The Maritime History of Paynesville

Paynesville is located on the Gippsland Lakes in Victoria Australia.

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The Birth of a Maritime Village

With the opening of the Oakleigh to Sale railway line on the 1st March 1878, Gippsland at long last had a fast, comfortable, safe and reliable link to Melbourne for both passengers and freight. The rail connection to the population centres of Melbourne, Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo heralded the dawning of a new economic era for Gippsland. The railway meant that the renowned abundance of fish and game in the Gippsland Lakes would at last be available to the hungry Melbourne market. The railway was eagerly anticipated by Melburnians, as it was hoped that finally the city would have access to a fishery that could satisfy demand.

  Fishermen from other fisheries in Geelong, Port Phillip, Western Port and Port Albert flocked to the Lakes to take advantage of the opportunities offered here, bringing their boats and equipment with them. They established fishermen’s camps known as fishing stations, dotted in numerous sheltered locations around the Lakes’ shores. In July 1878 approximately sixty men were camped at such a fishing station situated, to the west of McMillan Straits, and a short distance from the mouth of Newland’s Backwater. The camp was at the bottom of a hill, densely overgrown with scrub. 

This location surely must be Paynesville’s current foreshore reserve. Conveniently the steamer Tanjil already passed through the McMillan Straits thrice weekly on its regular journey between Bairnsdale and Sale and was able to collect and deliver the baskets of fish to the Latrobe Bridge on the first leg of their journey to Melbourne.

By May 1879, this fishing station had grown as men from other locations shifted there because of its central and convenient location. Collectively, the camp residents voted to change the camp’s name from Toonalook or Raymond Island to Paynesville, most likely a gesture of acknowledgement for the guidance they had  from received from the Colony's  Chief Fisheries Officer, Captain C. B. Payne.   

  John Calvert sketched this camp on Friday 16th May 1879.

At this time there were approximately 80 residents, including twenty children and parts of up to 30 families. Many of the wives and children were away because of the need for the children to attend school.

The fishermen were prepared to build their own schoolhouse  if the Education Department would send a teacher and were confident that if a school and a postal service were available their numbers would grow.

The sketch clearly depicts the fishermen’s huts, stacks of fish baskets, their tanned fishing nets spread out to dry, their boats pulled to the shore, firewood cut and stacked to supply the needs of the passing steamers and in the distance the steamer Kangaroo, upon which John Calvert arrived,  tied up at the landing place. The larger building was a new fish curing enterprise.

The huts in which the fisher folk lived were more or less their tents that had been enclosed with ti-tree boughs and cane and then thatched with reeds; all materials found in abundance locally. The hut walls were weather proof and the ridge of the roof water-proofed with bark and green hide. The huts were windowless with earthen floors and internal fireplaces made from old nail cans; although a few had chimneys made from poles, interwoven with sticks and rendered with mud. Inside the huts were ‘snug and comfortable’ and externally protected from the weather by a substantial palisade of the ti-tree boughs. 

  In only just a few years this fishing station grew rapidly into a thriving township that in 1883 had a population of 150. It stretched along the margin of the Lake from the McMillan Straits, past the Toonalook Post Office and to the Paynesville State School.

The township then had three hotels and several stores. Whilst the predominant occupation was and would be for many years fishing, it was already considered by visitors as a pleasure resort that could not be surpassed. The fishermen readily took visitors sight-seeing, fishing, shooting and sailing for only just a small charge.

Boats were being built, ship building had commenced and Regattas were starting to be regularly held. Each of these  activities, apparent in just the first few years of settlement, left an indelible mark, still clearly visible in modern Paynesville’s rich Maritime heritage. 

In 1881, the fishermen of Paynesville held Paynesville’s first Annual Easter Regatta offering  £30 in prizes as well as two silver watches as trophies. The principal sailing event of the day was won by John Brown in his 32 foot fishing boat, the Sarah Anne Baker.  The Easter Regatta was held every year for the remainder of the decade and also on very many occasions since. Regattas have been an integral part of life in Paynesville and over the years have variously featured races for   rowing, sailing and fishing boats, for boats with inboard and outboard motors as well as speed boats.  Paynesville Regattas always shared the day with land sports and family picnics.  Today Paynesville is the of home of the Gippsland Lakes Yacht Club, the Paynesville Motor Cruiser Club, the annual destination for the classic Marley Point Overnight Yacht Race and the venue for the East Gippsland Power  Boat Club’s  Paynesville Gold Cup.  

    In 1881, the steamer the Tambo, only the second steamer ever to be built on the Lakes, was built in Paynesville by Captain Archie McAlpine for the Lake’s trade. From the moment the keel was laid in between the Paynesville and Pier Hotels, the Tambo was the township’s chief topic of conversation. She was launched to great excitement on Thursday the 18th July 1882; a day locals thought would long be remembered in the annals of Paynesville.  A Public Holiday was declared in Bairnsdale and large crowds gathered to watch the event that was celebrated in the evening with a ball at the Paynesville Hotel. 
Sylvus Eriksen, after building the steamer Ariel and the schooner Orbost, established the Paynesville Slip Yard here and in 1888 built the well-known steamer the JCD’ for Mr. J. C. Dahlsen. Peter Tierney later acquired the yards and constructed the S.S. Gippsland, the largest vessel ever built on the Gippsland Lakes. Built in 1908, again for the Dahlsen family, she was capable of carrying 450 passengers. 

  The Paynesville Slip Yard has continued to operate for over one hundred years as a Government Slip Yard that today is managed by Gippsland Ports Committee of Management Inc. It remains amongst the biggest and busiest in in Victoria. 

As 1882 drew to a close the town folk eagerly watched with interest the construction of what some considered would be the finest fishing boat afloat in colonial waters. Carvel built and double planked using Huon pine she was fitted with brass fittings throughout. The vessel had been constructed in a shed behind the Paynesville Hotel by Mr. Stirling for local fisherman Mr. G. H. Smith. 

The Louisa did not just excel because of the quality of the workmanship and the materials used but also because she was considered to be a brand new design.  

She was very fine in the bow with her maximum width of beam very far aft; instead of forward, as was then normal.  Although relatively a small boat, she was able to carry more astern than fishing boats more than double her size. Safe and fast to handle she measured 23 feet 6 inches on the keel , overall 24 feet, had  a beam of 7 feet 10 inches, and a depth of 2 feet 2 inches.

The number of these wooden fishing boats built in Paynesville since the Louisa is not known, but there have been many fishing boats and the smaller seine boats. Whilst some were built by local boatbuilders, many were built by the fishermen themselves so that they and their sons, brothers, nephews and cousins could go fishing and earn a living. Built in their Paynesville backyards and on Raymond Island, their construction was always a focus for community interest, discussion and a source of great community pride.

The last, of the very many Paynesville Fishing Boats that were built over the years was the Yappa, built in a shed at 95 Langford Parade in 1960. However the wooden boat industry continues to thrive in Paynesville today as yet another new generation of wooden boat builders continue to ply  their ancient craft; not just  building new boats, but importantly,  faithfully restoring the classic wooden boats from the past.

In more recent times, fibreglass replicas of the Paynesville fishing boat have been built for recreational boating.

  In the early twentieth century Paynesville became known as the pivot of the lakes because most places of interest, such as Lake King, Lake Victoria, the Back Lakes and the Ninety mile beach were within an easy sail and the township offered excellent accommodation.

As the steamers crisscrossed the Lakes calling at Bairnsdale, Sale, Mossiface, Lakes Entrance and Metung they paused at the village wharf that very often had steamers and schooners waiting for a berth. 

Excursionists could alight and engage a motor launch complete with tent, camping equipment and a guide to enable them to explore the many lovely bays and backwaters.  A sailing boat regularly departed from Paynesville taking tourists to tourist accommodation at Ocean Grange, between   the Ninety-mile Beach and Lake Bunga and over-looking the Bass Strait. 

  Paynesville remains to this day an important hub for tourism on the Gippsland Lakes.

Fishing continued to be the principal occupation of Paynesville residents for almost a century. There were approximately just over 200 registered fishing boats here at the time of the First World War.

The Fishermen’s Wharf on the McMillan Straits was a hive of activity, ice was manufactured there and it was here that the fish were packed in ice and the fish boxes for delivery to Bairnsdale to be railed to Melbourne.

    In the latter part of the twentieth century the fishing industry gradually declined as  fish stocks  declined and today what was once Paynesville’s very raison d’etre  is but a shadow of if its former self.

However, even though almost all of the fishermen are gone and a restaurant now stands on Fisherman’s Wharf where the ice-works once were, many important relics of Paynesville’s rich Maritime Heritage are carefully preserved in the collections of the Paynesville Maritime Museum.

  Here visitors can discover the township’s rich Maritime heritage through the museum’s displays. The visitor may also choose to take a rewarding stroll  along Langford Parade and view  fishermen’s cottages that in 1885 were described as being numerous, impressive, neat and commodious, or follow the Paynesville Maritime Museum’s Heritage Trail from the Fisherman’s Wharf to Sunset Cove.

A stroll along Paynesville’s many jetties and marinas will reward the visitor with glimpses of Paynesville Fishing boats, many lovingly restored and cherished by their new owners and now used for pleasure; built by fishermen so that they and their families could go fishing and earn a living.