The ghost stories of Port Fairy

JULIE Hoey was 13 when she saw her first ghost in Port Fairy.

It was 6am and she was riding her pushbike past the Port Fairy cemetery on her way to feed her uncle’s racehorses when something caught her eye.

Ms Hoey stopped riding and watched as a lady dressed in an “old English” red dress ran through the cemetery.

“She was about 21 years old – she looked young – and she was barefooted with brown curly hair,” Ms Hoey said.

“She was running, and there was a truck coming, and as she was running she turned and ran into the truck and disappeared. I’ll never forget it. I thought it was a lady committing suicide, and then I realised when she went into the truck it had to be a ghost. There was no way it could be anything else.”

It started a fascination with ghosts that has continued for Ms Hoey to this day.

“I’d go out every weekend and at the pubs I’d ask anyone if they’d seen ghosts and start talking,” she said. 

“I’d tell people about the lady in red and they’d tell me their story. I’d gather all the stories in my head and know who’d told me them. I’m so interested in people who have seen ghosts.”

Enter writer Tracie Griffith, who overheard Ms Hoey’s spooky knowledge while working behind the bar of the Victoria Hotel.

“She’s a walking encyclopedia for this stuff,” Ms Griffith said of Ms Hoey.

“I was taking notes and I couldn’t take them fast enough. I said ‘can we meet up to talk about this?’.”

Just days earlier, Ms Griffith had had a similarly ghostly conversation with local artist Berit Hampel, where they had discussed combining artwork with Port Fairy ghost stories. Soon after, Ms Griffith gathered together Ms Hampel, Ms Hoey, local historian Maria Cameron, Port Fairy’s previous ghost tour operator Rod Muir, with the aim of collecting the town’s many ghost stories.

Julie Hoey and Tracie Griffith are part of the Port Fairy Ghost Stories team. Picture: Morgan Hancock

Julie Hoey and Tracie Griffith are part of the Port Fairy Ghost Stories team. Picture: Morgan Hancock

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OLD Joe used to live upstairs at The Stump, back in the days when drinking on Sundays was prohibited. He was a regular at the illegal Sabbath booze-ups that happened behind closed doors at the pub, so when he didn’t come downstairs one Sunday to partake, his drinking buddies became suspicious.

Upon heading upstairs, they found Old Joe dead in bed. After much discussion, his fellow drinkers decided they weren’t going to interrupt their drinking session by alerting the authorities and so left him where he lay until the day’s imbibing was done. 

One version of the story goes that the drinking buddies eventually headed upstairs to bring Joe down so he could be taken to the morgue, by which point rigor mortis had set in. As they struggled to get the body down The Stump’s narrow stairs, Old Joe expelled a large amount of air, as corpses sometimes do. One of the drinkers promptly dropped Old Joe’s legs.

“If he can fart, he can walk!” the fellow said.

Julie Hoey and Tracie Griffith in the staircase of The Stump.

Julie Hoey and Tracie Griffith in the staircase of The Stump.

Some takes on the story suggest Old Joe’s legs were broken as he was manoeuvred downstairs, while another version says Joe’s cause of death involved a blow to the head from an angered lover. 

Whatever the truth may be – if there is any truth to the story – the aftermath of all this is that Old Joe is said to haunt The Stump’s top floor, making it a popular stop on the sold-out ghost tours Ms Griffith and co have been running during the Winter Weekend festivals in Port Fairy.

However the team has struggled to find any historical accounts or modern-day sightings of Old Joe, despite the prevalence of his story.

“We would love to hear from anyone who knows the story of Old Joe, who died in one of the attic rooms at The Stump early last century,” Ms Griffith writes on the team’s website (portfairyghoststories.com).

Ms Griffith said the team started with a “rumour file” of about 30 ghost stories from around Port Fairy.

“We then try to verify it with a first-person account of a ghostly experience or a published secondary source,” she said.

“We’re collecting folklore, we’re not trying to prove the existence of ghosts. There’s far more history attached to these stories than I’d anticipated.”

About 25 people have contributed first-hand accounts of ghostly encounters to the book project so far.

She said there were some great stories that remained unverified, such as the tale of Jonathan Griffiths, who was said to haunt a section of Gipps Street along the banks of the Moyne where he was said to be buried.

“We’ve been told heaps of people have seen that ghost, but we can’t find anyone,” Ms Griffith said.

While they’re still compiling the stories for their book – due out in December – at the moment they’re focused on relating their accumulated tales on the Winter Weekends ghost tours. They ran two sold-out bus trips last weekend and have two more (also sold out) happening at the final festival on July 22.

The tours take in The Stump, the Royal Oak Hotel, St John’s Anglican Church, the ANZ building, Seacombe House, the Merrijig Inn, Douglas House, Woodbine, the Moyne River, the cemetery, Talara, and the scene of the horrific 1916 Cox Street axe murder.

Seacombe House

Seacombe House

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ONE of Port Fairy’s best known ghost stories is the tale of Lloyd Rutledge, who was 38 and drunk when he missed the top step in Cooinda, the stately home he’d built in Port Fairy. He hit all of the other stairs on the way down, fatally breaking his neck. It was December 17, 1858.

On the day of his funeral, a summer storm crashed and sparked over the heads of the mourners. The horses carrying the coffin were spooked, dropping the late Mr Rutledge on the ground.

In the pouring rain, his friends picked up the coffin and carried it the remaining 300 yards, only to lose their grip lowering it into the grave, landing Mr Rutledge head first to rest in peace. Apparently, Mr Rutledge was none too pleased about this and is said to rise from the grave and return to Cooinda every December 17.

Sounds like that would be a good night to hold a ghost tour.

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Check out the Port Fairy Ghost Stories website here.

Read more about the ghosts of the south-west here.

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