Article, Old Shire Hall (Masonic Lodge)
The earliest local government body in Werribee was the Wyndham District Roads Board, formed in 1862. Its first meetings were held in Elliott Armstrong’s hotel, now the Racecourse Hotel. The Shire of Wyndham was proclaimed in 1864, and the new Shire set about getting a building in which to operate. Land was chosen in a busy part of the infant settlement near the Police Reserve, at the corner of Greaves Street and Synnot Street in Werribee, near the river.
Werribee History Kit, B. Hickman, 1992.
When Robert Roberts’ tender of £529 for the building was accepted, he was given a permit to quarry the bluestone in the Shire, and to get sand from the railway land. He finished the building early in 1868. In its early days there were complaints that there was no lighting – the Council met during the day, and if meetings went on into evening, lights had to be borrowed. (It was well before the days of gaslight or electricity.) There were also grumbles that the furniture was inadequate, but this was gradually improved.
The Plains of Iramoo, Esther Murray, 1974.
Not only was the building now the formal centre of local government, it was also the court house – handy to the police station and the lock-up!
And it was soon put to use by the community: a public reading to raise money for the School fund; a magic lantern show (forerunner of PowerPoint, but without the writing!); a well-attended evening arranged by the Werribee Band of Hope.
Bacchus Marsh Express, 30 December 1898, p.3
The Loyal Wyndham Lodge of the M.U.I.O.O.F. (to which members contributed for common benefits of health and welfare) held its meetings there.
Independent (Footscray), 12 March 1898, p.3
The Young People's Improvement Association held social nights, at which "... each member was supposed to contribute something to the enjoyment of the evening. Some made up their part by bringing eatables, and others contributed to the programme".
Bacchus Marsh Express, 1 May 1897, p.3
The Commercial Bank of Australia rented one of the rooms for one day a week, and, when business was good, moved to daily opening.
Independent (Footscray), 12 March 1898, p.3
[Unable to verify newspaper article. Ed.]
It was also used by the churches. When the Presbyterian Sunday School held a picnic in the park on Good Friday 1896, lunch and a substantial afternoon tea were laid on in the bluestone Hall.
The Bacchus Marsh Express, 11 April 1896, p.3
The Wesleyan (Methodist) Church began services there at the end of 1895.
Williamstown Chronicle, 30 November 1895, p.2
and used it for a variety of religious and social functions. When the Wesleyan minister, Rev. A. P. Doran, preached his farewell sermon in the crowded new wooden Methodist church, "...he well remembered the first congregation that he preached to in Werribee in the old Shire hall, consisting of 7 persons".
The Bacchus Marsh Express, 8 April 1899, p.3
But while community groups were happy to use the building, the Councillors were aware that the township of Werribee was growing up at the other end of Watton Street, around the railway station. There was talk of a new building nearer the centre of things, and a more convenient one for Council purposes. They consulted the Crown Law Office about the sessions of Court. The Solicitor-General ‘considered that the court cases could continue to be held in the [existing] Shire Hall, as no other site had been reserved. If the Police Station and lockup remained permanently, the Court House might possibly be built on part of that ground'.
Independent (Footscray), 7 January 1893, p.2
But no court house was built there. There was also discussion about incorporating a court house into the new Shire building, but this didn’t happen. The Court continued to be held in the bluestone Shire Hall beside the river.
Discussions about a new building went on for some time. The correspondent for The Bacchus Marsh Express (Werribee had no newspaper of its own until the Banner began in 1911) sided with residents who thought the money could be better spent on badly need roads. The claim that the sale of the bluestone building would cover much of the cost of the new premises had been wildly inaccurate; according to the Express it raised £200 and the new building would be six or seven times that amount. If the police court and post office had been included, the Colonial government would have contributed to the cost, but this didn’t happen, so the Council would be carrying the cost alone.
The Bacchus Marsh Express, 25 March 1893, p.3
So if the Councillors wanted to go on arguing about a new site – and they did, because the block they had chosen was withdrawn from sale and they had to start again – then some ratepayers would not mind at all!
The decision was finally made, and land near the top end of Watton Street, facing towards the Railway Station, was decided on. The impressive new building was finally opened in December 1894, and the bluestone building by the river – while continuing its busy social schedule – settled down into comfortable retirement from official life.
Its continued existence gives Werribee an unusual distinction, in that it has three civic buildings still intact.