourne Trader, a vessel of 7,000 tonnes. The force of the collision snapped the piles at waterline area, the light was sheared off its piles at water level, pushed 7 metres (20 ft) sideways, and was left hanging precariously on several of the remaining piles. The engine room and lower deck were submerged and the house and light tower were balanced on a knife edge, threatening to topple over into deep water. At the time the piles were 70 years old and their diameter had diminished from 2 feet to about 9 inches in the tidal zone thus reducing the strength of the piles. The harbour master of the day was not prepared to risk any of his men to secure or repair the structure, as it was considered to be on the brink of tumbling into the sea, so reluctantly Ports & Harbours gave the order to set fire to it at 11 am on 23 June 1976.
In 1987, the Victorian Government's Urban Land Authority purchased the former rifle range at Williamstown (comprising an area of around 110 hectares) from the Commonwealth Government for $11.7 million.
The development of the estate was accompanied by extensive public consultation, which emphasised creation of open space for passive recreation and preservation of the coastal strip. The coastal area had been virtually untouched by European settlement due to the 'protection' offered over the years by the active rifle range.
The Authority developed 60 hectares of the estate for housing and related commercial and community activities. Residential allotments were progressively released for sale from May 1991. The historic armoury building of the old rifle range was preserved, refurbished and is now as a funeral home set in a large formal garden.
The remaining 50 hectares was reserved for the protection of the surrounding environmentally sensitive area. This area, now known as the Jawbone Flora and Fauna Reserve consists of open grasslands for passive recreation, two wetland lakes, the saltmarsh and mangrove conservation area, Wader Beach and the Kororoit Creek.
In the past decade Williamstown has received a face lift and become a major tourism drawcard. It retains the coherence and charm of a maritime village, due, in no small part, to the many historic buildings. A proliferation of cafes and restaurants are a major feature of Nelson Place which runs adjacent the foreshore while boats, yachts and dinghies decorate the shoreline and ships sail through the estuary en route to the Port of Melbourne.
The 2006 Census puts the number of occupied private dwellings in Williamstown at 5,035, states that 66.5% of occupied private dwellings were family households, and the number of families is given as 3,372. The 2006 Census data also shows that 74.6% of persons usually resident in Williamstown stated they were born in Australia. Other common responses within Williamstown were: England 4.8%, New Zealand 1.5%, Scotland 1.2%, Italy 1.1% and Greece 0.8%. The data also showed that 88.5% of persons usually resident in Williamstown were Australian citizens, 19.6% were born overseas and 0.7% were overseas visitors.
Williamstown is within the Victorian electoral district of Williamstown. The most recent election was the 2007 by-election triggered by the resignation of Steve Bracks as both Premier of Victoria and the Member for Williamstown.
State High schools in the area include Bayside Secondary College and Williamstown High School, (Pasco and Bayview Street Campuses). In 2008 Williamstown High School’s new $11 million Bayview Street campus development won the Victorian Premier's Sustainability Award. Students are able to compare their resource usage on a daily basis and between other facilities as an integrated energy monitoring system has been installed displaying water, gas and electricity consumption on screens around the school.
The Junior School at the Williamstown campus of Westbourne Grammar School is housed in the National Trust classified Victorian mansion "Monomeith" at 67 The Strand.
Representative of Williamstown’s maritime history, large scale maritime industry dominates Williamstown's piers precinct and a maritime theme characterises the Nelson Place tourism precinct.
The Nelson Place tourism precinct offers some of Melbourne's best waterfront eateries, many catering for al fresco dining and some with spectacular views of Melbourne's city skyline through the masts of bobbing boats on the foreshore. Also located on Nelson Place is a diverse range of arts, crafts and other speciality shops.
Around the corner from Nelson Place there is a local retail sector operating on Ferguson Street and Douglas Parade. Ferguson Street has a mix of restaurants, cafes, two hotels and a range of retail shops. This mix of small retail businesses extends around the corner into Douglas Parade.
In Williamstown North there remains a rump of railway engineering industry. There is also a light-industrial/commercial park.
Now in its fifth year, the Williamstown Literary Festival (held in May) is a popular local cultural event focusing on literature, drama and writing which presents established and emerging writers and literary figures.
Williamstown Little Theatre, located at a converted bakery at 2-4 Albert Street, is one of the leading non-professional theatre companies in Melbourne. Since 1946 it has presented quality, affordable theatre to the people of Williamstown and the wider community.
The Williamstown Sailing Club, Royal Yacht Club of Victoria, Hobson's Bay Yacht Club, and Royal Victorian Motor Yacht Club are all located on Nelson Place.
The Williamstown Juniors Football Club fielded 17 teams in the WRFL for 2007, the highest of any club. Notable AFL players from Williamstown Juniors are Daniel Giansiracusa of the Western Bulldogs, and Ben Davies of the Collingwood Magpies and North Melbourne Kangaroos. Williamstown Cricket Club is the third oldest in Victoria having run continuously since 1852. The Club run four senior sides as well as a women's team and nine junior sides. Williamstown Cricket Club compete in the Victorian Sub District Cricket League and ended season 2006/07 as Premiership Champions.
The Williamstown Magic Basketball Club and Williamstown Cannons Basketball Club both field many junior teams in the Altona Bay Basketball Association.
Williamstown is also home to a local soccer club, the Williamstown Bandits. Star A-League players Tom Ato and Ash Ketchum originated from this club.
Lacrosse, a minor sport in Australia is also popular in Williamstown. Three clubs, the Williamstown Lacrosse Club, Williamstown Women's Lacrosse Club and Newport Ladies Lacrosse club all use the Fearon Reserve as their club house and home field. Williamstown is home to many yacht clubs, including Hobsons Bay Yacht Club, Royal Yacht Club of Victoria and Williamstown Sailing Club. There is a strong maritime feel to Williamstown, created by both the presence of the Williamstown Lighthouse, Tenix (ship building yard proprietors) and the many yachts floating on Hobsons Bay.
International tennis star Mark Philippoussis grew up in Williamstown. Other notable sports stars who live in the area include Australian Football League players Chris Grant and Rohan Smith both of the Western Bulldogs in the Australian Football League.
The Hobsons Bay Coastal Trail runs through Williamstown and is a very popular trail with recreational users.
Scouts Australia has a Sea Scout and a Scout group in Williamstown.
There are three bus routes which connect Williamstown with surrounding suburbs:
The principal road connections from Williamstown are Kororoit Creek Road leading westward toward Altona and two roads which head northward to Newport and Spotswood, namely Douglas Parade and Melbourne Road. The latter connects to central Melbourne via the West Gate Bridge.