History of Warrnambool

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The Peek Woorroong Aboriginal people lived around Warrnambool, which was a rich environment with plentiful seafood, eels and birdlife. The sealers and whalers who first settled in Portland and Port Fairy knew the bay, for although it did not give shelter to the dreaded easterlies and southeasterlies, it did give some shelter from the west. Altogether, however, it was not a safe harbour. There are 29 known shipwrecks in Lady Bay.

The first permanent European settlers were graziers, including the Manifold family, and a township began to emerge in the 1840s. Despite the dangers of Lady Bay, the rich hinterland needed an outlet for its agricultural produce (wool, wheat, potatoes and onions).

There was enormous competition between Portland, dominated by the Henty family's interests, Port Fairy, which was effectively privately-owned by James Atkinson and William Rutledge, and Warrambool, which was a free port. A number of companies were started to compete with Portland and Port Fairy and at one stage Warrnambool's port rivalled Melbourne's and Geelong's.

It took 1.5 days to get to Melbourne by ship, but anything up to six weeks by bullock dray. By the 1880s there were daily shipping services. Long jetties were constructed into Lady Bay to reach ships beyond shallow water, but ships continued to be wrecked when the southeasterlies blew.

Work on the construction of a breakwater finally began in 1880, but this created sand movements that filled the harbour and made it virtually unusable. In 1912 an attempt was made to dredge the harbour and extend the breakwater, but after the breakwater collapsed the project was abandoned.

In any event, by the 1890s competition from the railways had ended much of the coastal shipping trade. Shipping to the smaller settlements along today's Great Ocean Road kept a fleet of ketches and schooners going until the 1920s.

Warrnambool has continued to grow steadily with a healthy mix of industry (especially dairy processing, woollen mills and clothes factories), services (especially schools and hospitals) and tourism.