There is a myth, widely reported, that a Captain James Wishart sailed his whaler the Fairy into a little bay in south-west Victoria, Australia, to shelter from a storm in 1810. There he discovered a safe anchorage at the mouth of a river, later named the river Moyne. Returning there on subsequent whaling expeditions, as is often stated, James Wishart eventually founded the picturesque fishing village of Port Fairy (pictured above) which is named after his ship.
This story has now been exposed as a historical myth by Jenny Fawcett, in her new book Captain Henry Wishart of Port Fairy Bay, detailed here . Her research supports a conflicting claim by J.R. Carroll, who states that the Fairy was skippered by a Captain Henry Wishart, and that he named the town Port Fairy in 1828.
The Moyne River harbour is at the heart of Port Fairy, providing a safe anchorage for both fishing boats and pleasure craft. It is now a thriving tourist destination.
What is not in doubt is that the town is named after the cutter Fairy. The established history states that Captain “James” Wishart was a whaler working from Van Dieman’s Land, now Tasmania. He and his crew of two sailed up the Moyne river in his little cutter the Fairy on 25th April 1810, the morning after the storm. This proved to be an excellent source of fresh water, and he named the natural harbour and safe anchorage they found there after his boat. For a myth, this is an amazingly precise account – but then mythical accounts often are elaborated with creative details.
Jenny Fawcett’s alternative account states that Captain Henry Wishart named Port Fairy for his cutter the Fairy when he and his crew visited the bay whilst in search of convict absconders, who had stolen one of their valuable sealing craft from nearby Portland Bay. This was in 1828, not in 1810 as in the received account.
Jenny’s research on Henry Wishart includes his discovery of Lady’s Bay near Corner Inlet, and his time ashore at Western Port in 1826. Her book also follows Wishart’s service in the sealing and whaling industries and provides an account of his being held hostage by Taranaki natives in New Zealand. It includes accounts of Isaac David Nichols, the Fairy’s owner and son of Australia’s first official postmaster, who accompanied Wishart to Port Fairy.
For several years Captain Wishart returned to this haven, and soon other sealers and whalers were using it. Many of them built small cottages along the river, thus founding the town, and some have been carefully preserved. By the mid-1800s Port Fairy was the second busiest seaport in Australia, after Sydney. The quaint Caledonian Inn, pictured below, also dates from the period and is said to be the oldest continuously licensed hotel in Victoria.
It seems likely that early historians knew that Port Fairy was named after the cutter Fairy by the Captain Wishart who discovered it – they just couldn’t remember his name. Perhaps Henry Wishart was related to a James Wishart? We also know of a Thomas Wishart working as a whaler from Tasmania. It would be interesting if they were all members of the same whaling family.
Dr David Wishart