Sailor, artist, businessman and iconoclast, Wilbraham Liardet was one of early Melbourne’s most unique inhabitants.
Wilbraham Frederick Evelyn Liardet was born in Chelsea, London, in July 1799. His family was military; both his father and grandfather had been officers in the Army, and Wilbraham joined the service himself as a teenager. He saw active duty in both the Navy and the Army.
But Liardet had a restless personality, and he found army life stifling.
At 28 he took early retirement, with a modest pension, and worked a variety of odd jobs to make ends meet. He also married his cousin, Phillipa Evelyn (the daughter of another military officer) and started a family. By 1839, the Liardet’s had nine children (two others did not survive infancy).
This was also the year that Liardet decided to try his luck in Australia.
In July 1839, the Liardet’s sailed for Sydney in the schooner ‘William Metcalf’. They were originally bound for Sydney, but after the three month journey, the ship put in to Melbourne for several weeks.
Liardet liked the look of the fledgling city, the first European settlers had arrived only in 1835, and decided, spur of the moment, to settle in Melbourne instead.
From him we have some of the earliest depcitions of colonial Melbourne. Liardet was an enthusiastic amateur painter, and created an enormous trove of water colours that detailed life in the new city.
With his large family, and restless nature, Liardet craved space.
And so, rather than settle in the city itself, he decided to live just off the beach, south of the township. Today known as Port Melbourne, the area then was known as Sandridge, and was uninhabited.
But Liardet was not the first eccentric to take this swampy, windswept location for his place of residence.
William Wedge Darke was a young, British born surveyor who was assigned to Melbourne when the city was formally recognised by the government. He arrived in 1836 to assist famed chief surveyor Robert Hoddle with laying out the city and the initial suburbs.
But the two men did not get along.
Darke had a short temper and an ill-disguised contempt for stuffy formality, and so quickly clashed with the upright, by-the-book Hoddle. Eventually, tension between the two men became so acute that Darke effectively went into exile.
He acquired a large, wooden caravan, stocked it with basic furnishings, his library of natural history books, and a piano, and had it hauled down to the beach south of the city by two bullocks. As far, in other words, as he could get from Hoddle without abandoning his position.
The story goes that he was the first European to live on the beach, hacking a path through the thick, low scrub to the waterline. He marked this path with a barrel attached to a wooden pole, that had an arrow pointing back towards the city.
In this flat area, the barrel signpost could be seen for miles, sitting atop its ridge of sand. And so the area was dubbed ‘Sandridge’.
Darke worked out of his caravan for the next three years. When he was home, he often went without clothes, and discouraged visitors. A keen natural history enthusiast, he also assembled a large collection of native animals, keeping them in cages and pens dotted around his caravan, while he studied them and took copious notes.
The locals dubbed it ‘Darke’s Ark.’
Darke eventually returned to life in the city, and left Melbourne for Sydney in 1843. He abandoned his caravan when he left, and locals used it as a makeshift changing room, when they went swimming.
But Liardet was the first European to make Sandridge his permanent home.
His large family camped initially in canvas tents, while he set about building a house for them, out of local timber that he cut down himself. This rickety cottage soon expanded into a sprawling, many roomed residence.
This was large enough for him to start a business out of; Liardet operated a basic tavern out of one of the rooms, serving wine, port and whiskey. He grandly dubbed this bare bones operation ‘The Brighton Pier Hotel.’
He also built a small jetty, and acquired a wooden dinghy from a cargo boat at dock.
This allowed Liardet to operate his second business; as boats anchored off Melbourne, he would row out to them and offer to collect and distribute any mail that they had. The volume of shipping arriving in the city, and the rapidly growing city itself, soon turned this into a lucrative sideline.
Liardet was able to expand both his house and tavern, and build a second, more robust jetty. As well as painting, Liardet was an accomplished musician, and would entertain patrons at the pub by playing guitar and singing folk songs. On special occasions he also organised horse races, sailing regattas, and archery tournaments.
The Brighton Pier Hotel became one of the most well known recreation spots in Melbourne. Locals no longer referred to the areas as Sandridge; now they called it ‘Liardet’s Beach’.
Liardet turned the running of the pub over to his sons in 1845, and returned to puruse an insurance claim against the government (unsuccessfully).
The next few years of his life had a nomadic flavour, as he shuttled back and forth between England, Australia, an New Zealand (where he built a residence in Wellington). Peiordically, he returned to run ‘The Brighton Pier Hotel’ as well.
During the gold rush in the 1850s, Liardet’s older sons started their own shipping and transport company, which made them both wealthy. Liardet himself was well situated enough that he could retire.
He set to work on a life long ambition; a history of Melbourne, illustrated with his own watercolours. Sadly, the manuscript was not completed when he died, in Wellington, in 1878.
The Brighton Pier Hotel is still in operation to this day, now rebuilt and rebadged 'The Pier' although the sleek modern building is far removed from the hand made wooden shack, that once stood on the same spot.