Light, Flag, Timeball and Electric Signals, at and between, the Colonial Towns of Melbourne and William


(Note that being a historical account the language of the day is repeated which may not reflect today’s views.)


by Paul Wise, November 2022.




In the Beginning

The coast of what was to become the State of Victoria was reportedly first sighted by Lieutenant Zachary Hicks (1737–1771) on board the HM Bark Endeavour under the command of Lieutenant James Cook (1728-1779). After the First Fleet, commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip (1738-1814), had founded Sydney in 1788, George Bass (1771-1803), in an open whaleboat in 1797, sailed south and westwards, along the then New South Wales eastern coast, as far as today's Western Port. On 4 January 1802, Lieutenant John Murray (1775-1807) commanding HMS Lady Nelson, more fully His Majesty's Armed Survey Vessel Lady Nelson, sailed to within 1½ miles of the entrance to, as Murray observed from the masthead, a sheet of smooth water…and is apparently a fine harbour of large extent. With unfavourable winds, Murray deferred any closer survey. Anchoring back in Western Port, Murray then sent Lieutenant John Bowen (1780-1827) in a launch to gain entry to the fine harbour he had just seen. Murray then entered the now named Port King, after the Governor of New South Wales, Philip Gidley King (1758-1808), and took possession on 8 March 1802. So began Port Phillip and its subsequent settlements.


Locations around Port Phillip were named by various people and also evolved over time. For clarity the following table lists applicable location names and provides details of their derivation.


Selected Port Phillip Nomenclature


Name today

Earlier name(s)



Western Port


Named by George Bass (1771-1803), when in an open whaleboat he sailed along the coast south and westwards from Sydney.


Arthurs Seat


Named by Lieutenant John Murray (1775-1807) for an apparent resemblance to the hill in Edinburgh, which was his home city.


Port Phillip

Port King

Lieutenant John Murray (1775-1807) commanding HMS Lady Nelson, sent Lieutenant John Bowen (1780-1827) in a launch to gain entry to the fine harbour he had just seen and on later entering named it Port King, after the Governor of New South Wales, Philip Gidley King (1758-1808); later on 4 September 1805, King himself formally renamed Port King as Port Phillip, in honour of his predecessor, Arthur Phillip (1738-1814).


Indented Head


Named by Captain Matthew Flinders (1774-1814), commanding HMS Investigator, when exploring Port Phillip.


Flinders Peak

High then

Station Peak

Named by Captain Matthew Flinders (1774-1814) commanding HMS Investigator, High Peak, later Station Peak, in the woody hills, later the You Yangs, on 1 May 1802; later renamed Flinders Peak in 1912 in his honour.


Sullivan Bay


Named after the Under Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, John Sullivan, by Lieutenant Colonel David Collins (1758-1810).


Yarra River

The Yarra Yarra

Acting Lieutenant Charles Robbins (1782-1805), commander of His Majesty’s (Armed) Colonial Schooner Cumberland along with acting Surveyor General Charles Grimes (1772-1858) surveyed and mapped a river emptying into Port Phillip in 1803; in 1835, John Batman (1801-1839) reported his boat as going up a large river and later that same year John Helder Wedge, a member of the Port Phillip Association, sailed to Port Phillip on the Rebecca and gave the name Yarra to the river up which Batman had sailed the previous June.



Batmania and

other variations

On 30 August 1835, the party of free settlers led by John Batman (1801-1839) came ashore on the banks of the Yarra River; their settlement briefly known as Batmania although Bearbrass, Bareport, Bareheep, and Bareberp were possibilities, was named Melbourne on 10 April 1837 by Governor Richard Bourke (1777-1855) after the British Prime Minister, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, whose seat was Melbourne Hall in the market town of Melbourne, Derbyshire.



Port Harwood and

Port Gellibrand

Named by John Batman after the captain of the schooner Rebecca, Captain AB Harwood; the town was renamed William after the reigning monarch King William IV; Williams Town hence Williamstown was proclaimed a town in 1886.


Point Gellibrand


Named by John Batman in honour of his close friend, London barrister, Joseph Tice Gellibrand (1792-1837).

Page 2 of the Port Phillip Patriot and Melbourne Advertiser newspaper of Thursday 28 October 1841, reported : POINT DRAKE. – The land-spit hitherto known as Gellibrand's Point has been re-named Point Drake, in honor of the celebrated Admiral Drake. While the name Point Drake was after English Admiral Sir Francis Drake (circa 1540–1596) the names Point Drake or Fort Drake for this location were fleeting and never official.


Hobsons Bay


A bay in the northernmost part of Port Phillip into which flowed the Yarra River was named, by direction of Governor Sir Richard Bourke (1777-1855), after Captain William Hobson (1792-1842), who led the survey party of officers from HMS Rattlesnake during a three month survey of Port Phillip in 1836.


Port Melbourne (the Suburb)


Named Sandridge by Surveyor William Darke (1810–1890), after the ridge of sand dunes along the beach, he also marked a track so that new arrivals could find their way to the emerging settlement of Melbourne.


Exploration, Mapping and First Settlement

Only ten weeks later, with Murray's discovery unknown to him, Captain Matthew Flinders (1774-1814) commanding HMS Investigator, explored the southern reaches of then Port King. Flinders described the area from a bluff mount from whence Western Port is visible, today Arthurs Seat named by Murray, the highest point near the shores of the southernmost part of the Port. On the western side of the Port, Flinders named Indented Head and on High Peak, later Station Peak, in the woody hills later the You Yangs on 1 May 1802, he left a scroll of paper with the ship's name in a small stone cairn (Station Peak was renamed Flinders Peak in 1912 in his honour). On his 1802 Sketch of Port Phillip, Flinders noted the Sketch has been completed from the Survey made of Port Phillip by C Grimes Esq, Deputy Surveyor-gen of NSW. The double lines and soundings written at rightangles, shew what is borrowed (as described below Grimes did not survey the area until 1803).


Sketch of Port Phillip by M Flinders, 1802, noting The Sketch has been completed from the Survey made of Port Phillip by C Grimes Esq, Deputy Surveyor-gen of NS Wales (sic).


To forestall any French territorial claims the then Governor of New South Wales, Philip Gidley King, decided to establish a convict settlement at the port named in his honour. Subsequently acting Lieutenant Charles Robbins (1782-1805), commander of His Majesty’s (Armed) Colonial Schooner Cumberland along with acting New South Wales Surveyor General Charles Grimes (1772-1858) and convict gardener and botanist James Fleming, were sent to survey the area. 20 January 1803 saw the party start their exploration around the shores of Port King finding the mouth of the later named Yarra river. The party explored the Yarra up to a set of falls known today as Dights Falls arriving there on 8 February 1803. (Dights Falls, after John Dight (1808-1867) who established a mill there) were further upstream in the Yarra than the falls below which the Fawkner party later landed in 1835. These lower falls created such a problem for the developing settlement that the falls were eliminated with dynamite in 1883 and the Queens Bridge was built in that location in 1889. Dights Falls remain today and are the nominal boundary between the fresh and salt water of the Yarra River).


From their January and February 1803 survey, Grimes produced a map, simply titled Port Phillip, on which he referenced Robbins for acquiring the depth soundings and Flemming for assessing the quality of the soil. Although named Port King, as described above, Grimes’ use of the name Port Phillip in circa 1803 seemingly indicates that the name must have been entering common use as it was not until 4 September 1805, that King himself formally renamed Port King as Port Phillip, in honour of his predecessor, Arthur Phillip (1738-1814).


For seven months between 1803 and 1804, a site at Sullivan Bay, named after the Under Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, John Sullivan, near today's bayside Sorrento, was occupied. HMS Calcutta and the supply ship Ocean had sailed from England in April 1803 with the personnel. On site, Lieutenant Colonel David Collins (1758-1810) was responsible for over 450 people, including marines, free settlers and almost 300 convicts. Lack of a fresh water and a suitable wood supply, however, finally saw the site of the first Port Phillip settlement abandoned. It was unfortunate that Grimes’ report, indicating the then unnamed Yarra river as a continuous source of fresh water, failed to reach England before Collins’ departure. (It was from the Sullivan Bay settlement, that then convict William Buckley (1780-1856), absconded and after following the coastline found himself opposite the settlement, which he had left, on the other side of Port Phillip. Buckley survived for 32 years in a hut that he built near the mouth of Bream Creek on the coast of southern Victoria. In July 1835 he surrendered to the party under John Helder Wedge at Indented Head, please see below. It is suggested that Buckley’s unbelievable survival led to the saying, You’ve got Buckley’s (chance), although there is a probability that it was a pun on the name of a now defunct Melbourne department store chain, Buckley & Nunn.)


It was to be another 30 years before John Batman (1801-1839) and John Pascoe Fawkner (1792-1869), who had been at the Sullivan Bay settlement as a child, took leadership roles in a permanent settlement.


Permanent Settlement, Port Phillip

Notable colonists of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) sought to take advantage of this new and unsettled land to their north across Bass Strait. John Batman, a farmer, Joseph Tice Gellibrand, a lawyer and former Attorney General, Charles Swanston, banker and member of the Legislative Council, John Helder Wedge, surveyor and farmer, Henry Arthur, nephew of Lieutenant Governor George Arthur of Van Diemen’s Land, William Sams, Under Sheriff and Public Notary for Launceston, Anthony Cottrell, Superintendent of Roads and Bridges, John Collicott, Postmaster General, James Simpson, Commissioner of the Land Board and Police Magistrate, John Sinclair, Superintendent of Convicts plus Michael Connolly, Thomas Bannister, John and William Robertson and the English based George Mercer, initially formed the Geelong and Dutigalla Association; later known as the Port Phillip Association. Their aim was to purchase large tracts of land around Port Phillip from the first nation’s people for settlement. Gellibrand prepared deeds for the transfer of an interest in the land which also provided for the payment of an annual tribute to the tribal owners.


John Batman together with copies of the deed prepared by Gellibrand, was landed at Indented Head on Port Phillip on 29 May 1835. He had travelled on the chartered schooner Rebecca, under Captain AB Harwood, which due to delays did not sail until 16 May 1835. Batman’s party consisted of James Gumm, Alexander Thompson and William Todd along with seven aboriginals whom had been with him for years and had originally come from Sydney.


From Station Peak, Batman surveyed the country on 1 June 1835, travelling the following day in the Rebecca to the mouth of the then unnamed Yarra river. During his exploration of the region Batman reported that the treaty with the Kulin Nations peoples was proclaimed on 6 June 1835. His party had exchanged gifts in return for 500 000 acres north of later Melbourne and Corio Bay and 100 000 acres around later Geelong and Indented Head.


During his exploration, Batman’s party apparently stumbled out of the scrub onto a river. Subsequently, on 8 June 1835, Batman reported the boat went up a large river which comes from the east and I am glad to state that about 6 miles up found the river all good water and very deep. This will be the place for a village. Returning to Indented Head, Batman and the Rebecca returned to Van Diemen’s Land. Gumm, Todd, and Thompson along with aboriginals Bullet, Bungett and Old Bull remained with three month's supply to establish a settlement at Indented Head. As will be seen further on, in September 1835 Surveyor John Helder Wedge, a member of the Port Phillip Association, sailed to Port Phillip on the Rebecca and gave the name Yarra to the river up which Batman had sailed the previous June.


Back in Launceston, Batman showed Wedge where he had explored and, from these details, Wedge prepared the first map of Melbourne in June 1835 (published in 1836, please see maps below), showing the location Batman had chosen as the site for the village, on the south side of the river, and the division of land between association members.


Map of Port Phillip from the survey of Mr Wedge and others, undated; note the land parcel boundaries and list of owners (right).


Commons Reports of Committee Vol.11, 1836.


A question now arose as to how, between 29 May and 10 June 1835, Batman was able to have explored an area, including : today’s Bellarine Peninsula, the eastern part of the Surf Coast, the coastal areas of Geelong to Port Melbourne, northeast from Geelong to either Mount Iramoo near Sunbury or Mount Kororoit north east of Melton, and easterly (his journal suggests he made it only to either Merri Creek or Edgars Creek near Fawkner, or perhaps the Darebin River or Plenty River, but the subsequent maps by Wedge suggested a far greater easterly point), and southwest to Melbourne and Port Melbourne. All this conjecture was negated when on 26 August 1835, New South Wales Governor, Sir Richard Bourke (1777-1855), declared Batman's treaty invalid and the settlers at Port Phillip to be trespassers.


Meanwhile, John Pascoe Fawkner (1792-1869) who had been at the Sullivan Bay settlement as a child, saw the settlement opportunities the new Port Phillip region offered. As transport for his party of free settlers from Van Diemen’s Land he purchased the topsail schooner Enterprize, also sometimes spelt Enterprise, in April 1835. Fawkner’s party comprised Captain John Lancey, master mariner, leader of the settlers and Fawkner’s representative, Enterprize’s Captain Peter Hunter, George Evans, plasterer/builder, Evan Evans, George Evans’ servant, William Jackson and Robert Hay Marr, carpenters, Charles Wyse (sometimes Wise) Fawkner’s servant and ploughman, Thomas Morgan, Fawkner's general servant, James Gilbert, blacksmith and his pregnant wife, Mary, and not to be forgotten Mary's cat.


The Enterprize with its party departed on 4 August 1835. Fawkner’s creditors, however, had prevented him from departing so he was not aboard. Captain John Lancey was thus in command of the party, and after rejecting settling at Western Port looked to the east coast of Port Phillip. Finally, they entered the lower Yarra, and warped the Enterprize along its course until it was able to sail the brackish waters upstream until it reached the, later dynamited, river falls above which fresh water was then available. The north bank was chosen as it presented more stable, suitable ground for shelter and construction. The location today is in the vicinity of the corner of William and Flinders Street near where the later Customs House was built and remains today as the Immigration Museum. This site was opposite the area where Batman had had Wedge indicate on his 1836 map where he proposed his village be built. (Note that in the mid 1800s the lower Yarra was still a great delta, formed of river sediment forming wetlands and mudflats in the areas of today’s Port Melbourne and South Melbourne. These lower reaches of the river had shallow waters meaning vessels of any significant draft could not use wind power and had to rely on man power to get through these zones. Known as warping, the vessel was man hauled using ropes attached to a fixed object like a tree or anchor.)  Hoddle (1840) stated : Vessels above 100 tons burden must remain in Hobson's Bay, opposite Williams Town, where the anchorage is secure. If a dredging vessel were employed for a short period on the bar at the entrance of the Yarra Yarra river, vessels of a much larger tonnage might go up the river to the centre of the town, the depth of water on the bar being just sufficient for a vessel drawing eight feet six inches.



Robert Russell’s 30 June 1837 sketch, Melbourne from the falls; the falls are far right below the two horsemen (courtesy National Library of Australia).


Thus Fawkner’s party of free settlers and cat, established what was to become Melbourne on 30 August 1835. The Enterprize then left to return to Launceston on 3 September to collect Fawkner and further supplies and livestock. Fawkner thus arrived in Melbourne on 16 October 1835 and the settlement started to develop and thrive.


As mentioned above, Batman’s colleague and member of the Port Phillip Association Surveyor John Helder Wedge sailed to Port Phillip on the Rebecca. On arrival at Batman’s Indented Head settlement his role was to then undertake a detailed survey. Following his landing on 7 August 1835, Wedge arrived at Melbourne on 2 September 1935 in a whale boat from Indented Head. Wedge realised that, unlike Indented Head, the place on the Yarra, the river which he is credited for naming, had a constant supply of good fresh water. When Batman arrived back in Port Phillip on the Norval on 9 November 1835, he was naturally disappointed to discover the settlers of the Enterprize had established a settlement in the area. Since the arrival of Wedge there had been arguments as to whom was on whose land. Under the Proclamation of Governor Bourke, however, both the parties were in fact trespassing on Crown land. Eventually the parties negotiated an equitable distribution of the plentiful land.


On 9 August 1836, Bourke issued a proclamation authorising settlement of Port Phillip. Captain William Lonsdale (1799-1864) was appointed Police Magistrate of the District on 14 September 1836. He proceeded to Port Phillip in HMS Rattlesnake, commanded by Captain William Hobson, arriving on 26 September 1836. On 6 October 1836 the Stirlingshire arrived from Sydney with Surveyor Robert Russell (1808-1900), Robert S Webb and his customs’ officers, a head constable, a detachment of soldiers, and a gang of labour convicts on board. Russell’s party included draughtsman Frederick Robert D'Arcy (1811-1875) and chainman William Wedge Darke (1810–1890) and at Port Phillip Russell was also to be Commissioner of Crown Lands. 


Sketch by Robert Russell Settlement Melbourne…;

looking north across the Yarra River [probably from Russell’s camp site], with handwritten notations (horizontal left to right) : Tea Tree Scrub, Present Williams Street and below that Mr Hall’s tents, Present Market Street and below that The Falls;

(vertical left to right) : Mr James Smith JP, Huts of the Settlement, JP Fawkner, Rob S Webb / Customs, Fred Rob D’Arcy [Frederick Robert D’Arcy, draughtsman], Survey Department (courtesy State Library of Victoria).


In March 1837, Governor Bourke along with Surveyor Robert Hoddle (1794-1881) arrived to inspect the Port Phillip Settlement. They found that Robert Russell had made a small triangulation survey, by means of which he had been able to prepare a plan, as shown below, showing illegal occupations. Bourke was dissatisfied with Russell’s progress and appointed Hoddle Surveyor-in-Charge of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales (note also Hoddle’s 1840 comments below). Disgusted with Hoddle’s appointment, soon thereafter, Russell resigned his position in the Colonial Service. Bourke confirmed Lonsdale's choice of a site for the new town, naming it Melbourne after Lord Melbourne, the then Prime Minister of Great Britain, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, whose seat was Melbourne Hall in the market town of Melbourne, Derbyshire. The Melbourne site with its fresh water supply was considered superior to the other contenders. Additionally, he formally recognised the settlement around Port Gellibrand naming it William after King William IV, hence Williams/William’s Town and later Williamstown, and a bay in the northernmost part of Port Phillip, into which flowed the Yarra river, was named after the commander of HMS Rattlesnake, Captain William Hobson. Bourke determined that the main port and defensive structures be sited at William and rode to Geelong to site it on the banks of the river Barwon. Bourke directed navigation buoys be located in Port Phillip and that a customs post be located at Point Nepean. It was recorded that Bourke decided upon location and layout for the streets of two towns, Melbourne and William, and it then appears that Hoddle superimposed the standard town grid plan over Russell’s survey work and with the assistance of Darke, marked the street alignments and about a hundred half-acre allotments in the two new Town Reserves. Hoddle was thus credited with the design and layout of Melbourne and a copy of his signed plan of 25 March 1837 is shown below.


Melbourne’s east west laneways were designed as access routes to service properties fronting the major thoroughfares. By the 1850s gold rush, Melbourne, however, had over one hundred lanes, many of these emerging from continuous practical use for servicing neighbouring businesses in the growing town.


Section of Russell’s Map shewing the site of Melbourne and the position of the huts & building previous to the foundation of the township by Sir Richard Bourke in 1837.


In his publication, Surveying for Land Settlement in Victoria, 1836-1960, a former Assistant Surveyor General of Victoria, Keith Lytton Chappel (1966) reiterated some of the details of the earliest surveys of Melbourne contained in the evidence of Robert Russell to a Royal Commission nearly fifty years later. Describing Robert Hoddle's first Melbourne survey, at which he himself was a spectator and not an assistant, Robert Russell stated that : Hoddle chained from the corner of Flinders and Spencer Streets along Flinders Street to Spring Street, thence three blocks up, something like thirty chains off to the north, then returned westward to Spencer Street and back southward to where he started from. According to Russell no special design had been made for the town of Melbourne, there was a plan for the towns, cut and dried, and they just make it fit Melbourne…Hoddle made the first survey, the boundaries of Spencer, Flinders, Spring and Bourke Streets, in about two hours; he went from the work and lunched with the Governor, Sir Richard Bourke. Chappel, however, wrote that it was :  difficult to envisage Hoddle's first survey of nearly three miles of boundary being done in two hours, maintaining a straight line, driving stakes or pegs, and laying down the surveying chain at least two hundred and twenty times, in undulating, uneven and probably to some extent scrubby country.


Hoddle’s Town of Melbourne plan of 25 March 1837.


By March 1839, Surveyor James Williamson had completed his survey of Melbourne, and had his work printed, as shown below in his Plan of Melbourne Port Phillip from actual survey. Comparing his plan to that of Hoddle it can be seen that allotment sizes have been modified, where required, to accommodate existing buildings. An eminently practical solution to imposing a green fields plan onto an existing occupied configuration. Page 10 of the newspaper Port Phillip Patriot and Melbourne Advertiser of Monday 28 October 1839, as shown in Annex A, contained an advertisement for the public sale of Williamson’s plan which reads in part, Plans of Melbourne, Port Phillip, up to the 30th of March last, with all the buildings to that period, accurately delineated and colored, as designed by Mr Williamson, Surveyor of this place. Price 7s 6d [7 shillings and 6 pence] each copy.


Williamson’s 1839, A Plan of Melbourne Port Phillip from actual survey by J. Williamson, Surveyor.


In January 1839, Charles Joseph La Trobe (1801-1875) was appointed Superintendent of the Port Phillip District; arriving at Melbourne on 30 September with his wife and daughter, two servants and a prefabricated house. La Trobe was not an administrator in his own right. As Superintendent all his decisions had to be approved by Governor Sir George Gipps in Sydney. Governance of Port Phillip including control of land sales, plans of public buildings, appointment of officers and revenue, was by New South Wales. Along with separation from New South Wales and convict transportation, the Port Phillip colonists wanted these issues to be resolved by La Trobe/Gipps. As reported on page 3 of the newspaper Port Phillip Patriot and Melbourne Advertiser of Monday 7 October 1839, on the previous Thursday 3 October 1839, La Trobe received an Address from Captain William Lonsdale, Police Magistrate, with a committee of Messrs. McRae, Welsh and Rucker, and many gentlemen. Hoddle (1840), in describing this event, said : His Honor [La Trobe] was dressed in uniform much like that of a Lord Lieutenant in the mother country… [he, La Trobe] held a levee [an afternoon assembly at which the British sovereign or his or her representative receives only men] at the club room, where anyone who might accidentally have heard that such an affair was going on, could be presented by the Police Magistrate [Lonsdale]. The Address, at Annex A, began : We, the inhabitants of Melbourne, and the country adjacent welcomed La Trobe and his family to Australia Felix, remembering that Melbourne was then part of colonial New South Wales. (Thomas Livingstone Mitchell (1792-1855), on his third expedition in 1836 travelling up the Murray River reached the junction of the Loddon where the country seemed so promising that he turned south west into what is now Victoria and was so enchanted by the area he called it Australia Felix, Latin for fortunate or happy Australia). In using this term for the region the inhabitants of Melbourne were pointedly saying that they saw themselves as separate from the New South Wales Port Phillip District, and wanted a change to the current administrative arrangements. The Address continued :  Already Melbourne, which eighteen months ago possessed only three brick houses, is a flourishing Town, with a population of between two and three thousand souls, and containing most of the appendages of an advanced civilization. It has five places of Worship of different denominations of Christians, a Court of Justice, two Schools, two Banks, one Club with sixty Members, a Fire and Marine Assurance Company, and two Newspapers are efficiently supported. Of the learned professions there are, six Clergy-men, twelve Medical Men, and five lawyers. The wealth of the region was also detailed. The Address was signed by 235 Melburnians amongst which are the names W Lonsdale, J.P., JP Fawkner,  J Williamson and R Russell. Surveyor Williamson thus appeared to be of a significant social status to then be included among the top 235 gentlemen of Melbourne. A couple of years later, as also shown at Annex A, Surveyor Williamson was in an elite party of nine that accompanied La Trobe in a visit to Geelong. Among the other party members was another J Williamson.


Details of J Williamson, Surveyor, are otherwise scant. His name does not appear in the 1836 or 1838 Census Returns for Port Phillip and by the 1841 Census there is another J Williamson in the district also with the given name James. James Williamson was born in 1816 in Scotland and attended Edinburgh University. After working in India he arrived in Sydney about 1837. He and his cousin brought stock overland, establishing themselves at Seymour. On a subsequent trip overland in 1839 he brought horses down to Melbourne where he was surprised to learn that his mother and sisters had also emigrated. This was highly likely the other J Williamson in La Trobe’s party above, which visited Geelong. Information regarding J Williamson, Surveyor, in that he became a Land Agent and advertised allotments for sale, extracted from the print media of the day, is at Annex A.


In his 1840 pamphlet, A Chapter on Port Phillip : Account of the Settlement from its Formation, Hoddle stated :


I have only to observe that I have been seventeen years in the Surveyor-General's Department…and that I have been employed on duty in most parts of the colony. I have had the direction of the Survey Department for upwards of three years at Port Phillip; on my arrival at which place, with the late states-man-like Governor, Sir Richard Bourke, I found it a wilderness - upon it a few huts and tents - and it is now a rising and flourishing City.


An individual, of the name of Batman, first settled near Geelong in March, 1835, but subsequently removed to the present site of the Town of Melbourne. He was manager for the following individuals :- Messrs. C. Swanston, T. Bannister, J. Simpson, JT. Gellibrand, J. and W. Robertson, HT. Arthur, H. Wedge, John Sinclair, JT. Collicott, A. Cottrel, WG. Sams, M. Connolly, and George Mercer; and appears to have been a shrewd, active, and intelligent man. He possessed the happy art of conciliating the aboriginal natives… .


The Government of New South Wales, finding that a considerable population from Van Diemen's Land and several individuals from New South Wales had located there [Port Phillip], were forced to form some kind of establishment in the beginning of 1837; and a police magistrate, with a detachment of soldiers, an officer of customs, and three assistant surveyors, were despatched, with a few prisoners of the Crown, the requisite stores, etc. In March, 1837, I was directed to accompany Sir Richard Bourke and staff on board HMS Rattlesnake, Captain Hobson, to enquire into the state and progress of the survey, and as nothing satisfactory could be shown, I was ordered to take charge of the department. It was truly amusing to hear of the panic caused amongst the assistant surveyors by the unexpected appearance of the Governor; these gentlemen had principally been amusing themselves kangarooing [chasing kangaroos], and one produced some excellent caricatures of their flight into the bush, seemingly employed at their duty.


His Excellency having approved of the site, and my plan of the town, which was named Melbourne in honor of the present Whig Minister, I commenced to mark out the allotments and streets, on the spot where a few mud huts (called wattle and daub) and tents denoted that our enterprising countrymen had already taken possession…Melbourne is rapidly progressing, containing several hundred houses, many stone, and substantial brick buildings, stores, with all the evidences of a busy thriving trade, and valuable commerce. The town is supplied with a club house, hotels, inns, and houses of accommodation; it has three newspapers published twice a week, a small circulating library, and among the mechanics a union benefit society. Among the institutions which have sprung out of the industry and success of the inhabitants should be noted, a fire and marine insurance company, and local bank branches of the banks of Australasia, of Sydney, of the Union Bank of Australia in Van Diemen's Land, with an agent of the Commercial Banking Company in Sydney, are flourishing in their discounts and circulation. A Mechanics Institution is also progressing, and many excellent lectures have been delivered to a crowded and intelligent audience; a Steam Navigation Company is also commenced…Melbourne must eventually become the capital of Australia Felix, from the superior port and other natural advantages.


William, Williams/William’s Town and Williamstown

At the mouth of the Yarra on its western bank the land formed a peninsula jutting into Port Phillip. John Batman named the tip of the peninsula Point Gellibrand after his colleague and member of the Port Phillip Association, barrister Joseph Tice Gellibrand (1792-1837). The Port Phillip Association established an outpost here. Inland on the peninsula’s eastern side he also named Port Harwood, after the captain of the schooner Rebecca, Captain AB Harwood. Later it was renamed Port Gellibrand.


Thus when the bark Norval, commanded by Captain Robson Coltish (1809-1876), arrived in Port Phillip on 26 October 1835, 500 sheep and 50 pure Hereford cows were landed at Port Gellibrand. The Norval had been chartered by the Port Phillip Association and completed many journeys between Launceston and Port Phillip. Captain Coltish reportedly chose this sheltered harbour as a suitable place to unload his cargo. Soon a stream of vessels were unloading there with many of the new settlers they carried deciding to reside in the vicinity. The many livestock shipments to the Port Phillip region between late 1835 and the late 1836, along with settlers compelled the bureaucracy to send in a contingent to be locally based. Thus, as mentioned above, on its arrival at Port Phillip, HMS Rattlesnake anchored off Point Gellibrand. Lonsdale, now in full uniform, was formally rowed up the Yarra by the Rattlesnake's crew and Marines, on 1 October 1836. Lonsdale then remained on board HMS Rattlesnake until a prefabricated house, sent from Sydney, was erected on shore for him on the banks of the Yarra.


Hobson and his officers then turned their attention to undertaking a detailed nautical survey of Port Phillip to provide safe sailing instructions for the stream of vessels starting to mostly arrive from Van Diemen’s Land. Of importance were the navigable channels and the smaller harbours or anchorages near Geelong and at the head of the bay, particularly that from Port Gellibrand to the eastern shore at Point Ormond. Their work would also update that of Grimes in 1803, especially around the perimeter of Port Phillip. Hobson chose Lieutenants TM Symonds and HR Henry and Mr Frederick Shortland from the ship’s company to lead the work which was done in stages over about ten weeks. Some of the features named during this survey were Point Lonsdale after the police magistrate, Point Cook after ship’s mate John Cook(e) and Mount Eliza after Hobson’s wife and Mount Martha after Hobson’s mother (less authoritatively it can be found that Mount Eliza was named after Batman’s wife Eliza and Mount Martha after Lonsdale’s wife Martha and even the Victorian authority is not entirely explicit as to what was named after whom!).


The first map to include the results of the Rattlesnake’s survey was Port Phillip Surveyed by Lieutenants T.M. Symonds and H.R. Henry of the H.M.S Rattlesnake 1836 with additions by Commander L.C. Wickham and Captain Stokes in 1842 , published by British Admiralty in 1838.


Section of 1837, Plan of Allotments, at Williams Town, with the location of Point Gellibrand and the Landing Place marked (courtesy Public Record Office Victoria).


After returning to Sydney, Hobson and the Rattlesnake then again sailed for Port Phillip on 21 February 1837, with Governor Bourke’s party, arriving on 1 March 1837, as described above. After its naming by Bourke, the town of William had its first streets designed and laid out in 1837. Its first land sales also took place in this same era. In the following years a 33 metre stone jetty was built by convict labour and was the first substantial wharf built in Port Phillip. This pier was later replaced by the Gem Pier. The jetty allowed a ferry service between the then towns of Melbourne and William to be established on 28 October 1838, using the steamer Fire Fly. The steamer Fire Fly conveyed passengers, as well as sheep and cattle from Tasmania, up the Yarra. Passengers disembarking at Williams Town could also use the services of one of the Ferrymen, rowing smaller craft across Hobsons Bay between Williams Town and then Sandridge (now Port Melbourne). From Sandridge it was then only a walk of a couple of miles to Melbourne, please refer to link to Christie’s plan of 1853, below.


Sandridge, Williams Town, from railway pier, from an engraving published in 1857 (courtesy National Library of Australia).


By 1840, a lighthouse consisting of a wooden tower with an oil burning light had been erected at Point Gellibrand and a Port Phillip Harbour Master was stationed at Williams Town. Along with the first lighthouse, in 1840 a flagstaff was erected just to its west which could be sighted from Flagstaff Hill in Melbourne. Flags flown from the flagstaff at Williams Town signalled or telegraphed shipping arrivals in the port to Flagstaff Hill in Melbourne. In turn, Melburnians by the flags flying on Flagstaff Hill and shipping lists posted on a nearby bulletin board, could remain informed of shipping events as they happened. It was recorded that many Melburnians instantly knew the meaning of some of the twenty different flags that were flown.


Melbourne Flagstaff and Timeball


Section of Samuel Jackson’s Panoramic Sketch of Melbourne Port Phillip from the walls of Scots Church on the Eastern Hill July 30th 1841 (courtesy State Library of Victoria).


The Port Phillip Patriot and Melbourne Advertiser newspaper of Monday 1 June 1840, reported (please refer Annex B) on page 3 : The Flag, Staff.-  The site of the signal station is fixed upon the hill formerly the burial ground [Flagstaff Hill, Melbourne]. The foundation of the beacon is already laid, and the building, which is to be of stone, will now be rapidly proceeded with. Further information was provided on Thursday 23 July 1840 on page 2 : The Flag Staff:-  We are informed that the flag-staff which is to be erected at the signal station, on the old burial ground, is to be forty-eight feet in height. This must render it a conspicuous object from Williams Town, or to vessels in the Bay. A few weeks later, on Monday 14 September 1840 on page 3 : The Flag Staff:-  We perceive the flag staff, is at last erected on the old burial ground, and the beacon is nearly completed. The necessary flags and other gear have also arrived from Sydney, so we may fairly anticipate the whole machine will be in full work before long. After a few weeks of operation the flagstaff’s proved to be too short as reported on page 2 of The Port Phillip Patriot and Melbourne Advertiser newspaper of 26 October 1840 : The Flag Staffs:- The flag staff at William's Town, as well as the one erected here [Flagstaff Hill, Melbourne], is not near high enough. The yard arm to which the signals are hoisted, ought at least, to be as high as the present topmast head. As a proof of this, we ourselves saw a signal made from William's Town on Friday last, and though we were assisted by powerful telescopes, we were unable to make out the flag nearest the ground, above which, we should imagine, it was only raised a few feet. Surely this ought to be, and might be most easily, remedied. The problem was to be resolved as reported on page 2 on Thursday 26 November 1840 : The Flag Staff:- Workmen are employed in felling the large trees around the signal station, in order, by throwing it more open, to afford a clearer view of the signals here to the lookout man at Williams' Town. This may somewhat remedy the difficulty experienced in deciphering the various flags, but it will never be entirely got over, until the new flag staff, which we learn is to be fifty feet higher than the present one, is erected. The white foam of the waves in Hobsons' Bay, when the wind is fresh, renders it difficult at times to distinguish the different signals hoisted there.


Enhanced, Edward Gilks’ lithograph, Melbourne, 1854, from Emerald Hill, which, as can be seen, has sketches of significant features between the image and its title (courtesy State Library of Victoria); the sketch of the flagstaff and a section from the image have been enlarged an inset for clarity.


The new 48 feet high flagstaff at Flagstaff Hill was apparently in operation by 1841 and can be seen in the 1854 lithograph above, on the right in the section of Henry Burn’s 1855, Melbourne from the North near the road to Mount Alexander, and on the horizon in the lithograph Canvas Town circa 1855, below. Annex C shows images of the Melbourne flagstaff as depicted in a range of images from 1841 to 1855.


The Melbourne flagstaff also served another purpose. From Sunday 11 October 1840 a timeball was dropped from the yard arm, indicating 12PM or Noon. The official notice, see Annex B, of this service in the print media of the day stated :



NOTICE is hereby given that, for the public convenience, the following signals, indicating the time, will be made from the Flag Staff, from and after Sunday next the 11th instant. At ten minutes before noon mean time, a black ball will be hoisted half way to the yard arm. At five minutes before noon it will be hoisted to the yard arm, and at noon precisely, mean time, it will be dropped.


Melbourne, 7th October 1840


This action appears to be the beginning of a local time service for the occupants of Melbourne Town, some 13 years before Ellery was given the job. It is unclear, however, whether this was just an attempt to try to help people to coordinate their daily activities or the result of a rigorous, accepted observation methodology. Given the tone of the article further on, published on page 9 of The Argus of Friday 27 May 1853, stating : Never was a city so doomed as to having great varieties of or variations in time as Melbourne, the truth being, that there is no true or recognised, or proper standard of time in the place, It was likely to have been the former. Also unclear is, if and when observed, who undertook the noon observations. Again, given the time variations mentioned above, it seems noon may have been observed only periodically so as to set a clock and then the clock’s time used to coordinate the timeball drop, in the intervening days. Hoddle and/or his men probably had the equipment and ability but their duties lay elsewhere, and this fact supports the seemingly sporadic pattern of noon observations; someone was not always available for this task. An ex-mariner would also have had the necessary skills, but this possibility is unsupported. Nevertheless, there was a naval establishment at Williamstown and a noon signal could have originated from there. The apparently complete lack of information as to how noon was determined seems to point to the flagstaff operator(s) being tasked with obtaining noon, to the best of their abilities, the tacit agreement being that at this point in the day the signal said its noon and the populace accepting that fact!   


Section of Henry Burn’s 1855, Melbourne from the North near the road to Mount Alexander (courtesy State Library of Victoria);

note the electric telegraph line between the flagstaff right and Melbourne Electric Telegraph Station left.


Williams Town Lighthouse and Timeball flagstaff at Point Gellibrand, 1853, by Edmund Thomas (courtesy State Library of Victoria).


Map of Melbourne & Suburbs by Frederick Proeschel, Geographer, published between 1851 and 1869, showing line of sight between Flagstaff Hill and the Williamstown flagstaff (courtesy National Library of Australia).


Within the years of 1850 and 1851, Colonial Victoria came into being after separation from New South Wales on 1 July 1851 but previously in 1850 gold had been discovered. By 1852 it was reported that Victoria had welcomed 90 000 new arrivals mostly attracted by gold fever. Almost overnight the Williams Town and Hobsons Bay region became inundated with ships not only full of immigrants but the necessary goods to supply the colony. The downside was that a proportion of those new arrivals were lawbreakers or when their luck ran out turned to crime. In addition, once the ships had arrived in port they were abandoned by their crews to search for gold. As can be seen in the background of the 1857 engraving above, the bay around Williams Town was just a mass of ships.


The early years of the goldrush saw the demand for accommodation in Melbourne rapidly outstrip supply. A tent settlement, known as Canvas Town was set up.  It was south of the Yarra, to the west side of St Kilda Road, where buildings such as the National Gallery of Victoria now stand. This section (the condition of the original plan was difficult to read so this inverted version has significantly overcome that limitation) of an 1853 plan of Melbourne by British Government Surveyor, FC Christie, shows Canvaʃ Town (to the right written at an angle with the old long style of the letter “S” ). Also of note is the location of the Falls on the River Yarra between William and Queen Streets, top left what was colloquially the North Melbourne Swamp, and the track between Sandridge and the town passing to the west of Emerald Hill, today’s South Melbourne. The track started near todays Lagoon Pier, sited south of Bay Street, Port Melbourne, and named after the salt water lagoon that once extended inland from the beach. Today’s Lagoon Reserve occupies some of that once swampy area. The track ran to the west of the lagoon and reached the Yarra River in the region of today’s Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre on Clarendon Street, South Melbourne, across from the south west corner of then Melbourne Town. This northern end of the track can be seen in the section of Russell’s Map of 1837, above. The indicative location of this track, running between the salt lagoon to the south and swamp to the north is shown on this integrated image from Google Earth.


Canvas Town between Princess Bridge and South Melbourne in 1850s,

by De Gruchy & Leigh, Lithographers, circa 1855 (courtesy State Library of Victoria).


In a dark period of Victorian history, several of the abandoned ships were bought by the government to house the now excess of lawbreakers. Five hulks had their masts removed and were fitted out with cells and moored off Point Gellibrand. Their inmates were then rowed to shore to form work parties. The initial acquisition of ships was for the Deborah, the Sacramento and the Success with later the Lysander and the President. Each hulk housed a specific group of prisoners; Deborah was for insubordinate seamen and deserters, Lysander for Aboriginal inmates, Sacramento for less troublesome inmates and Success for more hardened offenders. The President was designed for maximum security in which the conditions were appalling. This era continued until 1885 when all vessels were scrapped.


Meanwhile Williams Town and Sandridge, today’s suburb of Port Melbourne, continued to develop to meet the influx of shipping. Over time the new piers at Sandridge gradually became the major disembarkation and embarkation point for overseas passengers; the new and upgraded piers at Williams Town remained in use for the despatch of rural exports such as wheat and wool. The later remodelling of the Yarra and its facilities saw most arriving cargo being unloaded closer to the city.


William, was proclaimed a town in 1886, and a city in 1919, hence Williamstown today. For clarity, that spelling will now be used for the remainder of this article.