Altona is a residential and industrial suburb 13 km. west-south-west of Melbourne. The township is on an indented bay (Altona Bay) on Port Phillip Bay, and the industrial sector extends several kilometres inland. Altona’s southern boundary is Skeleton Creek (separating it from Werribee), and its opposite boundary is Kororoit Creek (separating it from Williamstown).
The coastal part of Altona is alluvial flats and recent estuarine deposits, with alluvial valleys extending inland along the Kororoit, Cherry and Laverton Creeks. The last two drained into swamps. Inland are newer basalt plains.
In 1842 (or probably before then), Alfred Langhorne leased pastoral land on Altona Bay, and shortly afterwards began building a homestead. The area was then known as Laverton. The homestead became known as “Altona” by the 1860s. The reason for the name is not clear, but in 1843 a neighbour of Langhorne’s, R. Wrede, gave his residential address as Altona, Port Phillip Bay. In any event Langhorne’s homestead acquired the name “Altona,” and it is in Queen Street, Altona, having served as a Council office and a community centre. “Altona” derives from a German village on the River Elbe, later a suburb of the Hamburg seaport.
Altona and Laverton were occupied for pastoral purposes. Prominent landowners were the Chirnside family, the Cherry family (hence Cherry lake), and the Blackshaws (hence Blackshaws Road). In 1881 a coal prospecting company was formed in Williamstown for the purpose of winning coal at Altona. Brown not black, coal was found and water penetration was a problem in the bores and tunnels. The activity, however, caused Altona to be noticed, for in 1882 a Sanitarium for infectious diseases was opened in Altona East.
In 1887 a syndicate acquired the Altona/Laverton property which had been assembled by Langhorne (who died in 1874), and marketed it as Altona. They commenced the connection of Yan Yean water, a railway extension from Newport and lengthening of the pier to deeper water for bay excursion boats. A nearby attraction was the Williamstown racecourse (now the Altona Sports Park). Land sales took place in 1888 and the train service commenced. Actual settlement at Altona, however, was meagre. The train service ceased in 1890, and Altona’s industrial potential was again assessed. Fresh coal mining ventures were started, and the colonial government established an explosive-storage depot near Skeleton Creek, Altona West, relieving a similar facility at Footscray. Proposals were examined for using the coal for the generation of electricity and for iron smelting. The Melbourne and Altona Coal Mine continued until 1919, and another one operated in the early 1930s.
Altona’s growth was slow, although enjoying moments of fame when early aeroplane flights were made by Gaston Cugnot (for the French Bleriot planes), and by Joseph Hammond in 1910 and 1911. Apart form coal mining the main industries were dairying, poultry, piggeries and the growing of animal fodder.
In 1913 a syndicate of Sydney entrepreneurs began replicating their success in developing beach-side suburbs by laying out generous subdivisions at Altona. The syndicate also established Seaholme, immediately to the east of Altona. Land sales began in 1917, and the railway recommenced. Two years earlier a primary school had been opened in Altona and Baptist church services begun. Residents obtained relatively cheap land on large blocks, and put up houses as owner-builders. During the first world war some families with German or other origins associated with enemy nations found it better to settle at Altona out of reach of patriotic workers at Newport. In 1920 land sales picked up, and houses were built with help from the War Service Homes Commission and the State Savings Bank.
In 1924 the Commonwealth Oil Refinery (C.O.R.) began production east of Seaholme. The refinery had mixed results: whilst providing local employment, the sulphur compounds in its effluent made the area smell. However, suburban comforts came to Altona with electrified trains, the promise of reticulated water and a shopping centre with a cinema. Subdivisions were released during 1928-9 at Altona North, Paisley and Galvin, the latter two being supplied with stations on the railway line to Geelong.
One suburban facility lacking in Altona was a hospital, until one was opened in 1932, financed by public subscriptions. It was kept during the depression by fund raising, donations of fish and eggs from local producers and by working bees.
During the second world war effluent entered Altona Bay from plant to the west. the I.C.I munitions factory at Deer Park.It poisoned the kelp, an important fish-breeding ground, and damaged Altona’s fishing and local amenity. Although the discharge was stopped, Altona’s seaside reputation was not enhanced during the war.
In 1949 Vacuum Oil began operating a refinery at Paisley, and in 1953 the Mobiltown railway station (Altona line) was opened to serve the refinery. Two years later a catalytic cracking plant increased production tenfold. There was a rapid growth in postwar population, and the Seaholme primary school opened a little earlier.
Altona was a destination for many postwar European migrants, and temporary and hostel accommodation was provided at the Williamstown racecourse and later on land on the other side of the Kororoit Creek at Wiltona Hostel.
Industries which opened in Altona included Gilbertsons/Don Smallgoods (1951), Red Robin hosiery (1949) and Australian Carbon Black (using refinery by-products for a component of tyre-making).
During all of its growth Altona was part of the Werribee shire. On 29 May, 1957, Altona was proclaimed a separate shire, and on 21 December, 1968, it was proclaimed a city.
The land at the Galvin railway station became the location of major petrochemical works in the late 1950s when Slough Estates purchased the large triangular wedge west of where the railway line crosses Kororoit Creek Road. The Altona Petrochemical Company’s plant came into production in 1961 and several others followed – synthetic rubber, several chemical plants and Union Carbide.
Two primary schools east and west of Altona’s town centre opened in 1961 and 1962, and a high school in 1960. The shire’s population grew by more than 50% between 1961 and 1966.
During the 1960s and 1970s Altona’s residents were troubled by air-borne particles and unpleasant chemical smells. Suspicion fell on petrochemical plants, although decaying seaweed might have been a cause. Air monitoring and political agitation reduced the incidents, and the closure of the Paisley briquette yard in 1972 removed an obvious cause. In the early 1970s sewerage connections were completed and reticulated water supply improved. The local hospital, a source of pride, was enlarged.
Altona township’s shopping centre in Pier Street has maintained its precedence. Drive-in shopping centres have been built further afield, in Altona North and Altona Meadows. During the 1980s the Pier Street shops were extended north of the railway line, unusual for a suburban strip.
North of the town the swamp area has become the Cherry Lake, surrounded by a conservation reserve and several sports facilities; to the east are a coastal park, yacht club and marina; and the western swamp area has water-treatment works and open-space reserves. At its extremity is the Kooringal Golf Club and a wetland which was previously the Cheetham Salt Works. Beach works during the 1980s stopped sand erosion. In 1985 the railway line was extended west of Altona to join the Geelong line at Laverton and the Westona station was opened.
The community has had a high proportion of residents from southern and eastern Europe, with a high proportion of religious adherents of both Catholic and Orthodox churches.
Altona had unusual municipal government, electing councillors by an unsubdivided municipality (i.e. no wards) and keeping them re-elected. Although in a Labor area, the Labor party gave up endorsing candidates when the voters’ preference for good local candidates was overwhelmingly obvious. The council staved off takeovers from Werribee and Williamstown councils in the 1980s. When the 1994 amalgamations happened, Altona city was united with Williamstown city and parts of Werribee shire and Footscray city to form Hobsons Bay city (22 June). By then the Altona municipality contained Altona Meadows, Altona North and the smaller localities of Paisley and Seaholme.
Between 1987 and 1996 the median house price in Altona was about 90% of the median for metropolitan Melbourne.
The census populations for the Altona township were 50 (1911), 694 (1921) and 2,841 (1947). For the Altona municipality they were 16,167 (1961), 25,020 (1966), 30,909 (1981) and 34,492 (1991).
- Priestley, Susan, “Altona: A Long View”, Hargren Publishing Company, 1988.