Learning More of our History at Williamstown’s Seaworks Museum

During the week, I organised a day out to the historic area of Williamstown, across the bay from Melbourne’s CBD. We were welcomed warmly by a small group of enthusiastic volunteers who regaled us with stories about Williamstown and its place in Victoria’s maritime history.

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Melbourne was declared a city in 1835 and Williamstown was 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. Nelson Place (the street that runs along the foreshore ) was once occupied with pubs and seedy establishments that serviced the tough and hard working blue collar workers in these industrial organisations. It now has a string of up-market eating places catering for al fresco dining, many with views across to Melbourne’s city skyline through the masts of bobbing boats on bay.

Williamstown Nelson Place

Until the gold rush of the 1850s Williamstown was quite a primitive settlement, 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. By 1858, Williamstown’s two hotels had grown to 17. By 1864 there were 26.

The Seaworks Museum now has a permanent Maritime Museum, and is a centre for maritime and community activities along with the original, heritage listed Melbourne Morgue. It displays the maritime history of Seaworks and Williamstown from the early settlement of Melbourne in 1802 to the present day.

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The Collection includes a unique display of ship builder’s models, artifacts from the Port of Melbourne and earlier Melbourne Harbour Trust. It includes a display of the Victorian Colonial Navy and the 200 year old wheel from the Nelson.

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In relation to its naval history, The Colony of Victoria decided to construct a large slipway at Williamstown to provide ship repair facilities in 1856. In 1858, the Colony of Victoria decided to build a graving dock and dockyard. This eventually led to the Commonwealth Naval dockyards in which over 40 vessels were built.

Construction commenced in 1868, and was completed in February 1874. The Alfred Graving Dock, named after Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, (Queen Victoria’s consort) was built at a cost of £300,000. It was 143 m in length, 24 m wide, 8 m deep. The Dockyard Pier, originally known as Dock Pier was constructed in 1874 for use with vessels engaged in pre/post docking in the Alfred Graving Dock. In the 1870s, the railway department contracted for the construction of a new pier to meet increased demand imposed by wool and later grain handling. The pier and surrounding land was purchased by the Commonwealth in 1967, and use of the facility declined. Demolition work began in 1979 due to its poor condition. A new pier was built in 1978 to replace the nearby Nelson Pier. It provided two cranes and two berths for the refitting and outfitting of warships. Another pier, Reid St Pier, was constructed for the Melbourne Harbour Trust for exclusive use with its own floating plant in September 1891. It was later used to house the tug fleet, and was rebuilt in 1949.

In 1913, the dockyard was known as the State Shipbuilding Yard and was requisitioned in 1918 by the Commonwealth. Ownership passed to the Melbourne Harbour Trust in 1924 and during World War II it was requisitioned by the Commonwealth in 1942 and was known as HM Naval Dockyard Williamstown, or Williamstown Naval Dockyard. In 1987 it passed into private control of Tenix Defence and which was subsequently acquired by BAE Systems Australia. Over 40 ships built at these dockyards. It is now closed as ship building operations have moved to Adelaide in South Australia.

Our unexpected, but very welcome museum guides told us two stories that stand out in my mind.

The first was the story of the Wiliamstown Morgue. The significant increase of people coming to Melbourne during the 1850’s goldrush created the need for a mortuary. With many deaths due to unidentified causes a coroner needed to be involved, a process that could take days because most available surgeons had to come from Melbourne by horse and buggy. At first, the only place to store the bodies away from the hot sun was in the cellars of the local hotels (pubs). Even though the locals were resilient and tough workers, the smell of decomposing bodies in their favourite drinking places was a little too much. Eventually, in 1859 Williamstown Morgue was built using bluestone rock from the quarry in front of Fort Gellibrand.

It was a small building with only a single room measuring around six metres in length, five metres wide and four metres high, and constructed right on the waterline. Those were different times, with less sanitation, so the location for the morgue was chosen because of its close proximity to the beach. After a post mortem had been completed the building was simply flushed out with water, with any remains being washed out onto the beach. What the local crabs and wildlife didn’t deal with, the high tide took out into Port Philip Bay.

Williamstown Morgue Side Photo

As Melbourne grew and Williamstown became more popular, it was decided to move the morgue away from its foreshore location. It didn’t seem to give visitors the right impression to be greeted by body parts and blood on the beach. So the whole building was taken apart brick-by-brick and moved to its current location in Ann Street, a location that still presented its challenges. The bodies had to be hung from the rafters to prevent them from getting eaten by rats or overtaken by floodwaters, but at least it was away from the public eye. The morgue is now a favourite place for local ghost tours.

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The second story was about the Confederate States Navy warship CSS Shenandoah, which had successfully attacked several Union ships in the Indian Ocean. It sailed into Hobsons Bay (Williamstown) 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 Shenandoah was forced to wait while the Victorians decided if letting the raider into their harbour violated their neutrality. As the only two dry docks belonged to the crown, it was decided to rent a dry dock to a private firm who allowed the ship to dry dock, thereby putting the responsibility on the private firm whilst keeping Australia’s neutrality.

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Meanwhile, about 50 American sailors jumped ship to join the gold rush. These deserters were replaced by Australian sailors resulting in us having a very small role in the American Civil War. 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. At that time Australia’s colonies were still under British rule.

In another part of Williamstown’s history, between 1857 and 1889, the main railway workshops of the Victorian Railways were at Point Gellibrand, and at their height covered 85% of the area around Point Gellibrand. Imported steam locomotives were assembled here but after 1889 the extensive workshops were moved to nearby Newport.

2 thoughts on “Learning More of our History at Williamstown’s Seaworks Museum

  1. I did not know about the CSS Shenandoha. That is an interesting history, you do find the interesting places to visit. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for the interesting Williamstown history.

    A small correction to your dates: Melbourne was first settled in 1835, declared a town in 1842 (the year the Wilsons arrived), but not declared a city by letters patent from Queen Victoria until 12 June 1847.

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