Prior to European settlement the Koroit area was a rich source of foods for the Koroitch Gunditj people, whose descendants retain special links with the area.
Along the south west coast of Victoria, between the city of Warrnambool and the town of Port Fairy, in the midst of the volcanic lakes country, sits the village of Koroit.
Cradled below this historic township lies the imposing, ancient and dormant volcano known as Tower Hill.
Tower Hill erupted spectacularly 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. It lies on the western edge of a line of similar volcanos including Mt Noorat and Mt Leura.
Tower Hill or Tarerer and its surrounds, including Kelly’s Swamp and Saltwater Swamp Esturary to the east & the Killarney Swamp and Sisters to the West are the ancestral homelands of the Tarerer Gunditj, the Koroitch Gunditj and the Moonwer Gunditj, three clans of the Peek Wuurong people.
The Peek Wuurong belong to the greater Gunditjmara or Dhauwurd Wuurong Nation. The Peek Wuurong tribal lands stretch from the Eumeralla River in the west to the Merri and Hopkins Rivers in the east. This large tribal group was made up of many smaller clans and clan estates.
At Tower Hill, the local clan lived in a settlement on the edge of the swamp near the caldera. This was the original outfall of the Tower Hill Lake into the Kelly Swamp. The people who lived here would have witnessed the eruption of the volcano.
The Tarerer lands were the site of a great annual meeting of the coastal clans. This was a time of great feasting, celebration, ceremony and trading.
The first European knowledge of the area is the confirmed sighting of Tower Hill by French explorers sailing with Captain Nicolas Baudin aboard Le Géographe in 1802. The first European settler came to the Koroit area in 1837. A large number of Irish immigrants made Koroit their home in the 1840s and 1850s.
In 1843 Irishman William Rutledge obtained a parcel of Crown land, known as the Farnham Special Survey, which stretched from Killarney, south of Tower Hill, to the Merri River, near Warrnambool.
Rutledge encouraged Irish immigrants to become tenant farmers and in the years after Ireland`s Great Potato Famine the lure of the rich volcanic soil and a landscape similar to the one they left behind prompted many Irish families to settle in the district.
By the late 1850s the Irish population outnumbered the other settlers, who were mainly Scottish and English. The Koroit township did not exist until 1857, when the Government Surveyor was instructed to lay out a small town north of Tower Hill, including allotments for civic puposes, various religous denominations, residential blocks and a 20-acre site for public gardens.
The first Europeans took up land in the district in 1837. The Bolden brothers leased a station here in 1840 and they overlanded their stock to the site in the company of novelist Rolf Boldrewood (nee Thomas Alexander Browne) who, it is argued, based 'Terrible Hollow' (from his most famous novel Robbery Under Arms) on nearby Tower Hill. They were soon followed by the Ryrie brothers and David McLaws who later built the Koroit Hotel.
Another early landholder of great importance to the district was Irishman William Rutledge who took up 5120 acres in the 1840s. He imported Irish labourers to work on his property at a time when the Irish potato famine was prompting his countrymen and women to look for opportunities abroad. Settlers from Scotland and Yorkshire also emigrated to the area at this time, although the Irish contingent dominated at Koroit and set the tone. Some of their old cottages still fleck the local hills. Most of their efforts were directed towards the potato which had failed them at home and Koroit soon became known as a major potato producer.
The townsite of Koroit was surveyed and the first town allotments were sold in 1857. The Koroit Hotel had been erected in 1853 and it is still standing today, along with some other early buildings, such as the Presbyterian Church (1859) and the former Tower Hill Lake National School (1857). The National School had been preceded by denominational schools in the area: the first being a Catholic school at Crossley, on the western side of the Tower Hill lake. Koroit was declared a borough in 1870.
Novelist Henry Handel Richardson (born in 1870 as Ethel Richardson) moved to Koroit with her family in 1878 at a time when her father's mental and physical health were declining. His condition had caused a deterioration in the family's finances, forcing his wife to take a position at Koroit as a postmistress. Apparently young Ethel was not impressed with the township, which she described as "mean and ugly" with "a few mingy shops", or the countryside, which she referred to as "flat and treeless". During that time, her father, a doctor, died at Koroit after a period of mental illness. It was his life that inspired her most famous work, The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney. It is thought that Koroit was the model for 'Gymgurra' in that trilogy. In Ultima Thule (1929) Gymgurra is described in the following manner: 'Two wide, ludicrously wide crossroads, at the corner of which clustered three or four shops, a Bank, an hotel, the post office, the lock-up; one and all built of an iron-grey stone that was almost as dark as the earth'.
The railway arrived in 1880, facilitating trade with the outside world. Dairying subsequently emerged and a butter factory was established in 1888.
In 1881 the population of the town was recorded as 1644. The fact that it is now slightly less reflects the fact that Koroit has not grown over the years. This stagnation was partly due to the development of modern transport which facilitated access to the growing commercial centre of Warrnambool. This has its upside for visitors who can enjoy the charm of what has remained a very pleasant rural centre with old-fashioned shop fronts and heritage buildings.
Novelist Frank Hardy was born in 1917 in the nearby hamlet of Southern Cross where he passed his first few years.