William Dutton

William Dutton (1811-1878). Glenelg Shire Council Cultural Collection.

He harpooned one of the very first whales in Portland Bay and he also killed the very last – William Dutton was a stalwart of the whaling industry in Portland.

And although it may be slightly contentious, there is little argument nowadays that Dutton was also the very first settler of the town, having lived in Portland Bay during the whaling season since 1829.

Whaling was an extremely lucrative business and would have contributed immensely to the establishment of the unsettled Portland region, and it is William Dutton who is credited with bringing that economic kick-starter to Portland.

"It is understandable that, in overall Victorian history, William Dutton should receive nothing more than a mention," states J.G. Wiltshire, in his book William Dutton and the Sealing and Whaling Industries.


Ogdens cigarette card towing in

From a set of cigarette cards produced by Ogden’s Cigarettes in 1927. Acquired 2011. Glenelg Shire Council Cultural Collection.

"There were sealers and whalers exploring the coasts of this country long before he did; but, so far as Portland itself is concerned, William Dutton was the original Portland citizen. Dutton was Australian born. He was the first in many of Portland's activities, and that statement can be made without fear of valid contradiction or argument. He built the first house in July 1829."

Portland historian Bernard Wallace agrees there is very little argument now that Dutton was indeed the first settler of the town of Portland, but he points out that he did not live there permanently, only coming in for the whaling and sealing seasons each year.

He was, however, the man entrusted to establish a "whaling colony" in Portland, and that he did in the early 1830s, overseeing the building of a port and factory for the Griffiths Whaling Firm.


whale tooth 2

Scrimshaw whale’s tooth with whale hunt scene, 1836. Inscribed on reverse “Portland - 700 tons of oil harvested”. Acquired 2015. Glenelg Shire Council Cultural Collection.

Bernard explains that whaling was a huge industry in the Portland area between the early 1830s and the late 1840s, creating employment, economic activity and wealth for the early pioneers of the district.

At the whaling industry's height, teams were catching dozens of whales per season with the year 1838 recorded as the peak – seven whaling firms were operating and by August they had taken more than 100 whales yielding more than 650 tonnes of oil.

Although sketchy, overall numbers show there could have been up to 2,000 tonnes of whale oil shipped out of Portland over the years the industry operated there, representing some 275-350 whales in total.

"Portland's reason to be in the 1830s was whaling," Bernard says.

"Most of the settlement's population was connected with whaling, as were most of the settlement's buildings and infrastructure. Most of the other industries in Portland were there to support whaling."


Seal hunting WEB

From a set of cigarette cards produced by Ogden’s Cigarettes in 1927. Acquired 2011. Glenelg Shire Council Cultural Collection.

Bernard says that while the industry was extremely lucrative, the costs of running a whaling enterprise were high – costly infrastructure was needed and it was labour intensive, requiring skilled and experienced labour that demanded high wages.

So it is no surprise that Portland's whaling industry was short-lived. It began to decline in the early 1840s and ended in earnest by late that century.

"By 1843 there were only three small whaling teams at Portland. They apparently took 13 whales in a single week – a very good haul – but only 20 for the entire season," Bernard says.

"The teams had lessening degrees of success over the coming years with some teams departing the area but the 1847 season was the nail in the coffin – it was disastrous. It was fortunate that wool was now playing a large role in the economic life of Portland as by 1849, large-scale industrial whaling in Portland Bay was over although whales continued to be hunted sporadically right up until 1868."


William Dutton Grave

William Dutton’s grave at Narrawong Cemetery. Image: Kirsten Jones

Bernard says the industry's pioneer Dutton was there right to the end.

"The last whale to be taken in Portland Bay fell to the harpoon of Dutton," he says.

"On 21 August 1868, a large whale was sighted in the bay. A number of would-be whalers gathered and Dutton was elected to lead the hunt. After several old whaleboats and equipment from the past were mobilised, the hunters set out.

"After a short, sharp chase, the whale was harpooned by William Kirkham and lanced by Dutton. After a drawn-out struggle, the whale died two hours later. It was said to have been Dutton's hundredth whale kill."

Click here to view a newspaper clipping titled 'Local Intelligence' from the Portland Guardian in 1843.

Why was whale oil in such high demand in the early years of Australian settlement?

How did a whale hunt in Portland Bay typically unfold?

What happened to William Dutton after the decline of the whaling industry – did he stay in Portland?

To find the answers to all these questions and more, visit Glenelg Shire Council's museum and research centre History House, where you will find drawings and paintings, newspaper articles and documents about William Dutton and the whaling industry. You can also visit the Portland Maritime Discovery Centre where you will find historical memorabilia and information about the whaling industry and Dutton, plus a whale skeleton on display. And you'll also find passionate volunteers willing to share their immense knowledge with you!

History House – Museum and Research Centre
Cliff Street, Portland VIC 3305 (PO Box 409)
Phone: (03) 5522 2266 
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Open daily 10am-noon and 1pm-4pm. Closed Good Friday and Christmas Day

Portland Maritime Discovery Centre

Lee Breakwater Road, Portland VIC 3305
Phone: 1800 035 567
Open 9am-5pm daily except Christmas Day.