In the earliest days of European settlement in this area, two
small villages had grown up in the region. Governor Bourke arrived from New
South Wales and named the settlement near the mouth of the river
Williamstown (after the king) and the settlement further up the river
near the fresh water Melbourne (after the prime minister of England).
From his choice of names, Governor Bourke clearly thought that Williamstown
would become the more important settlement. As it turned out, Melbourne
flourished and became the social and commercial hub of the 'Port Phillip
District'. Williamstown, whilst remaining an important port and maritime
centre, became a secondary settlement. If you didn't have a boat, access
between Melbourne and Williamstown was through the swampy western suburbs.
Even until the early 1970s, many people's access to Williamstown was through
queuing for the slow and clumsy car ferry (more of a punt really) that
crossed the mouth of the Yarra. If you look in a street directory you will
still see Williamstown Road in Port Melbourne heading straight towards the
ghost of the Williamstown Ferry.
With this relative isolation, ‘Willy' (as the locals call it) was able to
retain much of its own separate character. The word 'village' is used rather
indiscriminately by guidebooks and breathless tourist brochures to describe
such an atmosphere, but in Melbourne, Williamstown is one of the few areas
that White Hat considers can justly use that title.
For a flavour of Williamstown in the nineteenth century, take a walk
along Nelson Place with its buildings facing the bay and the port. They are
in varying stages of preservation – some have been modernised, others have
been faked up in 'Ye Olde Tea Shoppe’ style – but there is plenty there to
suggest the atmosphere of the old port where
John Price was murdered on the
beach by convicts. You can also visit the local museum (see below) and the
Williamstown Botanic Gardens to get
a feeling for nineteenth century Williamstown.
For much of the twentieth century, the area had a strong industrial
focus. Williamstown was home to a large naval shipbuilding works,
neighbouring Newport had rail yards and workshop, Altona had refineries and
Spotswood had numbers of manufacturing industries. (The film
Spotswood weaves a
gentle story around one such industry in decay and the area is sometimes
unkindly satirised as one that has been slow to adapt to the effects of
changing conditions in manufacturing and world trade.) For a flavour of this
period visit the Railway Museum
and the excellent Scienceworks Museum
housed in a large pumping station.
With the building of the West Gate Bridge in the 1970s, Williamstown
became more accessible from the eastern suburbs and the Sunday market on the
foreshore (see below) has become a firm favourite with Melbournians.
Suburban trains run regularly to Williamstown and there are regular ferry
services from Southgate,
St Kilda Pier (St Kilda ferry
runs only weekends, public holidays and throughout January). Williamstown is
also very bicycle friendly with numbers of bicycle tracks and a regular
bicycle ferry operating underneath the West Gate Bridge.