Welcome and A Short History of Phillip Island

Last updated on 7 April 2015

Welcome to the website of the Phillip Island & District Historical Society Inc. We hope you enjoy your visit and learn lots about the history of our fascinating area. The background to this website shows part of the Heritage Centre mural, painted by John Adam. To see the whole mural, go to the Collections section or click here.

We acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and pay our respects to their elders past and present and to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in our community today.

Phillip Island is the smaller of two main islands in Western Port, Victoria, Australia. It is 26 km (16 mi) long and 9 km (5.6 mi) wide, with an area of about 100 km2 (39 sq mi). It has 97 km (60 mi) of coastline and is part of the Bass Coast Shire. The other large island in Western Port is French Island. Phillip Island is connected to the mainland via a bridge from Newhaven on the east coast of Phillip Island to San Remo on the mainland. A ferry service also operates from Cowes on the island’s north coast to Stony Point on the eastern side of Western Port, via French Island.

Phillip Island was part of the homelands of the Yallok Bulluk clan of the Bunurong/Boonwurrung people for approximately 20,000 years before white exploration of the area began. The Bunurong/Boonwurrung were members of the Kulin nation of aboriginal people. The Yallok Bulluk came to Phillip Island in the summer months to feast on shellfish, fish, small marsupials and mutton birds (short tailed shearwaters). Ochre was available at several locations on Phillip Island and Churchill Island, and would have been used as body decoration during ceremonies.  Early white explorers knew of the existence of the aboriginal people in the area, but did not come into contact with them. However, sealers, who were in the area simultaneously to early exploration, did take some of the women and girls from Western Port to the Bass Strait islands, and caused havoc amongst the aboriginal people.

The first white explorers to the area were George Bass and his crew in a whaleboat which they rowed and sailed from Sydney in 1798. Bass explored the western coast of Phillip Island on foot and, once back in Sydney, was able to make an ‘eye sketch’ of the bay, which he named Western Port due to its relationship geographically to Sydney. The sketch included most of Phillip Island. Port Phillip Bay was not discovered until 1802.

The next explorer to visit was Lt James Grant, who arrived in 1801. After exploring, mainly for fresh water and farming potential, Grant had his men clear an area on Churchill Island where Grant planted seeds of a wide variety of crops and vegetables given to him for the purpose by John Churchill, after whom Grant named this little island off the north east coast of Phillip Island.

Western Port and Phillip Island was then largely forgotten by all but sealers until 1826 which saw the scientific voyage of Dumont d'Urville, in command of the corvette Astrolabe, visit the port. The British feared a French settlement in the area as a result of this expedition, and H.M.S. Fly, under the command of Captain Wetherall, and the brigs Dragon and Amity, were sent by Governor Darling to establish a British settlement. This was at present-day Rhyll and named Fort Dumaresq. Because of a lack of fresh water, this settlement did not last.

Due to dispossession, disease, raids by sealers and wattle bark collectors, and disagreements with neighbouring groups, the Bunurong/Boonwurung had disappeared from Phillip Island by the time the first white settlers came in 1842.

The McHaffie brothers – John David and William – occupied Phillip Island under a license from the Admiralty in 1842 and farmed it as a sheep run. John married Georgianna in 1861 and they continued to farm the island until the sale by ballot of much of Phillip Island’s land in town and farm lots in 1868-69. When the island had been surveyed a few years earlier, four townships had been surveyed and two were named after those on the Isle of Wight in England, viz: Cowes, Ventnor. The other two towns were named Rhyll and Newhaven. The early settlers struggled with poor seasons, caterpillar plagues, lack of infrastructure including roads, and difficulty in getting their products to market. Many failed in the early years, and much of the land was bought up by a handful of wealthy families, until gradually being split up again in the twentieth century.

However, Phillip Island quickly became a desirable holiday destination, with two hotels and at least one home offering guest accommodation in the first year or two of settlement.  Many guest houses followed with the boom years being from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. Trading vessels came with the opening up of land to selectors and the establishment of various industries around the bay the main one being timber.  The first locally owned vessel was the cutter Alpha built in 1841 by the owners Samuel Anderson and Robert Massie.  Jetties were built at Cowes (1870) and Rhyll (1877). The first permanent steam ferry service connecting Phillip Island with Hastings, and from there to Melbourne by coach started in 1876.  The railway was put through to Stony Point in 1889 and the first passenger train coincided with the first run of the ferry Genista. A punt service between San Remo and Newhaven ran from 1912 but it had been laying derelict for some time when a new service began in 1928.  This ran until the first bridge was opened in 1940.

Residential subdivisions for holiday homes date from the 1890s, but most were developed from the 1950s onwards. These include Summerlands  (now completely bought back by the state government for wildlife), Smiths Beach, Surf Beach, Red Rocks, Wimbledon Heights, Sunset Strip, Koala Estate and Woolamai Waters West and East. Many permanent residents now live on these estates and in Phillip Island’s main towns. The permanent population is about 10,000, swelling to about 80,000 during the holiday periods and motor racing circuit events.

Motor sport commenced on a road course on Phillip Island in 1928 with the first Grand Prix, billed as a 100 mile race. The Grand Prix was run on the island’s roads along with motor cycle racing, until 1934, when the Grand Prix governing body decided to rotate the race around the different Australian states. There was no more racing on the island until the 1950s, after the purchase by the Phillip Island Auto Racing Club of the current circuit site and building of a circuit after two public subscriptions raised sufficient funds. Motor racing was conducted on that circuit until the surface deteriorated and the track was closed. Len Lukey then bought the circuit in the 1960s and redid the surface, heralding a golden era of motor racing on the island with many greats racing here, such as Jack Brabham, Peter Brock, Bib Stillwell, Leo Geoghegan, and many others. By the late 1970s the track had once more deteriorated and went into decline until major work was carried out in preparation for the Motor Cycle Grand Prix, which was run on the island in 1989. Apart from a few years when the race went to New South Wales, the island has hosted the Grand Prix each year. The circuit also hosts the Superbikes, V8 Supercars, Shannon’s historic races and various other events.

Originally Phillip Island was a road board, and then part of the “Phillip Island and Woolamai Shire”. After a hard-fought campaign, the Shire of Phillip Island was established in 1928. Due to the amalgamation of shires throughout Victoria in 1994 Phillip Island was united with Wonthaggi Borough, the Shire of Bass and parts of other shires, to become Bass Coast Shire Council. Under the ward system of the shire, Phillip Island covers four wards: McHaffie, Anderson, Churchill and Thompson.

Tourism began on Phillip Island soon after opening up for closer settlement in 1868-69. An advertisement for the Isle of Wight Hotel at Cowes in 1874 states: “Boats, buggies, horses, &c, always on hire for fishing and shooting parties”. Horse-drawn drags took visitors on excursions, especially to the Nobbies. Going to watch the penguins and shearwaters at night became popular from the 1920s, and the Penguin Parade was established as an organised tourist attraction in 1955. First managed by the Shire of Phillip Island, the parade was managed by the Penguin Reserve Committee of Management during the 1980s and the Phillip Island Nature Park Board from 1996. Other nature based tourist destinations managed by the Board include the Koala Conservation Centre, Churchill Island Heritage Farm, the Nobbies Centre, Cape Woolamai, Rhyll Inlet, Conservation Hill, Oswin Roberts forest reserve, Swan Lake, and many of the island beaches and other reserves. However, koalas, introduced into Phillip Island in the 1890s and at various other times in the early-mid twentieth century, were the original top tourism feature until the Penguin Parade 'took off' in the 1960s. Koalas, now rare in the wild, were at various times so populous and easy to see in the many island eucalypts, that many were actually relocated to other parts of Victoria in the 1970s and 1980s.

Rural land still covers much of Phillip Island. The main farming activity is grazing, with dairying and cropping as minor activities. Chicory growing was a major seasonal crop for most Phillip Island farmers from about 1880 until the industry died out on the island in the 1980s. Before mechanisation, chicory growing was a back-breaking job, often involving being out in the paddocks in cold, wet conditions, hand-harvesting the chicory with a ‘chicory devil’.

Phillip Island has a vibrant cultural and creative community.

A visit to the Phillip Island museum, or a browse of this website and others linked here, will teach you more about Phillip Island’s fascinating history.