Travelling Australia
Port Fairy
Port Fairy
Port Fairy port on the Moyne River showing the commercial section. The large Norfolk Island Pines are an often ignored trademark of Port Fairy.
Port Fairy is a coastal village on the western coast of Victoria at the mouth of the Moyne River. Permanent population is 3,238 (2006 census). Location is 38° 22'S, 142° 14'E. Average maximum temperature is 19 degrees Celsius and average minimum is 10 degrees Celsius. Average annual rainfall is 770 millimetres.

Port Fairy was named in about 1827 when Captain Wishart sheltered from a storm at the mouth of the River Moyne in his cutter Fairy. A shore whaling station was soon established on Griffiths Island at the mouth of the Moyne to harvest the plentiful fur seals on the shore and the southern right whales in the sea. The whales were harpooned from shore-based boats and towed to shore for the blubber to be stripped and melted down. Port Fairy's whaling and sealing operation was one of many scattered along the coast and harvesting depleted the resource so heavily that whaling and sealing ended in the 1840s. A date of 1843 is recorded as the end of whaling at Port Fairy.

Before the whaling station closed some of the workers had cleared land across the river and begun farming. Slowly the fertile land became settled and John Cox of Clarendon, Tasmania, built the first store on the banks of the Moyne River in 1839. In 1843 James Atkinson and William Rutledge each bought 5,120 acres [2072 hectares] at one pound an acre as part of a Special Survey by the government of New South Wales trying to encourage development of the Port Phillip District. Atkinson now owned the area including the site of Port Fairy; he laid out a town called Belfast and encouraged Irish immigrants to settle. Rutledge developed nearby Killarney for Irish tenant farmers. By 1857 Belfast was one of the most flourishing towns in Victoria with a population of 2,190 in the municipality. At that time the Belfast area concentrated on growing wheat to feed the nearby goldfields. The whole Warrnambool, Port Fairy, Portland area had been extensively settled in the 1840s and 1850s.

In 1862 Belfast was severely affected when Rutledge became bankrupt and the local economy took a long time to recover. Atkinson (the other original Irish promoter, who owned the Belfast/PortFairy area) died in 1865; his estate was bought out by a local syndicate and the land auctioned in 1885. Two years later the name of Port Fairy was restored for the town by a special Act of Parliament. According to one study the name change was partly in reaction to the excessive Irishness of the past.

Port Access
In the 1850s the port of Port Fairy was a very busy port exporting wool, wheat and gold to England. Coastal and ocean-going sailing vessels could not enter the port inside the mouth of the River Moyne. The sea approaches to Port Fairy were deep and free from dangerous reefs and the entrance into the river was naturally protected from bad weather from the south-west and south.

But the entrance to the Moyne River was obstructed by a sand bay with less than a metre of water over it and ships had to anchor in the bay exposed to ocean waves during heavy weather; their safety depended on the holding ability of their anchors which could not always be relied on. Cargoes and passengers were loaded and discharged by shallow draught lighters ferrying between ship and shore.
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The bay was surveyed in 1854 and an ocean jetty begun in 1856 at East Beach but water depth alongside the pier was inadequate and it was recognised as a failure.

The need to make the Moyne River navigable for shipping was considered urgent at that time. The railway line for freight and passengers did not reach the town until 1890 so Port Fairy relied on coastal shipping for growth. And the Moyne River needed to be navigable for ocean-going ships so they could come alongside to load wool for export. Between 1869 and 1874 training walls of basalt quarried on Griffiths Island were built to control the river and project its flow into the bay. The existing channel from the south west between Griffiths Island and the mainland was expected to allow coastal wave action to sweep into the lower part of the Moyne and take sediment out to sea so dredging would not be needed.

Lighthouse at Port Fairy
Lighthouse on Griffiths Island.
Work on controlling and deepening the Moyne River with training walls was accompanied by the removal of a rock bar also lying across the river deeper than the sand bar. By 1870 the rock bar had been removed to a depth of three metres and the sand bar had more than two metres of water over it. These improvements resulted in coastal vessels gaining access in 1872 when Elizabeth and Rambler were towed through the entrance by the paddle steamer tug Surprise. Port Fairy was then able to develop as an important regional port.

The self-flushing action of waves through the south-west passage between Griffith Island and the mainland did not work as well as hoped and the passage was blocked off in 1911. The causeway to Griffiths Island now seriously restricts this flow. Regular dredging has been needed to ensure navigability of the river mouth since then. The training walls have also significantly altered Griffiths Island by coastal erosion and sand accumulation.

In 1859 a lighthouse was built to assist shipping approaching the port of Port Fairy. The lighthouse was built at the tip of Rabbit Island, which has since merged with Griffiths Island. The bluestone, 11.0 metre high light tower, now painted white, has a bluestone pedestrian causeway linking it with the land so keepers could reach the light when waves were sweeping across the rocks. This is now an automatic light with a solar panel mounted on the side; practical but disfiguring.

Gun Batteries
Gun at Port Fairy
One of the two mounted guns on traversing platforms in the fort on Battery Hill at Port Fairy.
During the nineteenth century the Australian colonies developed a fear of attack from the sea. Different colonies responded differently to the perceived threat; some formed navies, other preferred to establish gun batteries covering the approaches to ports believed vulnerable to attack. At Port Fairy, some 32 pounder muzzle loading smooth-bore cannon cast in 1811 in England and originally on Griffiths Island may have been installed on Battery Hill in 1839. Battery Hill was used as an observation platform because it provided an excellent view over the entrance to the River Moyne and the seaward approaches.

68-pound guns were cast in England in 1869 and they may have been mounted on Battery Hill in the 1870s; probably with earthworks to provide some protection against counter fire from an attacking ship.

Battery Hill was further developed in the 1880s in response to renewed fear of attack by Russian warships. The Public Works Department built bluestone and concrete fortifications with associated machinery and concrete bunkers.
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The fort was completed in 1886 and the two smooth-bore, 68-pound muzzle loading guns on traversing platforms were installed in 1887. The 68-pounders were replaced by 80-pounders in 1888. The guns were manned by a Volunteer Corps but were never fired in anger. Earlier 32-pounder and 68-pounder guns installed at Battery Hill were distributed as decorations around Port Fairy once no longer required in the battery; the 68-pounders were mounted in King George Square at one time. These guns have been returned to Battery Hill and are now on display below the existing forts in a collection of 32-pounder and 68-pounder guns which is unusual in Australia.

Belfast and Koroit Steam Navigation Company
After training walls had been built at the entrance to the Moyne River, Port Fairy became a reliable port and Port Fairy residents wanted to see "their" ship carrying the produce of the area to markets in Melbourne. A public meeting on 17 March 1882 decided to form a local shipping company and the Belfast and Koroit Steam Navigation Company was established in that year to provide shipping services along the Victorian coast. SS Casino was their first vessel; she was built in Scotland in 1882 and bought by the Belfast and Koroit company when she called in at Warrnambool during her delivery voyage. By 1899 the Belfast and Koroit company operated three vessels including SS Casino.

The Belfast and Koroit Steam Navigation Company operated ships between Melbourne, Warrnambool, Apollo Bay, Port Fairy and Portland carrying passengers and a variety of freight. Casino became a mainstay of the service for nearly fifty years after her first arrival at Port Fairy on 29 July 1882. Despite several incidents including strandings, some of which required dry-docking for repairs, Casino developed a reputation for reliability (if not punctuality) until 1932. In July of that year Casino was approaching Apollo Bay pier for a scheduled stop. A heavy swell dumped the ship on the sea bed after an anchor had been let go and an anchor tine holed the ship's hull. The master tried to run the sinking ship ashore on the nearby beach but she turned over and sank; ten crew and passengers died.

Casino Screw
The propellor from SS Casino mounted in King George Square at Port Fairy.
Loss of Casino and the death of passengers and crew shook confidence in coastal shipping which was already facing competition from road and rail. The train line from Melbourne, via Geelong and Warrnambool, had reached Port Fairy in 1890 and competed with shipping service. Competition from road transport was also increasing. The situation was made even worse for the Belfast and Koroit company in November 1934 when SS Coramba, bought to replace Casino, while making a routine voyage sailed from Warrnambool bound for Melbourne with a cargo of wool and Nestle Condensed Milk, no passengers were on board. While she was at sea a furious storm broke over the area and Coramba disappeared with her 17 crew. Wreckage was subsequently found on Phillip Island.

Loss of two ships in three years, and the death of an entire crew, was a serious blow for the Belfast and Koroit Steam Navigation Company already facing serious competition from road and rail. The company was wound up in 1939. The office manager had no doubts about the reason for the company closing; in a reference for an office worker (held by the Port Fairy Historical Society) he wrote that the company had been put out of business by "the Railways". The end of the Belfast and Koroit SN company was also the end of coastal shipping at Port Fairy; the main activity now was fishing

Fishing has been popular since Port Fairy was founded. The earliest fishermen, in sail-equipped wooden craft, caught barracouta, mullet, bream, Australian salmon and rock lobster. Initially there was inadequate transport to get fish to market in Melbourne in a saleable condition and fish was sold locally around Port Fairy from wheelbarrows. Advent of the railway line in 1890 made it feasible to get fish to Melbourne in good condition; fishing became a more attractive occupation and the number of boats fishing increased from six to 30 in ten years.

Freezer works becoming available from 1938 gave fishermen more flexibility, not only in handling their catch before sale but in keeping bait. Before the freezer it was not unknown for fishermen to have to wait in port while bait came from Melbourne before they could sail after shark; with the freezer they could put fish aside to be used later as bait.
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Shark was added to the species caught in the 1930s and was an important catch during the Second World War.

But barracouta remained the mainstay of the industry until the 1950s when public tastes changed to prefer shark. There was also a shortage of barracouta at that time bought about by a change in the habit of the krill eaten by Bass Strait barracouta; for unknown reasons the krill moved offshore and, lacking alternatives, the barracouta had also moved further offshore, too far for Port Fairy fishermen to reach them. Abalone diving started in the 1960s and the 1980s is often regarded as the peak of the fishing industry in Port Fairy.

Today rock lobster and abalone fishing are the main fisheries in terms of value. Abalone diving is currently limited by the outbreak of abalone viral ganglioneuritis first detected in December 2005; this virus causes death in less than 6 days and so far there has been 100% mortality in infected abalone. Mortalities of 90% have been recorded in two weeks on infected reefs. The virus is not known to affect humans.

Port Fairy
Port Fairy shopping centre. One and two storey buildings showing a range of architectural styles. Note the Norfolk Island Pine in the background.
Port Fairy is a tourist centre taking advantage of numerous well-preserved residential and commercial buildings contributing to numerous pleasant streetscapes. Mature Norfolk Island Pines lining most residential roads add to the picturesque appearance. A number of cafes and restaurants are found among the shops, many with footpath seating; locals and visitors spend many pleasant hours there. The township hosts several festivals at various times of the year with the major one being the Folk Festival in March when the population is variously reported to reach 20,000, 30,000 or 40,000 people. During that festival, accommodation in Port Fairy is hard to arrange but whether that justified converting the botanic gardens to a caravan and camping park is questionable. A caravan park amenities block set in landscaped lawns among the large trees typical of an established botanic gardens is a bizarre sight.

According to the 2006 census, 11.5% of jobs in Port Fairy are in the Accommodation and Food Service category; a further 10.2% are in Retail Trade; this makes 21.7% of jobs in categories oriented towards tourism. The GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical manufacturing plant on the edge of town provides an employment alternative to tourism. Curiously, the Health Care and Social Assistance category has 12.3% of jobs in Port Fairy district.

The historic port along the Moyne River is used by commercial fishing boats, recreational anglers and pleasure craft. Commercial fishing targets abalone, crayfish, shark, finfish and squid using vessels registered in Port Fairy as well as visitors. Charter boats also operate from the port which has permanent and casual berths. Much of the wharf area and jetties has been replaced in the last five years and a boat refuelling facility has been installed as part of ongoing improvement programmes.

The port is adjacent to King George Square which was the heart of the nineteenth century port. The bluestone Courthouse facing the square is now used by the Historical Society and other public buildings around the square are identified on display signs. The square has a propellor from Port Fairy based SS Casino mounted as a memorial to crew members who died when she sank at Apollo Bay. Across the river from King George Square the lifeboat house contains the lifeboat which entered service in 1857 and was recently restored.
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The port area is interesting to wander around looking at fishing boats and ocean-going yachts making their way to and from their berths. With luck, walkers may see the lifeboat in a training run on the river. People of all ages fish from the training walls or from the causeway out to Griffiths Island.

Griffiths Island contains thousands of short-tailed shearwater (muttonbird) burrows occupied by the birds between November and May each year for breeding. While the young birds are growing in the burrows, adult mutton-birds spend all day at sea fishing and return to the burrows at last light; a viewing platform on Griffiths Island allows visitors to watch the birds returning without walking over, and destroying, burrows. A walking track around the island, passing close to the lighthouse, is popular with visitors. Shearwaters living on Griffiths Island are usually at sea and not visible when people walk around the island but the island is easy for feral animals (foxes, cats, dogs) to reach and half-eaten shearwaters can easily be seen from the walking track. Not a good sight.

Visitors wanting more strenuous exercise than a stroll around Griffiths Island can walk or cycle along the Rail Trail from Warrnambool and Port Fairy opened in 2010 along the route of the former railway line which closed in 1977.

   'Moyne River Training Walls" by Heritage Council of Victoria at accessed on 12 April 2010
   "The Outer Ports of Victoria" by George Kermode in One Hundred Years of Engineering in Victoria, pub 1934, at - accessed 13 April 2010.
   "Guns and Emplacements" by Heritage Council of Victoria at accessed on 12 April 2010
   "Local History of the Town" by the Port Fairy Historical Society at on 12 April 2010.
   Victorian Heritage Database - S.S. CASINO, VHR Number S108, at - accessed on 15 April 2010.
   Victorian Heritage Database - T.S.S. CORAMBA, VHR Number S153, at - accessed on 15 April 2010.
   The Argus, 21 Feb 1895 at - accessed on 15 April 2010.
   Supplement to the Victoria Government Gazette of Friday February 10, 1899 at - accessed on 15 April 2010.
  Port Fairy and District Community Profile at - accessed on 15 April 2010.
  Port Talk - Newsletter of the Historic port of Port Fairy, 2005-2009 at - accessed on 16 April 2010.
  Port Fairy Historical Society documents and displays.
  Seafood Industry Victoria - Port Profile, Port Fairy at - accessed on 16 April 2010.
  "The Relation Between the Food of the Australian Barracouta, Thyrsites atun (Euphrasen), and Recent Fluctuations in the Fisheries" by M Blackburn in Australian Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research -1957 8(1) pp 29-54.
   Victorian Abalone Divers Association (VADA) - Abalone Industry Background at - accessed 16 April 2010.
   "Garry Stewart Boat builder Port Fairy" at - accessed on 18 April 2010.