Old Shire Hall,
49 Watton Street,
(cnr Duncans Road)
Council chambers, Werribee Shire Hall, Werribee (Vic.), Halls - Werribee (Vic.), Buildings, Pitt, William,
Wyndham City LibrariesDate
When the centre of Werribee’s life shifted away from the river and towards the railway station, the Council began to plan for a new and bigger Shire hall and offices. They chose the prominent architect William Pitt, who had designed a number of well-known Melbourne buildings, including the Princess Theatre and the Rialto building. It was to be an impressive building!
Not all the onlookers were impressed. The correspondent for the Bacchus Marsh Express sniffed: ‘...the old hall was to be sold to realise nearly sufficient to build the new, but what was the result? They were offered a little over £200 for it.’ (The estimate for the new building was around £1500.) Ratepayers were not all happy with the idea; the roads were in a bad state, and Werribee still had no reticulated water or sewerage. When the Council members disagreed about which land to build on, the correspondent went on: ‘A number of the principal ratepayers... are pleased to hear of the division in our Council, and are in hopes that it will be the means of the postponement of this building for the present, at any rate, and they say should a quantity of rain fall this winter the heavy traffic in connection with the sewerage works would make our roads impassable in a fortnight.’
Bacchus Marsh Express, 25 March 1893, p.3
The lovely new building was finished on 30 December 1893. It stood in the heart of the business and shopping area, facing into Watton Street and towards the railway station. It had an arched entrance between two gabled bays. As well as the Council chamber and the President’s Room, there were offices where Council activities were organised: inspection of rolls and polling booth, payment of rates, and so on. The Council went into overdraft to pay for it. It was agreed early on, as Depression bit into ratepayers’ ability to pay their rates, that ratepayers should be allowed to write cheques on banks that had suspended payments; they could be held and honoured when the financial crisis was over.
With the removal of the centre of local government from the bluestone building by the river, the question arose about what to do with court hearings. The Solicitor-General felt they should continue to be held in the existing (bluestone) Shire offices, and that perhaps a court house should be built beside the police station and lock-up if they remained where they were. They did remain, at the opposite end of Watton Street from the new Council Chambers, for many years, but no court house appeared beside them.
Councillors were not always popular with ratepayers, and there were sometimes scathing comments in newspapers to let them know. Ratepayers were unhappy that Werribee had no mains water long after it was connected to the Board of Works farm, and no sewerage when it contributed so much to the sewering of Melbourne as a whole. The correspondent for the Bacchus Marsh Express made pointed comment about the Council’s failure to negotiate a water supply, and its ineffectual attempt (building a large water tank) to solve the problem: ‘The refusal of the Metropolitan Board of Works to allow Werribee to have any Yan Yean water, that in thousands of instances is running to waste in city and suburbs, should spur our Council (and the member for the district) to ascertain if such an obviously unjust law cannot be overridden. ... Through their ignorance the Shire has been put to considerable expense without any practical result, and all that is left to remind us of the brilliant scheme is a tank and stand - the tank empty'.
Bacchus Marsh Express, 8 April 1899, p.3
The Council also came under fire because of the long delay in establishing a post office. The Bacchus Marsh Express writer (Werribee had no newspaper of its own until the Werribee Banner began in 1911) had a particularly clear-eyed view of Werribee’s development. He warned of the danger of trying to find a compromise post office site – one that served neither part of the town. ‘There are two townships [he spoke of ‘Wyndham’ and ‘Werribee’] divided by the twisting of a river and the existence of a railway line. Common sense dictates that the present old-fashioned post-office on the Wyndham side of the river should remain there, as there is ample justification for its existence there as a purely local office. But it should be made a branch or receiving house for a central office placed on the railway reserve next the railway station. That is the commercial centre of the whole Shire...’
Bacchus Marsh Express, 12 March 1898, p.3
But the Council did not agree, and the Post Office was built in a compromise location.
In 1941, an extension was added to the back of the building. It provided space for community functions, and was put to use very quickly. One Saturday in September there was a fete in the afternoon as a fund-raiser for St.Vincent’s Hospital (prize – a pair of silk stockings), and a dance and euchre tournament in the evening to raise money for the Comforts Fund (Australian troops had already left for war service overseas, and the Fund provided extras for them).
Werribee Shire Banner, 2 October 1941, p.2
In 1981, with the Council housed in new and bigger premises on the Princes Highway, there was a plan to demolish the building – ‘a bulldozer sale sign on the window of the building’. Concerned citizens rallied; there were appeals to the Council, the Historical Society and the National Trust, and the building was saved.
Werribee Banner, 6 September 2006.
It now houses the offices of the Werribee Historical Society, and its Museum, and has space for community functions.