14. Sports and Pastimes

Boat racing, yachting and regattas have always been popular in Williamstown, usually associated with entertainment and sports on shore such as climbing the greasy pole, sack races and two-man blindfolded human wheelbarrow races.

HarryDouglasandbike1890The Port Phillip Gazette of September 1841 applauded the races organized by the Melbourne and Williamstown Rowing Clubs for watermen’s 4-oared skiffs, or whaling boats with 5 oars and the few sailing boats. Rowing clubs opened and faltered over the years, according to local support, but the greatest drawback was the debate of the ‘gentleman rowers’ of the eastern suburbs who endeavoured (and succeeded) in excluding men who earned their living by manual labour from participating in competitions. The Royal Yacht Club of Victoria founded in 1853, the Hobson’s Bay Yacht Club of 1888, the Punt or Sailing Club of 1914, and the Royal Motor Yacht Club of 1904 give ample scope to those who like to reach and tack, and for those who just like to fish from a more simple craft, the Williamstown Angling Club gives encouraging support. Mooring of small craft in Hobson’s Bay always delights the eye, with the background of Melbourne’s skyscrapers.


racecourseorigWilliamstown Racecourse was just a paddock used as the Town Common in 1858 when the first “Annual” races were staged. The site on Port Phillip Bay, (Melways 55, C, D, E, 8 and 9), reached by a ford over Kororoit Creek was picturesque, if bleak. But overlooking the bay, planted with flowers, trees and shrubs, and grassed with springy buffalo turf, it became the third largest racecourse in the state, with up to eight meetings a year. The Williamstown Cup was traditionally held in November, on the Prince of Wales Birthday. This one mile three furlong handicap race carried a purse of $1000 in 1904 and drew big crowds, many using the special branch railway line off the Geelong line to travel to the course (later Altona railway line). Races continued until World War Two, when the grounds were used for defence purposes. After peace was declared in 1945 the grandstand was being refurbished prior to resuming the races when it burnt down. No further races were held there, and all races were transferred to the Victorian Racing Club, and were slotted into the overall racing program.

Botanical Gardens

Reserved in 1856 after petition by local residents, these gardens were first opened in January 1860 and the original path plan has been retained. Well-remembered local MLA  Mr. A.T. Clark, who fought delaying tactics against the established of the Melbourne Harbour Trust and endeavoured to encourage local business to diversify to replace the port work he knew would disappear is honoured by a marble statue in the garden’s central walk. The original iron gates, crafted in Glasgow and purchased from the South Yarra estate of E.G. Fitzgibbon, chairman of the Board of Works, were much admired.



GardenGates1906The gardens and recreation reserve next to them, known as the Fearon Reserve, were the focal point for festivals and fetes in the 1860’s which attracted crowds of two to three thousand patrons.  In the 1920’s Mayor J.J. Liston made use of the gardens for his ‘At Home’ mayoral garden parties.  Surviving photographs show many hundred of elegantly dressed guests attended.  Entertainment by local bands was free at the Band Rotunda, first set up on Fearon Reserve, then transferred in the 1890’s to the pinetum section of the gardens.  Fearon Reserve was used for football until the 1890’s when a bicycle track was constructed and fenced, and the popularity of the bicycle took precedence.   This reserve has long been the home of our long successful Lacrosse Clubs, proud of their many interstate and Australian player representatives.


CricketTeam1880Cricket has always been a popular game, and the Williamstown Club was first established in 1852/3 and has had use of the Cricket Ground for over 150 years, though the original area was much smaller.  Many matches played in the 1850’s and 1860’s were purely social: Bakers v Butchers, English v Scotch, North v South, Old Councillors v New Councillors and so on.  But established clubs were soon formed, playing other suburban teams. Tom Henderson probably holds the record for the biggest first class score on the ground: 204 against Malvern in 1903 in the Victorian Cricket League competition.

Football games were rather haphazard at first, being got up for the day, with often up to 30 to a side in the 1850’s and 1860’s.  Though there were many groups within the town, two gained some recognition and were amalgamated, and played their first senior game in VFA competition in 1886, using blue and gold, one colour from each club.  Thousands of young men would have played football and cricket in the various competitions at all levels for a Williamstown team, or a church team, and both sports have had a high ratio of participation.  Many cricketers played baseball in the winter, and Williamstown won a premiership as early as 1906.

Lodges as Entertainment

WtownLightOperaCompany1930sLodges were established for the social and supportive roles they could offer, using their funds to assist members in need and organising public entertainments to augment those funds.  Most of Williamstown’s lodges were established in the 1850’s and 1860’s as local branches of already existing institutions.  Masons, Oddfellows, Free Gardeners, Foresters, Druids, and Rechabites, they all had a role in the town.  Dressed in their regalia, they headed processions such as that to open the Mechanics Institute in 1860, where such entertainments as HospitaBall1930sChang the Giant, General Tom Thumb the dwarf, amateur singers and reciters vied with painted panoramas of the American Civil War, penny readings of literature or early displays of electricity and the telephone to educate the populace.  Quadrilles and Batchelor Balls were popular and dancing often continued to 5 a.m.  Pity the poor musicians!

The circus came to town as early as 1856, and appears to have returned bi-annually to thrill the audience.

Tennis and Bowls

Tennis came late to Williamstown, with the building of courts in the late 1880’s attached to the Williamstown Cricket Ground, whilst Liston Courts were built in the late 1920’s on the site of a former steam saw mills and timber yard.  Bowls were first set up next to the Mechanics Institute in 1880, before the lodge room was added.  The Bowling Club’s new greens on Dennis Reserve were opened in November 1888, and the club has been strong and successful ever since.  Ladies croquet and bowling rinks, though relatively ‘young’, go back to the 1930’s.


BackBeachWilliamstown1906The area at the bottom of Cole Street on the Esplanade was popular for secluded swimming from earliest times.  Known as Bunbury’s Baths, (Harbour Master 1840’s) it was used by males, and one man was actually taken by a shark in this pool, with several near manglings, when locals demanded that the seaward side should be rock-walled for protection.  And in the 1870’s a lady was shocked to be able to see, (through palings missing from the land side of the baths), men actually bathing in the nude. seabathsFrom 1856 the Lady’s Baths built by John Courtis at the foot of Garden Street, were supervised by Mr Lillington whose house was built on Fearon Reserve.  Ladies had little changing boxes built at the water’s edge and stepped into fenced enclosures for their swim.  They were described, in the late 1860’s as ‘little better than rabbit hutches’.

BeachatWilliamstown1912The Lady’s Baths were demolished when the 1,000 foot long Williamstown Baths were built in 1880, centrally on the sandy beach.  They were the largest baths on Port Phillip Bay and Hot Sea baths were added in 1902.  Until the 1920’s males and female swam at the baths at separate times, and the Williamstown Swimming Club only admitted girls in the late 1920’s.  These baths were destroyed in the ferocious storm in 1934 and the remains slowly mouldered away, as social patterns had changed and mixed bathing was then allowed on the open beach.

The Cinema

Williamstown’s first silent picture theatre was set up in the hall built by Gaunt’s Woollen Mills in 1905 for the recreation of their employees.  Used for roller skating and with a stage for entertainment, it was taken over by Mr Darke, an employee of the mills.  Superior “Talkies” equipment was added in the 1920’s, and the Empress continued as a picture theatre until well after World War Two.

The Mechanics Institute also set up an outdoor movie theatre next to the Institute building, again  in the 1920s, and crowds attended to watch such novelties as ‘Arnolds Revenge’ and ‘How a Car is Made’, with a lengthy synopsis of the action supplied in advertising.  The early silent films were accompanied by a lady or gentleman piano player and local sound effects man. The sound effects machine is in the Historical Museum at the Mechanics Institute, and includes sounds, for example, of trains, horse and carriage, wind storms, shotgun blast and breaking crockery.