Stroll the streets and shores of South Warrnambool and you will walk in the footsteps of the earliest aboriginal inhabitants and subsequent white settlers.
Warrnambool officially became a settlement in 1847 when the first land sales were held and South Warrnambool soon became a busy port and a thriving place for many industries.
Most of its early history is no longer evident, but here and there glimpses of South Warrnambool’s rich past remain – as does the sound of crashing waves, and the salty air.
Trail length – 5.4km, 1 hour walking time (plus stops)
The breakwater was one of the most important maritime engineering projects in Victoria in the late 19th century. Built to protect Lady Bay, it was not completed until 1890 – the same year as the arrival of the rail line from Melbourne. It is accessed via Viaduct Road, which was initially elevated on timber trestles under which the sea flowed into Lady Bay.
An unexpected side-effect of the breakwater was siltation of the harbour and after failed attempts to solve the problem, the viaduct was filled with basalt in the 1950’s and 60’s. It is estimated two-thirds of the original harbour has silted up, creating the land on which the Harbour Pavilion and Cafe, the car parks and yacht club now sit. The unusual concrete domes protruding from the breakwater carpark are the roofs of an underground aquarium that closed in 1996.
The Port of Warrnambool operated until 1942 when it was closed in favour of Portland’s deep sea, all-weather harbour. At its peak in the 1880’s, Warrnambool’s port employed up to 300 men. Until 1853 all freight and passengers were landed by means of small boats called lighters.
From the late 1880’s, the opening of the railway and gradually improving road transport diminished port traffic. But regular ships, such as the Echidna and Coramba, would travel between Melbourne and Warrnambool and it remained a hazardous journey well into the 20th century. Sadly, there were 14 wrecks and 12 strandings in Lady Bay.
Stroll along the popular promenade walking/cycling path past the Harbour Pavilion, Coast Guard and yacht club. The beach and waters of Worm Bay, as this part of the harbour is known, are often used to exercise racehorses in the morning. From 1860 to 1869 there was a lighthouse on the beach here.
At the Worm Bay sign turn left and follow the road to the skate park and Lady Bay and Deep Blue resorts and geothermal pools. This is South Warrnambool’s hotel precinct, where two hotels catering to sea passengers once sat almost adjacent to each other, plus a shop known as Dr Dan’s.
The Prince of Wales Hotel obtained a licence in 1874. Nearby was Jewell’s Steam Packet Inn, which later became the Bay View Hotel, and later the Lady Bay Hotel, which became a thriving place for nightclub entertainment and live bands through the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, hosting Cold Chisel, Skyhooks, Midnight Oil and The Angels. It was demolished in 2001 to build the current resort.
Pretor Road, flanked by Norfolk Island pines, takes you past the birdlife haven and park of Lake Pertobe, which at one time was separated from the sea by only a narrow sand bar that at high tide was breached by the sea.
In the 1970’s, Lake Pertobe was drained and developed into picturesque lakes with adventure playgrounds, barbecue facilities and picnic areas. It boasts several walking tracks.
At the Pertobe Road roundabout, take the Rail Trail walking track. Behind the wire fence to the right is the Warrnambool depot of the 8th/7th Battalion, The Royal Victoria Regiment. Originally a World War 2 dehydration factory, it employed many women on three shifts dehydrating onions, potatoes and cabbages for the war effort.
Further along are a Caravan Park and lawn tennis courts, once the site of a saw mill and from 1912 to 1921 a box factory and nail works. A siding from the wharf railway ran into the factory, which burnt down in the 1920’s.
The wide, shallow stretch of the Merri River to your left is today popular with anglers and canoeists. It was also where the ‘Henley on the Merri’ festival was held from 1914 into the 1930’s.
It featured oar-powered boats, swimming races and novelty events such as floating boxing and tug-of-war contests in boats.
To the right as you approach the rear of the old woollen mill is Jetty Flat. Now revegetated and home to a cricket ground, BMX track and other leisure facilities, this was once a wide expanse of level land that hosted Warrnambool’s first horse races, visiting circuses, football and cricket matches, joisting, hurling and polo.
The first polo match played in Victoria took place at Jetty Flat. In the early 20th century it made an ideal landing field for visiting biplanes, which always drew large crowds.
Before taking the rail trail which runs between the river and the Mill housing development, glance at the two walking paths to the right. The lower one was the route of the 1858 horse-drawn tramway which operated from Merri Street down to the jetty until 1899.
The tramway used trucks drawn by teams of up to 12 horses. It was superseded by the railway branch line (the upper path) built in 1890 and operated until the late 1970’s. The platform’s remains can be seen at the rear of the Mill.
The Mill residential development on your right occupies the site of the once-famous Warrnambool Woollen Mill. It was initially where the “bully soup” meat preserving plant (est. 1869) once stood. It later became a successful woollen mill.
Destroyed by fire in 1882, it took until 1909 for a new woollen mill to be established, incorporating some of the original buildings. It was owned primarily by local stakeholders and provided employment for generations of locals. The factory’s loud steam whistle could be heard all over town. It closed in 2000.
The small footbridge over the Merri River was built in 1922 to provide access for local mill workers, replacing an earlier bridge built before 1872. A weir across the river was constructed near here but later demolished in 1909.
Follow the path into the The Mill development and you will pass the former canteen, administration building and a war memorial honouring mill staff.
As you reach the corner home on your right, parts of the original building and machinery are visible inside.
Turn left to the Harris Street entrance, cross the road to the viewing platform. Flanked by the rail trail is a flat, marshy section of the Merri River channel, the result of Warrnambool’s earliest major engineering projects in the 1850’s and 60’s.
The natural course of the river was diverted to keep it from flowing through coastal sand dunes, which were (wrongly) thought to be the source of siltation of Lady Bay. The banks of the Merri River were from the earliest days of settlement a popular place for industries, for which the river was a useful source of water and a convenient drain for tanneries, rope and soap factories, fishing companies and other industries.
Proceed south along Harris, cross the river and pause at the roundabout, where at no. 4-8 Elliott Street (north-east corner) a police station operated from 1936 to 1948. A little way south, on Macdonald Street, is the small historic (build 1906) South Presbyterian Church.
Almost opposite once stood a small Methodist Church, where the first school lessons were held from 1877. Macdonald Street retains some interesting examples of early residential architecture. Particularly look for numbers 17, 18, 24, 26 & 37. Number 26 housed ships’ captains.
Stanley Street has several homes of interest so take a stroll to Edwards Bridge and back. Several lightermen’s cottages were constructed in the early 1860’s, such as that of well-known lighterman John Brass. Built on the north-west corner with Stephens Street in 1868, Stephens Street was originally named Bass Street, but after its namesake drowned in the river after visiting several local hotels, it was changed to honour a former mayor.
Detour 150m up Stephens Street – hidden behind a flourishing garden and Norfolk Island pines, is the South Warrnambool State School, 1881-1994, now a residence The school building was used for 50-50 dances on Saturday’s. On Sundays Sisters of Mercy came by horse and cart to teach Sunday School.
Among the notable buildings in Stanley Street is no. 32, once the Mission to Seamen – an Anglican welfare charity established in 1856. The first police station operated at no. 30 from 1884 to 1934.
Charles Kane Memorial Park is named after a woollen mill worker (1903-1973) who is remembered fondly for his local activism and gentle kindness. His humble cottage at the rear of 7 Pertobe Lane still stands.
At no. 17, now the backpacker hostel, John Mitchell ran a grocery store for 60 years, while no. 31 was the last milk bar in South Warrnambool, ceasing operation after the closure of the woollen mill and state school.
Originally Hartley’s produce store, it later included a post office, dry cleaners and other services. Mr Hartley delivered goods on a cart to surrounding streets – always taking a small bag of broken biscuits to hand out to children.
The simple, symmetrical architecture of the cottages at no. 35 & 37 is appealing. The stone cottage at no. 37 was built in 1862 and owned by Robert Irvine, a lighterman.
Head south along Macdonald Street towards the coast. Past the trotting track was once a stone quarry. Turn right to Thunder Point – a spectacular vantage point to take in the coast, especially at sunset.
Return via a clifftop track to nearby Pickering Point, which provides amazing views of the breakwater area, Middle Island, Lady Bay and the Merri River.
Follow the path and boardwalk to cross the footbridge back to Viaduct Road.
From here you can explore Stingray Bay, a popular place for bathers and social gatherings since Warrnambool’s earliest days. On the opposite side of Viaduct Road was Miss Fisher’s Tea Rooms, once popular with beach goers.
Middle island: In 1854 work began on a lighthouse and keeper’s cottage on this rocky outcrop across from Stingray Bay, accessible only at low tide. However the light’s position did not properly indicate the narrow harbour entrance so in 1871 the lighthouse and keeper’s cottage were transferred to Flagstaff Hill.
Today, Middle island hosts a fairy penguin colony, protected from predatory foxes and dogs by Maremma guard dogs – the inspiration for the 2015 Australian movie “Oddball”. There is no public access to Middle Island.
Follow Viaduct Road back to the breakwater.
The above information was compiled by the South Warrnambool Community Association with grateful thanks for funding from Warrnambool City Council and information from many residents, the Historical Society and other sources – April 2018
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