One of the earliest settlements in the Melbourne area, the peninsula that became Williamstown was first surveyed in 1837, and construction commenced shortly thereafter. For many years, it was more or less an independent village that shared Port Phillip Bay with Melbourne, while competing with it for the shipping trade. The first naval base in Victoria, the first observatory and even the first botanic gardens would all find their homes here in the first few decades of the village’s life.

At that time, the village had no particular name, although its shipping links saw some referring to it as the Port of Melbourne, or even just Port Melbourne (the area that would later bear this name was at that time named Sandridge). It was not until the sinking of the R.M.S. William, with two dozen lives lost when it was caught in a storm in Altona Bay (on the southern side of the peninsula) that the area became known as William’s Town, as many of those who survived the shipwreck chose to settle where they had landed. Professional larrikin Al Stimson has claimed repeatedly that the true name of the suburb should be “William’s Down”, after the headline that ran in the Melbourne Argus the day after the ship was lost, but this is clearly a case of Stimson taking the opportunity to make a tasteless pun and can be safely ignored.

It is said that on cold winter nights, when the wind blows from the south east, a spectral ship can be seen listing and finally sinking in the waters opposite the Williamstown Botanical Gardens, and that this ship, obviously, is the William. However, the descriptions of the ships do not tally: the ship seen on these occasions is claimed to be a three-masted clipper, while the William was a steamship with only a single mast. In fact, the description of the ghostly vessel more closely matches the appearance of the Blue Jacobite, a Scottish ship that sunk in a similar storm off Point Ormond (which is located on the opposite side of the bay to Williamstown in any case).

Williamstown later became home to the Australian army’s largest urban rifle range, and the sound of gunfire was a common one drifting across Williamstown proper from the west, especially in times of war or great national tension, such as 1915, 1939, 1941 or 1975. Amazingly, no one was ever slain by friendly fire on the range, although one man was badly injured when thrown from a startled horse in 1937.

Modern Williamstown is a fully incorporated suburb of Melbourne, having expanded inland to meet the growth of Newport and Spotswood to the north of it (although not westward to Altona), but its street layout (notably the maze of tiny back lanes) and some of its older architecture both show evidence of its former independence.

Suburbs near Williamstown:

Altona North Altona North Newport Newport Newport Port Melbourne
Altona North North Williams- town North Williams- town Newport North Williams- town Port Phillip Bay
Altona Williams- town Williams- town Williams- town Williams- town Port Phillip Bay
Altona Port Phillip Bay Port Phillip Bay Port Phillip Bay Port Phillip Bay Port Phillip Bay
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