Werribee, about 27 km south-west of Melbourne, is midway on the Princes Highway to Geelong.It is situated on the Werribee River, which has its headwaters north of Ballan.

Early pastoral leaseholds included members of John Batman’s Port Phillip Association. Rural amalgamation began in the early 1850s, shortly after a village reserve was surveyed.

The village was named Wyndham, apparently at the suggestion of the owner of the new village inn, Elliott Armstrong, who knew Sir Henry Wyndham, a soldier who had distinguished himself at Waterloo. The name Werribee had already been given to the river, however, and overtook Wyndham as the town name (1884) and the shire name (1909). Werribee is though to be derived from an Aboriginal word for spine or backbone, which describes the strong visual curve of the river over the nearly treeless plain.

Rural amalgamation around Werribee was massive. Thomas Chirnside was attracted to the open plain’s suitability for grazing and its proximity to the Melbourne markets. By 1863 he controlled more than 28,300 ha. in the Werribee district. W.J.T. (“Big”) Clarke of Sunbury also had a substantial holding in the district. Pastoral dominance reducedthe number of smaller holdings as they were bought up by Chirnside in the1860s. The town grew relatively slowly, but steadily. A railway line wasopened between Newport and Geelong in 1857, with a station at Werribee.A Church of England school, opened in 1855, was replaced by a National schoolin 1861, the year in which a Catholic church was opened.

On 10 October, 1862, the Wyndham Road District was proclaimed, and wasreplaced by a shire council on 11 March, 1864. The shire extended from Footscrayto the Little River, and northwards to the Melton Reservoir. The area was276 square miles, or 715 square kilometres. It contained the places nowknown as Balliang, Exford, Hoppers Crossing, Laverton, Little River, Manor, Mambourin, Mount Cottrell, Tarneit, Truganina, Werribee South/Point Cook, and Wyndham Vale. The shire also included Altona until it was severed on 29 May, 1957, to form a separate shire. The name change to Werribee shire occurred on 15 December, 1909, and proclamation as a city took place on 20 March,1987. On 15 December, 1984 when Victorian council boundaries were restructured,the name was changed back to Wyndham, and a small part in the north was transferred to Melton shire.

Between 1860 and 1890 Werribee had two centres of gravity, the township and the Chirnsides’ Werribee Park. Thomas’ brother, Andrew, joined him in1875 in acquiring land around Werribee, ultimately enlarging the holding to over 37,600 ha. By 1878 the brothers had completed the building of theWerribee Park mansion, about three kilometres south of the Werribee township and 500 metres east of the Werribee River. The dry, rain-shadow property was augmented by wind-pump wells, and it became the site of coursing, hunt-clubs, elaborate annual picnics and a volunteer troops encampment for colonial defence. The Chirnside Battery’s drill ground was south-west of the mansionon a flat beside the river. In 1884 Thomas Chirnside donated land for St.Thomas’ Presbyterian church.

The suicide of Thomas, the Laird of Werribee Park, in 1887 and his brother’sdeath three years later resulted in the property being divided between Andrew’stwo sons. A second mansion “The Manor” was built by the son whoinherited the property north of the township.

By 1881 about one-quarter of the shire’s population lived in Werribee township. Apart from hotels the principal recreational venues were the racecourse(1879) and the mechanics’ institute (1883). The Australian Handbook, 1893, described Werribee as –

Shortly after the Werribee Park estate came in the sons’ hands, land taxes persuaded them to bring in tenant farmers. The cleared grazing land was readily converted to cropping and dairying. During the early 1900s some tenant farmers became freeholders, and all told about 130 farmers were living on land that had recently been a family sheep walk. In 1892 the Melbourneand Metropolitan Board of Works acquired 3,580 ha. from the Chirnside estate for the metropolitan sewage farm, the site later being named Metropolitan Farm..

The Werribee township formed a progress association in 1910, to quicken the pace of change and improvement of amenities. Reticulated water was suppliedby the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission until 1929, when the YanYean supply finally connected.

In 1904 the State Government acquired land for closer-settlement farms,and the Commission’s irrigation improvements brought about successful settlement eight years later. It ushered in a community of Italian market gardeners,as well as orchardists and poulterers. The State Research Farm (now the Animal Research Institute) was begun in 1912. Soldier settlers took up farms after the first word war, and in 1925 the area was renamed Werribee South.

The Werribee Park mansion and 404 ha. of land was sold to the Catholic church, and became the Corpus Christi seminary for the training of priests.Some of the grounds were let to Italian farmers. Both the Chirnside sons left the district, moving to Brandon Park, Waverley,and to Chirnside Park. During the inter-war years the township’s population increased by about one-third, to a little more than 3,000 persons,sufficient to patronise a picture theatre (1928) and for the opening ofa higher elementary school 91923). Shortly after the second World War The Australian Blue Book, 1949, described Werribee shire as –

The township had four hotels, four churches, two savings banks and branches of two others, market yards and an agricultural and pastoral society. The cooperative milk factory was the only large industry that had been attracted.

Post war population growth was at first mostly in the eastern (Altona) end of the shire. Werribee township’s rapid growth began in the 1960s, thepopulation more than doubling between 1961 and 1971 to over 12,000 persons. The township acquired additional recreational facilities, new churches and denominational schools, two more State primary schools and a district hospital.I ts growth had been acknowledged by the construction of the Maltby By Pass, taking the Melbourne to Geelong road out of the town’s centre.

A new suburb adjoining the Melbourne side of Werribee, Hoppers Crossing,was commenced. It grew rapidly, acquiring a drive-in shopping centre in 1981, along with pre-school facilities and State and church primary schools.Four years after the Hoppers Crossing shopping centre the Werribee Plaza,about three times as big (39,000 sq. metres), was opened, but actually onthe edge of Hoppers Crossing. This left scope for the strip shopping centrenear the Werribee railway station to be enlarged and for a village shoppingcentre to be built on the other side of the railway line.

The Corpus Christi seminary closed in 1973 and the Werribee park property was sold to the State Government. The mansion and outbuildings have beencarefully preserved along with the formal gardens. A zoological park, theState Rose Garden and the State Equestrian Centre have been included inits grounds. The closure of the seminary did not herald the diminution ofthe Catholic community. The St. Andrews church had two active school campusesand a third one under consideration in the mid 1990s, and the McKillop secondarycollege was opened.

There is a linear park along the Werribee River, and elsewhere watercourses drain into swampy basins which are being made into recreationalwetlands. In addition to these large spaces there are ball-game courts andovals on two other reserves.

House prices in Werribee have been below the metropolitan median pricebetween 1987 and 1996, resting at about 80%. A survey of children on povertyin 1997 showed that 38% of Werribee children were in families on welfarebenefits or classed as working poor. It was not as well off as Altona (29%),but considerably better than the metropolis’ highest figure of 61% in Footscray.

The census populations of Werribee township andits immediate environs were 366 (1871), 693 (1901), 2,301 (1911), 3,348(1947) 8,228 (1966) and 12,872 (1971). The shire’s census populations were1476 (1871), 7853 (1933) and 16,114 (1954). Altona was severed in 1957 andthe new shire’s census populations were 13,689 (1961), 30,246 (1976) and72,230 (1991).

Further Reading:

  • Allom Lovell Sanderson Pty. Ltd., Werribee Park Metropolitan Park Conservation Analysis, 1985.
  • James, K. N. (ed.) Werribee: The First One Hundred Years, Werribee District Historical Society, 1985.

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