City Within a City

Chris Whitelaw — 13 August 2020
With a marine history that dates back to the custodianship of the Yalukit-willam people, it's no wonder Williamstown is a strong marine town

Williamstown is the oldest continuous settlement on Port Phillip Bay. Established near the mouth of the Yarra River only months before Melbourne, Williamstown served as the Settlement of Port Phillip's first anchorage and the colony’s major port until the late 19th century. Despite its proximity and historical connection to Melbourne, Williamstown evolved separately, developing its own distinctive character and ambience. 

Sitting at the end of a small peninsula, bounded by Hobsons Bay to the north and Altona Bay to the south, Williamstown was a relatively discrete urban enclave until the construction of the West Gate Bridge and Freeway in 1978. It then underwent a residential renaissance from industrial seaport to fashionable seaside suburb, with a population of around 14,000, administered by the City of Hobsons Bay.

With piers and docks fretting the shoreline, historic Williamstown has the feel of a charming maritime village with a scenic outlook over the bay to the distant city skyline. The foreshore precinct of Nelson Place has a variety of colonial buildings and restaurants, interspersed with parks, museums and marinas that attract a vibrant tourist trade. Although eclipsed as Victoria’s principal trading port, Williamstown’s strong maritime and defence-related industries have ensured its continuing importance in the state’s economy.


The area now covered by the City of Hobsons Bay lies at the eastern edge of a basalt plain formed millions of years ago by lava flows. Stony Creek separates Williamstown from its neighbours in the north, while Skeleton Creek forms a partial boundary in the west. Kororoit Creek bisects the region from north to south and Laverton and Cherry Creeks drain from the north into what once were seasonal swamps (now Truganina Swamp and Cherry Lake).

From early settlement, Europeans began to alter the environment. Basalt was quarried in many parts of the municipality and the she-oaks were cut down for firewood. Land was reclaimed from intertidal mudflats and the foreshore was modified to accommodate wharves and piers. Much of the municipality has been developed for residential, commercial, civic or industrial purposes.

About 15 per cent of the original environment is preserved in a string of conservation areas and recreational parks stretching from the West Gate Bridge to Williamstown, Altona and Point Cook.

These unique assets are managed by different agencies, including Hobsons Bay City Council, Parks Victoria, Melbourne Water and the Department of Environment Land Water and Planning. Within these diverse ecosystems are habitats for an impressive array of flora and fauna — 315 plant species, 300 kinds of animals and numerous native fish — some of them rare and threatened species of national and state significance. 


Before Europeans, the coastal strip around Hobsons Bay, including present-day Williamstown, was occupied by the Yalukit-willam people. They called this area koort-boork-boork, meaning ‘many she-oaks’, referring to the forest of trees that once skirted the coastline. This fertile region offered a varied diet to its inhabitants — fish and shellfish in the bay; birds, eggs, eels and snakes in the swamps and creeks; and kangaroos and possums in the wooded hinterland. The head of the Yalikut-willam tribe when white settlers arrived was Benbow, who became one of John Batman's guides.


While mapping the coastline of Port Phillip in 1803, Lieutenant Charles Robbins assessed Point Gellibrand with a survey party. In mid-1835, the mouth of the Yarra River was explored by John Batman, who also identified land in the Hobsons Bay area for settlement by the Port Phillip Association. Soon after, Captain Robson Coltish arrived from Launceston in the barque Norval with Association settlers and a cargo of livestock and supplies, which he landed at a sheltered location then known as Port Gellibrand. Within weeks, a stream of vessels brought more settlers to establish pastoral runs. When NSW Governor Sir Richard Bourke visited in 1837, he named it William's Town in honour of the reigning monarch, William IV, believing it would develop into the main settlement in Port Phillip. 


Although Melbourne was ultimately chosen as the capital due to its abundance of fresh water, a natural bar in the estuary made it difficult to navigate up the Yarra and Port Melbourne was too shallow for large vessels. Proximity to the river mouth and deep anchorage in Hobsons Bay established Williamstown as the major port for Melbourne and the centre of maritime operations in Port Phillip. In these early years, ferries and paddle steamers carried passengers and cargo from ships anchored in the bay up the Yarra, across to Port Melbourne and into Williamstown.

From 1838, port facilities at Williamstown began to evolve — stone jetties were built using convict labour, a lighthouse was erected, and several piers were connected to railways that fostered Williamstown's export trade in wheat and wool. The Victorian gold rush of the 1850s brought an influx of prospectors, migrants and entrepreneurs. Commerce thrived and the town developed rapidly.

By 1870, Williamstown was the pre-eminent cargo port of Victoria, with pier accommodation for 40 vessels, 13 slipways, shipwrights, and gangs of wharfies working along the shore opposite Nelson Place. Officialdom also set up shop in the form of a pilot service, customs and immigration, the Victorian Navy and water police. 

Between 1857 and 1889, the main railway workshops of the Victorian Railways were at Williamstown and at their height covered 85 per cent of Point Gellibrand. Imported steam locomotives were also assembled here. The Alfred Graving Dock was opened in 1868 for dry dock repair and maintenance of ships and played a major role in developing the shipping industry in Port Phillip.

In the late 1870s, dredging deepened the Yarra and the channel to Port Melbourne, where docks were developed to land passengers and cargo. Export activities shifted to Geelong when bulk handling facilities were established there. As a result, Williamstown gradually lost its prominence as a trading port and passenger hub but continued as a major centre for industry and marine engineering. By the turn of the century, the local industrial base also included freezing works, woollen mills, gasworks and glassworks. 


Williamstown’s strategic location was first recognised by Governor Bourke in 1837 when he noted that a battery would be required at Gellibrand Point. Within 20 years, a military reserve was established along the south-eastern foreshore and developed from the 1860s to include a defence battery (Fort Gellibrand), an explosives magazine and a torpedo depot for Victorian Naval ships. Initially, the Fort was established as part of a defensive network to protect Melbourne from a feared Russian invasion, but Williamstown has played other important roles in defence. 

From the 1880s, the Williamstown Naval Depot served as a naval base and training school until HMAS Cerberus was opened at Western Port in 1920. During the World Wars, the Government Docks converted cargo ships to troop transports, built naval and merchant ships, and the Railway Workshops produced machine gun carriers, aircraft parts and components for ammunition. The destroyer HMAS Anzac was commissioned at Williamstown Naval Dockyard in 1951.


The Williamstown Foreshore begins in the north at Sandy Point and stretches south along the narrow Strand through parklands to the Anchorage Marina. The Strand is popular with walkers and cyclists and valued for its panoramic views of yachts riding at moorings in the bay. The marina and its associated restaurant signal the first of the commercial establishments on the foreshore, with an emphasis on sailing and boating clubs and marine activities. Offshore, the area between the Anchorage Marina and Williamstown Sailing Club is primarily occupied by swing moorings.

The Central Williamstown precinct, along Nelson Place between the Sailing Club and Seaworks, is where boating and recreational activity is concentrated, with various jetties and piers accommodating yacht clubs (Hobsons Bay Yacht Club, Royal Victorian Motor Yacht Club and Royal Yacht Club of Victoria), marine services (slipways, boat building and repair) and the Water Police. Nelson Place is graced with many heritage buildings and restaurants offering al fresco dining with views of the waterfront, while the local retail sector operates on nearby Ferguson Street and Douglas Parade.

Gem Pier is home to a number of commercial activities, including ferry services that run tourism/sightseeing and charter cruises to Southbank and St Kilda, and the World War II minesweeping corvette HMAS Castlemaine, which operates as a museum. A seaplane operates from a pontoon opposite Commonwealth Reserve, offering sight-seeing tours to various parts of Melbourne. Behind Gem Pier, the Commonwealth Reserve is a popular activity node and parkland area containing the Liston Tennis Club and Williamstown Visitor Information Centre.

The historic Seaworks site occupies 2.74 hectares of Crown land with direct water frontage to Hobsons Bay. From the 1850s it operated as Melbourne’s immigration arrival point and later as a site for maritime industrial activities. Today, its heritage-listed buildings house the local Parks Victoria office, a boat restoration workshop and a maritime museum, while its jetties provide docking facilities for 

the retired Sea Shepherd and ‘tall ships’ such as Young Endeavour.

The Wharves Precinct occupies the foreshore from Ann Street Pier to Breakwater Pier. This key industrial area focuses on marine engineering activities, including defence-related shipbuilding, which make a significant contribution to local employment and the State economy. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the Breakwater and Gellibrand Piers were modified and extended to accommodate oil tankers, with associated storage facilities for the Exxon Mobil refinery at Altona North.


The WSC was established in 1910 and has a current membership of more than 300, with 107 yachts and 80 fishing boats. All registered boats using moorings maintained by the club are restricted to a length of 5.5m. Facilities include a twin concrete ramp for launching trailer yachts and power boats, twin jetties for rigging, a rigging deck for off-the-beach boats, limited storage for small off-the-beach boats and slip facilities for maintenance of power craft. Some members have boats on moorings leased from Parks Victoria, and the club has two dinghies for members to access their moored boats.


HBYC was established in 1888. Its 700 members own an eclectic mix of boats (fibreglass, steel and timber) ranging from 7ft to 47ft. The club accommodates about 150 vessels at pile berths, a hardstand storage facility and 14 swing moorings leased from Parks Victoria. A work yard is available next to the hardstand for members to restore and maintain their yachts. Contact the manager for availability of visitor moorings.


The RYCV was founded in 1853 as the Port Phillip Yacht Club and is regarded as the oldest ‘royal’ yacht club in Australia. With 900 members and 300 registered yachts, it is also one of the largest. It has a modern clubhouse and yard at the south end of its double E-shaped marina. The marina has 168 wet berths for members and very few casual vacancies. There is limited berthing for visitors, although temporary tie-up may be had beside the north wall (fender well in northerly breezes) or at a floating pontoon adjacent to the travel lift. Facilities include slipping, hardstand storage, onsite contractors for a variety of marine services. The Club is proposing to replace the existing piled marina with a new state-of-the-art floating marina with 239 berths for vessels (including motorboats) between 10–17m. 


The RVMYC was founded in 1904 and was granted the King’s warrant to add ‘Royal’ to its name in 1937. The club caters primarily to motor vessels, with 80 berths for boats up to 18m and access to shore power and water. Depending on availability, the club may offer casual and visitor berthing. Excellent hardstand facilities are available for boat maintenance, with access to a modern travel-lift at the adjacent Savages Wharf. A new clubhouse was opened in 2015, with dining and bar facilities, and shower and toilet amenities for members. 


Originally built in the 1940s on the site of Parson’s Boat Shed (c.1890), the old timber and concrete structure was replaced in 2005 with a new 100-berth floating marina (renamed The Anchorage) accommodating vessels ranging from 8–23m, including 20 dedicated visitor berths. Catamarans can be moored in double-berths without paying double fees. Trailer boat owners have 24/7 boat ramp access and options for dry storage and casual marina berthing. Overnight berthing is offered from $30 per night during winter. Facilities include 240V shore power, water, camera security, wireless internet access, car-parking, laundry and ensuite amenities. The Anchorage also has full marine services in house, including shipwright, mechanical, electrical, chandlery, rigging, slipping, cleaning and anti-fouling. The award-winning Pier Farm restaurant is also located on-site, incorporating the old boat shed structure, with views across the bay. 



Cnr Nelson Place and Syme Street, Williamstown 

P: (03) 9399 8641




115 Civic Parade, Altona

P: (03) 9932 1000


115 Civic Parade, Altona

P: (03) 9932 1000




Cnr Stevedore Street and The Strand, Williamstown

P: (03) 9397 0770 (only answered on Saturday mornings)


W: williamstownsailing


270 Nelson Place, Williamstown

P: (03) 9397 6393




120 Nelson Place, Williamstown

P: (03) 9397 1277




260 Nelson Place, Williamstown

P: (03) 9393 2888




34 The Strand, Williamstown

P: (03) 9397 4740



Travel Destination Williamstown Victoria Marine History Yalukit-willam Boating


Chris Whitelaw