Sleepy town of Dennington awakens to a new era

WHEN the clock ticked over to usher in the new millennium, the tight-knit townsfolk of Dennington happily raised their glass for more of the same to come.

The once-sleepy little town on the banks of the Merri River was thriving, its small but fiercely loyal population proudly calling their riverside community home.

The Nestlé factory was booming with 360 people working in the coffee and milk departments, while the Shamrock Hotel, Miles Butchers, the Dennington Milkbar, St John’s Primary School and the Dennington Kindergarten meant the locals didn’t have to venture too far for whatever they needed.

It was a spirit of independence that had been Dennington’s trademark since the town first came into being back in 1856.

In the 1840s the only way to cross the Merri River in and out of Warrnambool’s west entrance was via a punt which operated only during daytime hours.

An overnight wait faced those arriving after dark, so a hotel was built either side of the river to accommodate travellers until the punt resumed the next morning.

The establishment of the two hotels was soon followed by the building of a few houses, then some shops.

In 1856 the first major land sale was held and a bridge built across the Merri — these two events marking the official birth of the Dennington township.

The town continued to slowly evolve until the coming of the railway in 1890 and construction of the Nestlé factory in 1911 provided a huge boost to the local economy.

Jobs at the factory meant more houses were built and more business opened as Dennington began to thrive.

The factory continued to flourish and at its peak in the late 1950s employed 800 people.

Continual advancements in automation cut the number of employees in the ensuing years, but as the 21st century dawned Nestlé was still the pulsating heart of the town.

No one could have seen what was to come with the onset of the new century — the wheels of progress hurtling Dennington into new and uncharted waters. 

The changes arrived early with news that Nestlé would close its coffee operations at Dennington in 2000, slashing the number of workers.

Just five years later Nestlé severed its ties to the Dennington community altogether when after 94 years in the town it sold the factory to Fonterra.

It is still alive and well, but now has a staff of about 100 — a far cry from the halcyon days of last century. In 2012 the town lost its only pub when the Shamrock Hotel shut is doors.

But such setbacks tell only part of the story — the 21st century has actually seen Dennington grow at a staggering rate, with houses being constructed at a frantic pace. 

One man ingrained in the fabric of Dennington is David Kelson, who has called it home for all his 70 years and worked as a quality assurance manager at Nestlé for 42 years.

Mr Kelson is the president of the Dennington Community Association and has kept a close eye on the transformation his town has undergone.

“Since the year 2000 there have been over 300 new houses built in Dennington,” Mr Kelson said.

“It has totally transformed it from an older village into a modern place. It has joined Dennington onto Warrnambool. We are now a suburb. But there was no choice, you can’t stop progress.

“Warrnambool is growing so much and has to expand and we are happy to have it here in Dennington.”

With the population growth there has been some infrastructure changes to help deal with the influx of people.

The Dennington Safeway supermarket opened last year and St John’s Primary School moved into its new buildings in 2011.

Bringing together long-time and new Dennington residents has been an aim of the Dennington Community Association, with the Christmas Carols by the Merri each December a major community event.

Now St John’s Primary School has put together the inaugural Dennington’s Day Out, something the community association has thrown its support behind.

“I think Dennington’s Day Out will be a positive event. I will highlight to the people who live here now what Dennington has to offer,” Mr Kelson said.

“Even though Dennington is now a much different place it is important to have our own identity and events like the carols and Dennington’s Day Out can help build that tie to Dennington for the new people.”

A western aspect of Dennington.

A western aspect of Dennington.

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