Altona & Laverton: The Story

Introduction

Where did the name Altona originate and how did it become the name of our suburb? Over the years, many versions of the story have been told and some of these were based on hearsay and local folklore. This is a version that is based on investigation and research that has taken some time to put together. It is grounded on records stretching back to the foundation of Melbourne as a fledgling settlement and village.

At this point, I would like to say that people often think that history is a science because it is about the past and the past is unchangeable. If we could travel into the past and observe events as they happened, then history would be an observational science, but we can’t do that. What we are left with are various documents and information that will only ever tell us what took place and sometimes when. As historians it is our job to look at this information and form conclusions based on what are reliable sources, what was happening in and around each event.

But after all, historians are just people. All people have personalities, bias and interests just like artists that paint pictures. The Historian gathers information like an artist looking at a still life subject. They then form their own interpretation when creating a painting. The following is based on my research, my thoughts and my bias. Let me share with you my conclusions and my perspective on why Altona is called Altona.

This is not a straightforward story and is one of many events and players so let’s introduce each one chronologically and by the end we will have the why to Altona the suburb.

Alfred Langhorne

Our first player, Alfred Langhorne, arrived at Port Jackson on April 29 1835, (aged 18). He quickly adapted to horse riding and the handling of sheep and cattle. With his brother, he founded a station at Dandenong in 1837, and overlanded cattle to Adelaide in the same year. The family may have also benefited greatly from its connection with the chief official in Port Phillip at the time, William Lonsdale. Lonsdale oversaw the founding of the settlement of Port Phillip as both Justice of the Peace and as general superintendent.  In 1838, Alfred was overlanding cattle from Sydney to Port Phillip when he encountered a young English migrant with German ancestry, Robert Wrede, who employed Alfred’s assistance in making his way to Melbourne. More about Robert later, because he also plays a key in the naming of Altona.

Eventually, Alfred made his way to Adelaide, where through business dealings, he met the August family and Sarah, who he later married. Returning to Melbourne in 1841, they initially resided in Stephen Street (now Exhibition Street) whilst they had a homestead built on land 11 miles South-West of Melbourne on the shores of Port Phillip. During 1841, materials arrived from Launceston and in 1842, the homestead reached completion.

The name Laverton came into being in 1842 when Alfred Langhorne had his brother-in-law Robert August occupy the Station as his overseer. It is believed that Alfred chose the homestead name of Laverton as a tribute to a property of similar name owned by his Grandmother in England. His closest neighbour was one Robert Wrede, who had built a homestead further east, about where Millers Road meets the Esplanade, but more about this later. Whether or not Robert settled here because of his association with Alfred is not known.

Alfred and Sarah lived on the property with their two children Alfred Robert Maskell and Alice Mary Ann (Marianne), until the family decided to travel to England around 1853 to place young Alfred Robert in school at Rugby. Alfred returned to Australia in 1867 and Sarah in 1868 but they had lost their daughter due to illness in 1861, whilst in England. Alfred returned to Laverton Homestead which was now in disrepair.  He employed his nephew Joseph William Cooke Langhorne to rehabilitate the estate. Sadly, Sarah passed away within three years of her return, in 1871. Consequently, Alfred, who was now on his own with his only child Alfred Robert still in England, put the property up for sale three years later. The Laverton Station and estate property were eventually sold to John Lecky Phelps and his brother Joseph James Phelps. Alfred then resided in St Kilda where he passed away in August 1874.

The Laverton Estate appears on a number of early survey maps produced for the colony – firstly in 1842 and secondly in 1861.

Robert Wrede

Our second player within our story is Robert Wrede. Robert was born the third child of Herman Wrede and Agnes (Miller) Wrede, 1817, in London. His father Herman Wrede is understood to have been born about 1770 possibly in or near Hamburg, Germany. Altona is a suburb north-west of Hamburg so this may have been Herman’s birthplace, or where he grew up. Herman Wrede was an established and renowned woodwind and piano manufacturer and sales agent operating in London.

The Journals of Robert Wrede reveal that at the age of 20, his travelled during the period 1837-1841 from England, via Cape Town, to Sydney, then overland to Melbourne, by sea to Van Diemen’s Land, back to Melbourne, Adelaide, Singapore, India, London and eventually returning to Melbourne in 1842, where he settled and eventually died in 1857.

Wrede began his venture with the aim of promoting the sale of musical instruments and pianos as part of his father’s business, and also to carry out the trade of piano tuning when he could, as a means of earning an income. He journeyed to Melbourne after arriving in Sydney on 30 May 1838, departing with two companions (Brown & Lang) on 19 June 1838. He encountered trouble during the journey when crossing a stream with his horse. He then sought assistance from a passerby, and later when the problem was resolved, sought enquires as to the ‘Port Phillip Road’. He was advised to go with a companion to a hut 24 miles distant, and to wait a few days until a young man who was stopping there, Alfred Langhorne, was ready to proceed with cattle Stock to Port Phillip.

On 30 June 1838, Wrede and Langhorne departed for Port Phillip and arrived in Melbourne on 16 July 1838, where Wrede sold his horse, saddle and bridle, but was disappointed to find that he would have to wait to obtain passage by ship to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) as no vessels were in port. The likely wait was for two weeks. He immediately took the opportunity to begin making contacts locally for possible business sales, as he considered there was a need for musical instruments to be used for entertainment of the local residents.

Wrede visited Langhorne’s brother, the Reverend George Langhorne, at his Mission Station. Shortly after, he departed Melbourne for Hobart before returning to Melbourne, sometime later, where he sought out and met with Alfred Langhorne. The following year he travelled to Adelaide looking for business opportunities and in the same year returned to Melbourne via Van Diemen’s Land. Later that year, he travelled to Sydney for business and then sailed to London via Calcutta. Robert eventually returned to Australia, arriving at Port Phillip aboard “The Eagle” from London in 1842, and bringing stock items with him. He was married in 1843 to Mary Hodgson.

His journal notes that he set up his first permanent homestead named ‘Altona’ in the area that is now known by that name. It goes on to mention that he had a flourishing Station. Apparently a little after this time misfortune set in, as the general economy in Victoria was not good, there were problems over land deals, he was in debt to musical instrument suppliers and others in London and Europe, and it was becoming difficult to sell his goods in a depressed market. He was forced to sell some land and stock to his father-in-law. It appears that in 1850, the 125 acres known as Altona was sold to William Lyall, an early settler in the Werribee area. It appears that Lyall held the land until about 1880, when he sold the property to the Phelps family.

Wrede died on 21 December 1857 aged 40 years, and is understood to have been buried at Kew Cemetery.

Phelps Brothers

Let’s recap on what we have so far. We have two homesteads or stations now located in the vicinity of what is now Altona. Langhorne’s Laverton Estate, near what is to become Pier Street, and Logan Reserve and Wrede’s Altona Estate, at the southern end of Millers Road. But this area is still neither a village nor a town.

Our story continues with John Lecky Phelps and his brother Joseph James Phelps who purchased Alfred Langhorne’s estate in 1874 in a private transfer, then in the early 1880’s purchased the land holding that was once owned by Robert Wrede. What this meant was that Laverton Estate and Altona Estate properties were now combined. There was a third brother, Robert Lecky Phelps, who appears not to have been involved in this initial transaction was in the colony at the time and remained here when his brothers had returned to Ireland.

The brothers did not appear to occupy the estate themselves and appointed an overseer, William McPherson and his family, to manage the property. The Laverton Homestead housed the family of four plus some workers. The property was still productive with 500 acres sown with alfafa and oats.

When John Lecky Phelps died on 28 May 1881 while in Florence, Italy, his brother Robert Phelps and an associate, Nicholas Sadlier, were the appointed Australian executors of his will. One of the assets to be sold was the Laverton property. In the process of winding up John Phelps’ estate and because Joseph owned the other 50 percent of the property, Joseph applied to the Supreme Court, in the case JJ Phelps v RL Phelps and N Sadlier, to be permitted to purchase the property for a ‘fair’ price. This was granted and by early 1884 the property was now solely in the hands of Joseph Phelps.

It is now some 13 years since Alfred Langhorne had sold his estate and passed away, but his legacy is still operating strongly and his Homestead, whilst much redeveloped, is still central to the entire station or run, and includes the previous Wrede property. This fact is critical for the events that are about to transpire, including the land sales that took place in 1886, further west of the Laverton Homestead.

Alfred Thomas Clark

Our next key person within the forming and naming of this area of Melbourne is Alfred Thomas Clark. Clark, a politician and businessman, was born in London in 1845. In 1871 he resigned from this position and stood within the Victorian general elections to represent the people of Williamstown. In his seventeen years as member for Williamstown, he pursued a radical, protectionist policy and strongly supported the 1872 Education Act and Berry’s dismissal of the civil servants in 1878. Clark was also the founder of the Williamstown Advertiser in 1874 and served two terms as the President of the Williamstown Football Club from 1873 to 1875 and from 1882 to 1887.

Alfred Clark had big aspirations for the expansion of Melbourne’s suburbs westward beyond Williamstown, Footscray, Yarraville and Newport. Industry was growing in the area and he saw an opportunity. With his capital, necessary to buy land, he set forth to create a vision. By 1886, he had already opened up two estates near the Williamstown recourse and by 1886, had moved further west along the Newport-Geelong railway to the open plains approximately halfway between Newport and Werribee. At public expense, he had the government build a railway station where he planned to sub-divide land and set out the ‘model suburb’. His problem was that he did not have a name for this suburb. His initial choice of Truganina was already taken, so he borrowed the name of the neighbouring homestead that he was negotiating to buy, and hence named his new railway station and suburb ‘Laverton’.

It was not long after the commencement of land sales in the new model suburb of Laverton that Clark was looking for new opportunities to expand the sale of land and also his wealth. In 1887, the Williamstown Advertiser reported that he was purchasing the large estate previously owned by the Phelps brothers. He had the area surveyed for subdivision and gas and water distributed to the new estate. He purchased part of the estate for £165,000, which was 5 times the orginal price paid by the Phelps.  Clark then formed a syndicate – the ‘Altona and Laverton Bay Freehold and Investment Company’ to whom he resold the land. His naming of this company incorporated both of the original Homesteads/Pastoral Stations.

Initially the area was referred to as Laverton Bay, but by 1888 the name had been changed to Altona to distinguish it from the Laverton township. The name Altona was the original name given by R W Wrede to his homestead but had not been used since his death in 1857. Before the estate was open for sales, the original syndicate sold the land to a new syndicate titled ‘Altona Bay Estate Company’ of which only David Munro was transferred from the previous syndicate. The purchase price was £175,000. On 26 Mar 1889, Joseph Phelps sold a further part of the property to the Altona Bay Estate Company Limited. In July 1891, following Joseph Phelps’ death in 13 April 1890, Robert Lecky Phelps (Joseph’s brother) and John James Phelps (Robert’s son) called in the balance owing on the Laverton property which was originally outstanding from A T Clark, but considering that he had onsold this to the Altona Bay Estate Company Limited, the amount would be due by the Company.

Altona Bay Estate Co. Limited

The new syndicate was the ‘Altona Bay Estate Co. Limited’ of which David Munro was the only person of the former syndicate to join the new one. The other members of the new syndicate were John Blyth (who appeared to be the leader), James Seves Hosie, Henry Upton Alcock, William H. Peryman and Ross K. McCartney. It should also be mentioned that the land surveyor of the Estate, was Nathaniel Munro who had been employed to survey a number of new Estates across Melbourne during the preceding period. He was also the brother of David Munro and a well-known acquaintance of the Premier, Mr Thomas Bent.

The first sale took place on 8 September 1888, with special trains running from Spencer Street railway station and steamers leaving from Queens Wharf and also from Sandridge (Port Melbourne). A vast multitude of about 3,000 people arrived at the sale and just after 3 p.m., the advertised starting time, the Auctioneer and Company Director, Mr. Peryman, mounted the rostrum and commenced the sale. The first lot sold (No. 19) situated on the comer of the Esplanade and Pier Street was sold for £13 ($26) a foot frontage, after the bidding started at £5. On the first day of the sales, 281 lots were sold, and over the following five weeks a further 717 lots were sold. However, within two years the land prices and sales crashed, resulting in a number of casualties who were heavily mortgaged based on values that were no long there.

While a large number of lots were sold by 1915, the population of what was now Altona was about 50 people with 15 dwellings. In this fashion, ‘Altona Bay’ was born and named. Just up the railway line west of Altona was the town of Laverton, which had had a two year head start and hence was somewhat more in the early years.

There we have it, the birth of two new towns in the West and how they gained their names from the early, if not the first, pastoral stations on Melbourne’s western plains.

References:

Northwood, E W, 2000, The Langhorne Brothers as Overlanders and Merchants, Bradley WIlliam Keeling, Sydney;

Nicholls, P, 2012, A Wonderful Change, the Story of Robert Wrede including his journal 1837 – 41;

Bick, D V, 1988, Homestead Altona Conservation Analysis prepared for the City of Altona;

Williamstown Chronicle, 10 September 1887 page 3;

H. Elsum, The History of Williamstown: From its First Settlement to a City, 1834-1934 (Williamstown, 1934);

Deirdre Rofe, ‘Clark, Alfred Thomas (1845–1888)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.

Altona Star, 11 November 1970 to 27 January 1971, Allan Clark;

Clark, Allan, 1974, ‘A History of Altona’, Altona Historical Society;

Cannon, Michael, 1967, The Land Boomers, Melbourne University Press, London, New York;

Williamstown Advertiser, 1885 to 1888

Priestley, Susan, 1988, Altona A Long View, Hargreen Publishing Company

The Argus, 1874 to 1889

The Age, 1874 to 1889

 

Research: Graeme Reilly & Ann Cassar (ALHS) 2019/2020

Editing: Michelle Yu