Port Fairy is a town in Western Victoria that was founded as a town in 1843. There were settlers in the area before this date, and the current name for the town comes from the ship the Fairy which is believed to have arrived in the area in c.1828. The area was also regularly visited by whalers and sealers. The date of 1843 comes from the special survey which was granted to James Atkinson at that time. The special surveys were a system where the government of the Colony of New South Wales was able to control ownership of the land in the Port Phillip District. This was well before federation of Australia as a country in 1901, but also before Victoria became a colony independent from New South Wales which happened in 1851. The basic premise behind the special survey system was to stop squatters just claiming land, because when they did there was little ability to regulate it and there was no fee for the government.
Atkinson arrived in Sydney in 1830 from Ireland and became a prominent and well connected member of Sydney society, at least partly due to his family connections to Colonel Charles Wall of the 3rd Buff regiment who was married to his sister. As he had a high social standing he couldn’t use trade to make money, so he turned to land. He was granted the right to the special survey of the Port Fairy region in 1843. He worked with the existing settlers, but also moved to attract new settlers to the town he named Belfast. He most likely applied for the special survey rights to the land without ever seeing it, as there is no evidence he set foot there before arriving in 1846 with his wife and seven children. He offered very long term leases for land in the town he established, but while he was definitely trying to encourage settlement he was not immediately successful. In 1848 he appointed his nephew (and my great, great, great, grandfather) Robert Henry Woodward, who was farming in the area, as his land agent. Woodward was 25 and oversaw the majority of the establishment of the town proper. It was also Woodward who oversaw, with the blessing of Atkinson, the gifting of parcels of land within the town for churches of different denominations and for community purposes, such as a post office, a hospital, government offices, public wharves, a savings bank, a town hall, public meeting places and a cemetery.
St John’s Anglican Church Port Fairy built between 1854 and 1856. It was the first church in Victoria to have a chancel. The tower was added later in the 1950s.
Atkinson did not remain in Belfast, returning to Sydney and to Ireland, but he did visit to survey the progress of the town in 1859, 1861 and 1864. Atkinson died in Sydney in 1864, though Woodward continued to administer the lands until 1869. The town petitioned, successfully, to change its name to Port Fairy in 1886
Before continuing to discuss the cemetery I would also like to acknowledge the indigenous people of the land which Atkinson bought as the special survey. This area was the land of the Gunditjmara people. If, when Atkinson arrived, there seemed to be a lack of indigenous inhabitants it is not because there wasn’t any ever, but because between the 1830s and the 1840s the indigenous population of the area was destroyed by settlers. A monument to them now stands in Port Fairy on Bank Street. It reads:
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 respects to them for the unnecessary sacrifices they made.
Your spirit still lives on within our people. Wuwuurk
This was not isolated to the Port Fairy area. The early history of Western Victoria is mired in bloodshed. A list of the frontier wars in which the indigenous population were by and large overwhelmed and destroyed by superior western weaponry can be seen here.
It was also a time of severe retaliations against any interference with livestock and systematic killings, taking of land of the beginning of the removal of children. Not to mention the introduction of alcohol and western disease and their long term affects. This article from the Warrnambool local paper The Standard out lines clearly the actions against the local indigenous population
It is essential that the past of indigenous Australians and the brutal suppression of them is recognised as part of the history of Victoria and Australia. This is especially true when discussing somewhere like a cemetery which provides concrete and tangible records of the deaths of early pioneers, a record that is not available for the deaths of the indigenous population.
Port Fairy cemetery was founded in the 1850s. There is confusion as to whether it is the ‘old’ or ‘new’ cemetery as many descriptions seem to use the term interchangeably. The other cemetery at Port Fairy was laid out by Robert Hoddle, famous for Melbourne’s CBD grid, at the orders of Governor La Trobe. This other cemetery was in the sand hills out of town, was discontinued and little survives today. The current Port Fairy cemetery has many very early burials and is believed to be one of the first cemeteries in Victoria to have adopted the concept of a lawn cemetery.
The earliest burials in the cemetery are of the local pioneers and their families. These people are often listed as from a local ‘station’ on their tombstones. The pioneers of the area did not have an easy life and as such there are a high number of young burials, very few survived to old age. One of the earliest and one of the youngest is the grave of Harold Woodward, a son of Robert Henry Woodward and his wife Letitia Wall (daughter of Colonel Wall). Harold died on the 8th of October 1856, but was only born on the 4th of December 1855.
Of Robert Henry and Letitia Woodward’s 11 children Harold was the only one to meet such an early end. I am descended from his brother Albert William Woodward, the youngest of Robert Henry and Letitia’s children. Robert Henry and Letitia are buried in St Kilda Cemetery.
Much of the stone in the cemetery displays intricate examples of early stone masonry. The best example of which is probably the tomb of Abijah Brown.He died in 1862 at the age of 40 and the tomb reads:
In affectionate memory of Abijah John Brown who departed this life July 19th 1862 aged 40 years. Watch for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.
It is an interesting monument because it does not fit any regular pattern seen in Victorian era funeral monuments. It is a, sadly much worn, figure of a young man looking skywards. This man is not an angel or a cherub but a person. It is also a remarkable piece of sculpture in its own right. The Brown tomb is not alone is being striking in the cemetery. The older section of the cemetery is a combination of plain and ornate funeral monuments. Some can be seen in the photos below.
There are more people buried in the cemetery than are known about. Many of the early burials would have been laid to rest under simple wood crosses and these simply wouldn’t have survived the harshness of Port Fairy’s coastal weather. Despite this, the surviving burials provide a fascinating record of the life and death of the early inhabitants of the district.
An Historic Graveyard: Some early records of Port Fairy Cemetery by P. Frazer Simons.
A Special Survey: Aspects of the development of Port Fairy from 1843. Edited by Rod Collins.
Both books can be borrowed from the Prahran Mechanics Institute Victorian History Library
The photos are all mine.