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Phillip Island Victoria Australia History

A Brief History of Phillip Island

For thousands of years Phillip Island has been part of the lands roamed by the Bunurong people, the coastal to inland indigenous people of Australia. The Bunurong called the island “Beang Gurt” and are thought to have come to the area about 40,000 years ago. At this time, Phillip Island would have still been attached to the mainland, as the sea levels were much lower then than they are today.

For European purposes, Phillip Island was discovered by George Bass in January, 1798. Bass he entered Westernport Bay on a journey south from Sydney in a nine metre flat-bottomed whale boat, to determine existence of a strait between mainland and Tasmania. That strait is today named after him.

He later returned with Matthew Flinders, landing at Rhyll, and named the island “Snapper Island”. A memorial to this landing is maintained near the pier at Rhyll.

At one time known as Grant Island, after Captain James Grant, the island was eventually renamed after Sir Arthur Phillip, Governor of the First Fleet which sailed from England to Australia in 1788.

The area was visited soon after by the British ship the Lady Nelson under Lt. Grant & Lt. Murray (1801), and in 1802, Westernport bay was visited by a French scientific expedition commanded by Captain Nicholas Baudin in Le Geographe.

The French were again undertaking exploration in the area in 1826, and in response to this perceived threat, Governor Sir Arthur Phillip sent a small group of soldiers and convicts to Western Port to secure formal possession of Western Port for England.

The settlement was abandoned in 1828 and sealers periodically used the area until the 1840s when most of the hunters left the area having reduced the seal numbers to uneconomic levels.

It wasn’t until 1842 that two enterprising Scottish brothers, William and John McHaffie, the first permanent settlers, took up residence with a pastoral lease that covered the entire island. For ten pounds they took out a Pre-emptive Right Lease to occupy “Waste Lands of the Crown known as Phillip Island”.

The McHaffies quickly cleared the dense tea tree scrub by lighting a fire that burnt for several days. They then swam cattle across the shallows at low tide and established pastoral runs.

Land on the island was opened for selection in 1868 as the McHaffies’ right to sole occupation of the island was strongly resented. The land was taken up enthusiastically, but hardships of life on the island saw a major exodus. Wheat grew poorly, fresh water was scarce, and plagues of caterpillars drove people away. By 1902 the population had fallen to just 50.

Gradually farmers returned to the island and by the 1870’s more than a one hundred and sixty settlers called Phillip Island home.

Early industry included brickmaking, ship-building, oyster-getting, fishing and gathering of mutton-bird eggs. Chicory one of the earliest crops on the island and today chicory kilns are dotted across the island as a reminder of the time when chicory was an important part of the economy.

The local roads became the home of the first Australian Grand Prix for cars in 1928 and later the place where the Armstrong 500, the forerunner to today’s famous Bathurst 1000 was held.

Today the island’s economy is largely based on the tourism industry. Some 72% of all dwellings are holiday homes and about 60% of island’s area is farmland, largely devoted to the grazing of sheep & cattle.

With 97km of coastline and a population of around 7,500, the island receives approximately 3.5 million visitors annually, about half of which come to see the nightly spectacle of the Penguin Parade, which is many Little Penguins crossing the sand at Summerland Beach.

To protect the Island’s natural wonders and wildlife, the Phillip Island Nature Park was formed in the late 1990’s.

You can visit Phillip Island on our Phillip Island Penguin Parade Small Group Eco Tour or Puffing Billy, Moonlit Sanctuary and Penguins Day Tour

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