Build it, and they will come.

And they did. Today visitors arrive in their millions to experience the epic coastal drive regarded as one of the best in the world.

Meandering over 243 kilometres of spectacular coastline from Torquay to Allansford on Warrnambool’s doorstep, the National Heritage listed Great Ocean Road is an iconic tourist magnet. However, many of the visitors are unaware that the road is the world’s longest war memorial, carved by hand by returned soldiers fresh from the trenches, in honour of their fallen mates. Dangling by ropes above the pounding sea they replaced guns and bayonets with picks and shovels.

This permanent memorial to those who died while fighting in World War One was a considerable engineering feat ending decades of isolation for the coastal communities. Initially to have its start at Barwon Heads, the road officially begins at Torquay and ends at Allansford in the City of Warrnambool.

It also commemorates the labour of the servicemen who returned to Australia, including the ex-servicemen engineers and surveyors who surveyed, designed and supervised the construction – both within and outside the Country Roads Board.

There were early plans for a rail and ocean road linking the towns along the coast. It wasn’t until World War One was coming to an end that the chairman of the State War Council wrote to William Calder (Chairman, Country Roads Board), requesting suggestions for the employment of repatriated soldiers. Calder answered with a list of eight projects ‘finance permitting’. He commented that a coastal road would be a beautiful tourist attraction for Victoria – one similar to that in California, USA. (Highway 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles.)

Howard Hitchcock

Geelong mayor, Howard Hitchcock brought the plans to realisation. Inspired by a speech at Paraparap by Mr F. W. Fricke of the Country Roads Board, Howard Hitchcock formed the Great Ocean Road Trust. With local support he set about raising money to finance the project, contributing significant amounts himself. Hitchcock believed the development of the road was a way of employing returned soldiers and at the same time creating a lasting monument to those who had died in the war. He also believed it would be a great tourist attraction, supporting the economies of the small coastal towns.

Survey work began in August 1918 and completed twelve months later. On 19 September 1919, an explosive charge was detonated at Lorne as Victoria’s Premier, Harry Lawson, officially declared the start of the construction of the road – gravel, like all country roads in those days.

From 1918 to 1932 some 3000 returned soldiers and sailors worked on the road’s construction. There was an unknown number of deaths, all the more tragic when remembering that they had just survived battle zones. These men carved a road into cliff faces with just pick and shovel, and they managed horses pulling ‘scoops’ and explosives – perhaps putting their peacetime effort and bravery on a par with that of their war service.

Men were lowered down the cliff by ropes tied around their wastes and anchored to tree trunks on cliffsides above the pounding sea to enable charges to be set. The sound of each gelignite blast through the cliff face must have traumatised them all over again.

They slept in old army tents and were paid ten shillings and sixpence per day, approximately equivalent to the average Australian wage in 1920. This was four shillings and sixpence more than their pay while in service. The wages were known as sustenance payments later nicked named “susso” the forerunner to the term ‘Dole’ as we know it today.

Lieutenant Governor, Sir William Irvine officially opened the Great Ocean Road on 26 November 1932.

In the early years, those who used the road would pay a toll at gates at Eastern View, where a memorial arch to the engineers was erected. Tolls were paid for both drivers (two shillings and sixpence) and each passenger (one shilling and sixpence). There are stories of toll evasion where diligent toll­keepers pursued passengers who had alighted before to the toll gate and would scramble over the hills to re­join the car. The funds that accrued were shared between Returned Soldiers Funds and the Great Ocean Road Trust.

The toll was abolished on 2 October 1936 when the Trust handed over the road as a gift to the State Government.


– Howard Hitcock, Reprinted from the Geelong Advertiser, 3 January 1931, p 15

Poets have sung of the long wash of Australian seas, and a dozen miles south of Geelong, as the crow flies, one reaches the south-western coastline of Victoria. There, there is a long sweep of littoral loveliness, a picturesque blending of seaside, river, mountain and bush, making as fine a scenic ensemble as may be found anywhere between Cape York and the Leeuwin.

Along the beautiful section of the sea coast, between the Barwon Heads and Cape Otway, are many noted resorts, much favored by holiday-makers. Places like Torquay, Airey’s Inlet, Loutitt Bay — 90 miles from Melbourne, where Lorne, supreme among Victoria’s watering-places, is situated — and so on to Cape Patten and Apollo Bay.

Between these well-known points of scenic charm are others not so widely known. There are thickly wooded ranges running down to the sea, crystal streams babbling along their rocky beds, ferny gorges, rocky cliffs, and rugged headlands, mountain and valley, and clean, wide beaches, forests and ferns, and waterfalls. And always a seascape of unrivalled charm.

Yet, strangely enough, ever since the first pioneer settlers came to this attractive coast, the only means of reaching it was by bush tracks and more or less uneven and rugged roads from the main highway to Warrnambool and Portland, now called the Prince’s Highway, which runs from east to west, always 20 miles and more north of the seashore, and with forests and mountains in between.

Perhaps from the first people dreamed of a great ocean road which should follow the picturesque coastline, link up the townlets and make this lovely area more accessible, but if they did it was only a dream which seemed impossible of realisation.

Certainly one old and esteemed friend of mine, the late Honorable E. H. Lascelles, whose breadth of vision made him the founder of the great Mallee settlement scheme, did put this dream of an ocean road into words. He proposed a road from Geelong to Lorne, but nothing came of it.

The coming of the motor car, which did so much to open up real roads through Australia, gave a fillip to the dream of on ocean road to Lome.

I remember one day I was sitting on the Bluff at Barwon Heads, and I thought of how fine a thing it would be if such a road could be made, winding in and out of the ferntree gullies, twisting around bluffs and headlands, and so running on and on under the shadow of the giant gums and rugged rocks clear to Warrnambool. What a fine thing that would be, I thought.

Well, that daydream has materialized at last. The road is not quite clear all the way to Warrnambool certainly, but it will be very soon. Twelve years ago we started to make the Great Ocean Road, and in our enthusiasm and optimism we thought to finish it in four or five. Well, it is good to aim at a high ideal, even if we fall a little short in its attainment.

When the Great War was over, and everyone was anxious that some concrete memorial should arise of the brave men whose spiritual ideals made them defy distance and defy death, the idea of the Great Ocean Road was seriously considered. It was the first fallen soldiers’ memorial to be mentioned, as it was the first to be commenced in this State.

The idea was that the returned men themselves were to make the road. This would give work to many, but only those who had been previously accustomed to road-making, or other heavy work, were to be employed.

And so the scheme began to shape itself. Councillor E. E. Hendy, of the Barrabool Shire, had invited a large number of municipal officials — mayors, presidents and councillors — as well as other friends, to a social gathering on the occasion of opening a road in the Paraparap district, a few miles from Geelong. There were the usual speeches and congratulations, and one speaker, Mr F. W. Fricke, of the Country Roads Board, said: “I wonder why you Geelong people do not tackle the making of an ocean road around your part of the coast.”

That was the genesis of the movement. I was mayor of Geelong at the time, and I hastily convened a meeting at the City Hall, at which members of the Country Roads Board explained to the gathering the possibilities of such a road. A brief report of this meeting appeared in a city paper and attracted the attention of the Apollo Bay Progress Association, with the result that Mr Edgar, M.L.C., Cr. Hendy and myself were asked to Apollo Bay to confer with local residents on the matter. The net result of these preliminary talks was that the Great Ocean Road Trust was created at a crowded meeting in the Colac Town Hall on March 22, 1918.

I was elected president, and Cr. Hendy was appointed organising secretary. The elected members of the Trust were all representative men. As for finance, we had promises at the meeting from various enthusiasts of sums varying from £1000 down to a modest fiver.

Immediately after his return from the war Major W. T. B. McCormack, M. Inst., C.E. (the present Chairman of the Country Roads Board) took personal charge of operations.

The making of the road provided employment for many returned men, and the nature of the work and the healthful open-air conditions have been instrumental in restoring the physical fitness and morale of many whose nerves had been shattered.

I well remember meeting one party of seven men at the Geelong railway station. We had breakfast together, but they were all suffering more or less from war strain, poison gas, and the like, and could eat little or nothing. These chaps were on their way to work on the first section of the Ocean Road. Three weeks later I met them at work on the Road at Cape Patten, near Apollo Bay, and I was delighted to see that the fresh air and the tang of the ocean had turned them from invalids into healthy, vigorous, sun-tanned men.

We decided, however, to shift the work from the Cape Patten section, and begin near Lorne, because it was felt that if we wished to get the motorists and the public generally interested in the Road, it would be better to have it easier of access, so that the people could see the progress made and judge of the importance of the work.

From the inception of the scheme the various Governments have shown the greatest consideration for the Trust, and confidence in its administration. This from Premier Lawson’s day down to that of our present Premier, Mr Hogan.

At the start we were told that the main thing would be, as far as the Trust was concerned, the paying of the wages and the carrying on of the scheme. In our simplicity we thought this would be easy enough. We battled along and got enough money to enable us to make the road from Eastern View to Lorne, and the through road was opened by the State Governor, Lord Stradbroke.

It was never intended that the Road should have, at the start of its construction, a finished surface, or a width necessary for the ultimate requirements of an ordinary road. The main idea was to open up the country and get through as soon as possible, leaving it to future generations to make the necessary improvements.

It was to be expected that the scheme would receive some opposition, but the large number of those opposed to the building of the road seemed to me to be excessive. However, I always had recognised that the greatest successes in any public effort were brought about by fair and reasonable opposition. So, notwithstanding those who were opposed to us, we went steadily on, gathering in the cheques and making the Road.

I want to emphasise the fact, right here, that no private trust, or company could have organised and carried out this great scheme without the guiding hand of the Country Roads Board, with its enthusiastic and indefatigable members.

The work draws near completion. The linking-up of the seaside resorts already in existence will form an important feature of the general scheme. Resorts such as Barwon Heads, Torquay, Anglesea, Airey’s Inlet, Lorne and Apollo Bay are familiar to most tourists, but the country in between is possessed of such wonderful scenery and surroundings for seaside resorts that it will be surprising if new townlets are not built during the next few years.

As the large area opens up and attractive features present themselves, I consider the Great Ocean Road will offer attractions and inducements which will keep tourists from going into other States, and spending their money there.

Settlers and property owners will benefit also. Land on the route and in the nearby forests will be greatly improved in value. At intervals there is good rich land, which has a good rainfall, capable of growing large quantities of primary products.

Dairy farms and butter factories already exist, and as years go on these, and cheese factories will help to swell the proceeds of the adjacent districts. Areas of land for building purposes have come into the possession of the Trust, and much of it has been disposed of at satisfactory prices, the proceeds of which are used for building the Road.

Reference must be made of the splendid organising work of the Secretary of the Trust, the late Captain E. Morley, M.L.A. Some months after the Road was started, Cr. Hendy, original organiser, thought it advisable that he should resign his position in favour of a returned soldier. This he accordingly did, and later on the late Captain Morley was elected to the position. Afterwards becoming a member of the Legislative Assembly, and thus coming in contact with political leaders of the State, he was able to render very special service to the Trust in many directions. Much of the success of his efforts was due to his enthusiasm and general interest in the scheme.

The opening of the first section to Lorne was an unqualified success, and thousands of visitors and tourists visit this resort every season.

As the day had gone by for donations, the Trust considered that the establishment of tollgates was necessary to provide money for the upkeep. Much as the members of the Trust disliked the establishment of tolls, it was felt that it was the only reasonable way of raising the money. Accordingly, the first was erected, and later, when the Trust purchased for £1850 the road which the late Mr Lane had built, a second gate was established.

As Lane’s Road, or as it is known to the Trust, the Long Beach Road, paid for its upkeep, and sufficient money was raised from the tolls together, it was recently decided that this toll should be closed, and the road taken over by the Country Roads Board, which undertook to keep it in repair. Half of it has now been splendidly formed, and the road users in the near future will have a perfect road into Airey’s.

Only one toll now exists and at reduced charges on the original rates. Efforts will be made very soon to have this also removed.

And so our dream comes true. The Great Ocean Road will stand as a monument of persistent, self-sacrificing effort. It is a highway made as a fitting memorial of the deeds of our soldiers, but it is also a convenient means of outlet tor traffic from remote hills and valleys, a stimulus to settlement, and a scenic roadway which is unsurpassed in the Commonwealth.

Images courtesy Martin Klabbers, Anglesea Historical Society, Keith Cecil