Prior to European settlement the area around Lake Colac was occupied by the Kolijon or Coladjin Aborigines and the town's name is thought either to derive from this tribal name or from a Kolijon word referring to the ‘fresh water’ of Lake Colac. Accounts of the number of indigenous people living in the area when white people arrived vary, but there were mostly likely several hundred living in tribes camped around the resources offered by the lake. John Co-Coc-Coine, known as 'King of the Warrions', was the last chief of the local tribe and died in 1865.
The first European to settle in the area was the pastoralist Hugh Murray, who arrived on The Gem at Geelong in 1837 after first trying Tasmania. It was also in 1837 that the explorers Joseph Gellibrand and George Hesse went missing in the area. Their bodies were never found and they were presumed to have been killed by Aborigines. Their names are honoured in the township of Gellibrand, a river, and as Colac street names.
With other pastoralists Murray headed west from Geelong. Thomas Austin stopped to establish Barwon Park near what is now Winchelsea. Twenty years later Austin would make the fatal mistake of releasing rabbits onto his estate. In a few years they reached plague proportions and prompted the construction of the stone walls which distinguish the area. A canning factory built in 1871 canned millions of rabbits for export to the UK. The Duke of Edinburgh visited the Colac area in 1867, but left scars of resentment caused by his snubbing of Colac with an abbreviated visit cut short by extending a stopover with Thomas Austin at Winchelsea when hunting parties slaughtered thousands of rabbits. In 1880 the First Rabbit Act was passed, making landowners responsible for the destruction of rabbits on their own property.
Hugh Murray continued west, settling near Barongarook Creek at the southern end of Lake Colac and building his first homestead in 1840 in what is now Chapel Street. Colac’s main street, now part of the Princes Highway, is named in Murray’s honour.
Murray Street, Colac, in the late 1850s, for much of the year a muddy quagmire.
A number of early settlers contributed to the country's pastoral history, establishing substantial enterprises, building impressive homesteads, some of which still stand today, and playing important roles in the area’s European settlement.
Significant amongst them was William Robertson who in 1837 purchased a large area of land to settle his family to the north of Colac, what is now Cororooke, Coragulac and Alvie. Alexander Dennis established his 'Warncoort' run near Birregurra. In 1880 he successfully crossed Merino and Lincoln sheep to create the Polwarth breed of sheep suited to higher rainfall. John Calvert developed the Dreeite-Cotswold breed on the 'Irrewarra' run he established in 1840, also near Birregurra. He married Hugh Murray's sister, and also ran Shetland pony and shorthorn cattle studs.
Thornbank, the home built in the 1850s by Edward Bage, the district surveyor, and his wife Anna.
In 1839 Francis Tuckfield established the Methodist Buntingdale Misssion near where Birregurra is today, in an enlightened adventure which ended with the burning of the mission buildings in 1851.
The town settlement at Colac vies with Buninyong near Ballarat as the earliest settlement in Victoria outside Melbourne, one of the earlier townships in the Port Phillip district. It emerged around a coaching inn established in 1844, near Hugh Murray’s run, at the southern end of Lake Colac, at what is now the corner of Hesse and Murray Streets.
By the early 1850s, with the population recorded as 672, much of Colac’s infrastructure was in place, including the post office, churches, courts, schools, public pound. With the first bridge over the Barongarook Creek built in 1855, business was booming. There were hotels, a wheelwright, blacksmith, carpenters, butchers, general stores, hotels, a brickmaking works and the first flour mill started in 1852 and the first bank in 1864. Some enterprises failed to meet expectations, such as gold and coal mining, a salt works at Beeac, and an unsuccessful attempt in 1865 to extract sugar from grass-tree plants.
Adam Rae's store in east Colac in the late 1850s.
In 1864 Colac was proclaimed a shire and Colac's first newspaper, the Observer, was published in 1866. The Observer and its fierce rival, the Herald, eventually merged to become the Colac Herald which is still today published three times a week. The railway from Geelong and Melbourne arrived in Colac in 1877 and was soon followed by lines connecting Colac to nearby townships such as Forrest and Beeac and the narrow gauge line into the Otways around the turn of the century. The first hospital was built in 1879, while the first community hospital in Victoria was opened at Colac in 1934.
Some of the larger old pastoral runs, such as the huge holdings of the Robertson
family, were subdivided late in the nineteenth century for closer settlement
and this process was intensified by further subdivisions after World War
I for soldier settlement schemes. The settlement became a borough in 1938,
a town in 1948 and a city in 1960.
Images courtesy the Colac Historical Society.