Phillip Island & District Historical Society

History of the Penguin Reserve and Surrounds 1920s1930s

Last updated on 08-Jul-21

These memoirs of the late Raymond Grayden were recorded by his cousin Christine Grayden as one of a series of 17 talks broadcast by South Gippsland community radio station 3MFM during 2014 and 2015, with assistance from a Local History Grant from the Public Records Office of Victoria.


Surprise and experience are where you find them. Pat’s Gully and surrounding area appeared as a wasteland in which nothing good or interesting was visible. The only good things offering were a superb view of a rugged coastline and a beautiful beach, fronting the habitat of the Little Penguins and also Mutton Birds (Short tailed Shearwaters). The whole land area had an unfriendly appearance, traversable only be horse drawn carts and wagons. The sand dunes forming the backdrop to the surf beach revealed evidence of aborigines having visited there.


This evidence took the form of cooking areas (middens) were large numbers of sea shells, abalone and others, along with many stones and also flint-stone implements were found not commonly known in any parts of Phillip Island at that time. All edible herbage was eaten by rabbits and a number of cattle, the owners of which were not easily identified at times.


The first development was the formation of the Summerlands Housing Estate. This was mid-1920s – the result was one private home. In those times we little knew that each evening at dusk, a simple happening so natural yet so remarkable would, when made known to the public, create a wave of interest extending world wide.


Phillip Island severed its municipal ties with the mainland of Victoria, Joseph Grayden being one of the first nine councillors of the new Phillip Island Shire. No public viewing of the penguins took place prior to March 1928. The first access road to the area was built late 1927. Known to locals as ‘Pat’s Gully’, it was visited by means of horse-drawn vehicles by people trying the rock fishing. This occurred prior to the access road. In 1926 the nautilus shells were appearing in numbers on the beaches.


I visited per horse-back the beach which became the scene of the Penguin Parade. I found a few nautilus shells and gazing over the deserted beach in the approaching light of dawn, I little knew that 40 to 50 years hence there would be thousands of people viewing the nightly arrival of the penguin flock. On one Easter Sunday night it was reported that more than 7,000 people had been present to see these remarkable birds. This occasion would have been in early 1970s.


The first settler to occupy the land from Swan Lake Reserve to the Nobbies area was Patrick Phelan who cropped and grazed. Phelan lived about 200 metres west of the present Penguin Parade car park. He was known to a number of Ventnor area settlers and they exchanged visits. There has been very little recorded of Phelan’s life and habits during his occupation.


Prior to the construction of an access road to the beach which became the penguin viewing area, no persons visited that portion of the coastline because of the difficulty of access. A number of farmers with horse-drawn wagons ventured along the cliff tops gathering driftwood which came ashore in varying quantities. Some ships bringing immigrants in early 1920s from Great Britain had temporary cabins on upper decks which were thrown overboard after clearing Port Phillip Heads on the return journey – resulting in a harvest of driftwood for the Phillip Island farmers.

Following the demise of Pat Phelan, the area was acquired by Mr A K T Sambell, who owned Trenavin Park property nearby. In mid 1920s the economy of Victoria was buoyant enough to encourage speculation in land sales. Mr Sambell and partners formed the Phillip Island Holiday Development Company. Early 1926 saw two surveyors working on the land between the access road and Mandeville Road (near Shelley Beach) establishing a network of roads and housing lots. The so-called access road from Cowes – then Nobbies Road – to the penguins’ nesting area was named by Mrs Eleanor Sambell as St Helens Road. Mr Sambell’s company laid down a 9-hole golf course; the present Penguin Parade car park was the first fairway and putting green. A jetty was built nearby with a view to transporting people who wished to play golf or visit the wonderful surf beach where the penguins had their nests.


Many local people visited the area to try the surfing at this previously inaccessible beach, which proved such a beautiful place to spend some time. The company also constructed a dwelling house to house holiday makers and serve as a gold club 19th hole for tired golfers. This building was adjacent to where the present Penguin Parade complex is situated. It was first built by a local man, Mr Henry Sykes & Son & Nephew. About three years later, in 1931, the guesthouse was enlarged to house approximately ten people, the builder being Mr Vic McRae. The official opening of the lovely 9-hole golf course was quite an event, attracting about 12 visiting professional players to compete for the 540 guineas first prize provided by Mr A K T Sambell. The prize was divided between two players: Ernest Wood and Horace Boorer. The pay received by the caddies was four shillings for 18 holes.


The 9-hole course was laid down and maintained by Mr Rees Jones. Water was pumped from a spring at former Green Lake, now known as Flynn’s surfing area, and reticulated from a large holding tank on a dune nearby. The jetty with its access cutting through the high ridge of and adjacent to the 2nd tee was used only a few times by the ferry “Narrabeen”.


The guesthouse, dominating the landscape only metres from where the Parade buildings now stand, attracted many professional people from the mainland. To name just a few: Miss Edna Walling (garden designer), Miss Gilman Jones (Principal of Church of England Girls Grammar School, Melbourne), Miss Edith Noall (Secretary of the English Speaking Union), a Professor Gunn and Sir Thomas Blamey. The first manageress was a Miss Weir, the next being Mrs Mills and husband William, who hired boards for body surfing at sixpence per board. This was year 1932.

The public viewing of the penguins would have commenced early in 1928. Mr A H Bert West has been credited with having initiated the first organised sightings. Bert West discovered the penguins when he was 14 years of age – he was rabbiting and lived in Phelan’s cottage when he heard the penguins calling out. Bert obtained a motor car and a few years later a Hudson Tourer. By 1931 there would have been about 8 passenger-carrying cars, taking people to see the penguins coming in each evening, as well as privately owned cars. The first motor bus used was a ten passenger T Model Ford – owned and driven by my uncle Charles Grayden. Charles used to entertain the people while in transit by singing to them. He had a very fine light baritone voice.


The Summerlands Housing Estate, west of St Helens Road, resulted in only one house being built. A small holiday cottage on the highest point overlooking the coastline to Cape Woolamai. The road around the coast to the Nobbies was privately formed by Mr Sambell’s company. Bert West spoke of early problems relating to crowd control, of people treading on the nesting areas, there being only tracks through the marram grass and other vegetation.


Bert accepted responsibility for overseeing the nightly viewing and made suggestions regarding crown control and provision of certain amenities. A small admission charge was made, although administration rested with the Shire at that time.


There being no electricity available, the Service car drivers had long torches to shine on the marching penguins. When the waters of Swan Lake reached flood level, the excess water flowed through the Pat’s Gully area to the sea. When this occurs hundreds of eels may be seen going to the sea to spawn. It is believed that the young eels (elvers) return to the lake but the adults do not.


Access to the beach was possible in the early days by motor vehicles. Some members of the Victorian Light Car Club took part in a Sunday morning frolic on the half mile of hard sand, resulting in one Austin 7 overturning and emptying its contents, tools, etc, onto the sand.


I recall some happenings on the now-famous beach. In the year 1933 a cycling club was formed at Cowes, sponsored by Mr A Odlund’s cycle shop. The club staged a cycle race along the beach, the winner was Peter Forrest. On the journey home to Cowes, one rider – my cousin Victor Brooker – fell from his cycle and fractured his collar bone.


Tragedy struck early December 1934 when the ship “Coramba” foundered in Bass Strait during three days of stormy weather. Seventeen seamen were lost and the Summerlands beach was covered with kelp and other debris to depths of up to six feet, taking weeks to disperse. Another minor anecdote concerns my uncle Charles Grayden who dived into the surf while wearing his spectacles and lost them. The first notable rescue of a swimmer took place in March 1934, when a man from Melbourne was rescued from drowning by an island girl, Nola McFee. This was affected while about 40 spectators looked on.


Those of us who remember the earlier days of Phillip Island look back with gratitude to those who made a contribution to laying the foundations of future developments, this being the control and conservation of that which is the heritage of future generations