The origins of Port Fairy

The origins of Port Fairy

As part of the lockdown, we thought that bringing you some more informative blogs could be fun. We’re all about sharing our love of Victorian history, so to begin with we’ll be looking at Port Fairy. This is not intended to be a full history of the town, but a discussion of its origins. The PMI holds a number of books on Port Fairy and I’ll provide a photographic bibliography at the end of the post for those who want to learn more.


The area that is now Port Fairy was the country of the Gunditjmara people before European settlers arrived to colonise the land and ultimately lay out the town. It was not unoccupied. There is a memorial in Port Fairy which states “In memory of the thousands of Aboriginal people who were massacred between 1837 and 1844 in this area of Port Fairy. Today we pay our respect to them for the unnecessary sacrifices they made. Your spirit still lives on within our people. Wuwuurk.”

I am not going to discuss the massacres in detail, mainly because people much better qualified than me have done so, and for more information on massacres the University of Newcastle map has more detail.

It is vitally important in any examination of Victorian history that the Indigenous past is not forgotten.

The colonial origins of Port Fairy date to the 1839 when Governor LaTrobe sent the Government Surveyor to the area to “go and see what people are doing there.” The settlement of the area until this point was largely informal with whalers and sealers, squatters and the odd settler, but there wasn’t a town of any substance. The name for the town comes, probably, from the ship the Fairy which was a sealer and sailed into the area by Captain Wishart in c.1810. There is debate as to whether he actually sailed into the area or not and whether he was in fact the captain, but somehow the name stuck and the region came to be known as Port Fairy. The town itself though, as it is laid out today, comes from a little later and was actually originally known as Belfast.

The man who laid out the town was James Atkinson. He emigrated to Sydney in 1830 from Ireland. In 1843 he was granted the survey rights to lay out the town which he called Belfast. There were some people living in the town area, very basically, and inland squatters were establishing vast pastoral runs. It was to Atkinson’s benefit to retain as many of the existing settlers as he could, because then they would be either leasing or buying the land from him. Atkinson spent little time in the town, arriving in 1846 with his wife, seven children and four servants. He did not stay that long, appointing various land agents including in 1848 his 25 year old nephew (and incidentally my great great great grandfather) Robert Henry Woodward. It was under Woodward that most of the town was laid out and land either rented or sold as he remained land agent until 1869. A local council was developed as well. The majority of the public buildings you see in Port Fairy today were built on land given for that purpose.


Atkinson also purchased the islands just off the coast, including Griffiths Island where the Port Fairy Lighthouse stands today.


By 1857 Belfast was a thriving town with a population of 2190, and schools, hospitals and churches, like St John’s which you can see in the photo below.


In 1885 Atkinson’s children sold the unsold land from the survey to a syndicate of local investors and the remainder of the land was sold off, partly to the local council and partly to individuals and the era of Belfast being owned by one man was over. The town became a hub for fishing and trade and by the end of the 1800s it was one of the most important international ports in Australia, because much of the wool shorn as far away as NSW was taken by the river systems and bullock drays to Port Fairy for transportation.  The town continued to be called Belfast until 1887 when the town petitioned parliament and it was renamed Port Fairy by a special act of parliament.

So that is the beginnings of Port Fairy, a town with a rich and interesting history and if you want to explore it on more detail, all of the books below can help with that. You’ll be able to borrow them when we re-open, but if you’d like some specific information from any of them, we can scan it and send it to you. Just email



thumbnail_IMG_8140The photos are all mine.

4 thoughts on “The origins of Port Fairy

  1. That is a fairly scant history of Belfast. Squatters were using the town to export their wool from the late 1830s early 1840s. The principal merchant involved in this in Belfast was a man named William Rutledge. Rutledge held a 13000 acres run Merri Marsh, and was executor in 1858 of the will of Adolphus Sceales of Merrang. There is a wonderful picture in the portrait gallery in Canberra of a Robert Dowling picture titled Mrs Adolphus Sceales with Black Jimmie on Merrang Station. This to me is a sad painting, as are several others of Aboriginal people done by Dowling in western Victoria.


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