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(3030, 30 km SW, Wyndham City)

Werribee's landscape was glimpsed by early European explorers along the coast of Port Phillip Bay. Matthew Flinders looked down on it from the You Yangs in 1802. A year later Charles Grimes met some of the local people, possibly of the Kurung-jang-balluk clan, at Point Cook during his coastal survey. Hamilton Hume and William Hovell crossed the area in 1826. Five members of the Port Phillip Association, allocated land in the district in 1835, moved their sheep across Bass Strait, but their hold on the land, being illegal, was tenuous. One of them, Anthony Cottrell, is remembered in the name of the extinct volcanic cone Mount Cottrell.

The Werribee River, which gouged its way across the plain to the sea, gave the district its name. Hume and Hovell had called it the Arndell after Hovell's father-in-law, John Batman called it the Exe, but Aboriginal people called it weariby, meaning spine or backbone. Government surveyor Darke adapted this name when he officially surveyed the district in 1839-1840. The first hotel, the Golden Fleece, was built near a crossing place on the river in 1838. A village reserve proclaimed nearby in 1849 was officially named Wyndham, but reverted to the more popular name Werribee in 1884. The shire, called Wyndham until 1909, changed back to Werribee in 1995.

Located on the main road and, from 1857, the railway, Werribee remained small. Even in 1890 the population was only 350. The township was surrounded by the pastoral holdings of Simon Staughton and, to the north-east, W.J.T. Clarke and Andrew and Thomas Chirnside, who owned 81 000 acres (32 400 ha) by the 1880s, stretching from the sea to the You Yangs and from Little River to Skeleton Creek. Their 1870s Italianate mansion, Werribee Park, now managed by Parks Victoria, survived but from the mid-1890s two of Andrew's sons, George and Percy, gradually sold off or gave away parcels of land. The first was used by the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works for the establishment of the Metropolitan Farm, where sewage which had passed through the Spotswood Pumping Station was purified by land filtration and released into the Bay. The farm, which employed many local people, was a declared bird sanctuary in the 1920s, but its presence ensured that Werribee became the butt of coarse jokes for generations of Melburnians.

In 1904 George Chirnside sold some land at Werribee South to the Closer Settlement Board. Many of the farms struggled until the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission established the Werribee Irrigation and Water Supply District in 1912, channelling water from the Werribee River and, later, Pyke's Creek and Melton reservoirs. Superseding the Chaffey brothers' attempt to irrigate Werribee South in the 1890s, the 1912 irrigation settlement meant increased cultivation and population in the district as lucerne gradually gave way to vegetables and dairying. After World War I George Chirnside donated further land for soldier settlement, while another piece of Werribee Park became the State Research Farm (now the Animal Research Institute incorporating the Gilbert Chandler Dairy Research Institute), established to develop good agricultural practices.

By the time the Chirnsides sold the remainder of their property in 1921, the Werribee township was servicing a growing population of 1500. Local beauty spots such as Cobbledick's Ford and Chirnside Park attracted day-trippers and picnickers, while the Werribee Races were a regular fixture on the horseracing calendar. In 1922 the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne purchased the mansion for Victoria's first diocesan seminary, leasing the surrounding land to tenant farmers, many of whom were Sicilian migrants from the Vizzini region who laid the foundation for a considerable Italian community at Werribee South. The increasingly substantial homes that dotted the market gardens at the end of the 20th century were an indication of this community's success.

Designated a growth corridor by the Town and Country Planning Board in the early 1970s, Werribee's population grew to 32 000 with the development of new housing estates at Hoppers Crossing and Wyndhamvale. Population growth continued around areas zoned for industry (Laverton North) and technology (Western Gardens). As development pushed out to the north and west of Werribee at the end of the 20th century, however, the Metropolitan Farm, Animal Research Centre, Werribee Park and Point Cook Coastal Park ensured that plenty of open space remained, while Werribee's rural traditions survived in the market gardens at Werribee South.

Jill Barnard

James, K.N., Werribee, the first one hundred years, Werribee District Historical Society, Melbourne, 1985. Details
Mantello, Maria, Now and then: The Sicilian farming community at Werribee Park, 1929-1949, Il Globo, Melbourne, 1986. Details