Phillip Island & District Historical Society

Phillip Island's early settlers - their way of life by Christine Grayden

Last updated on 12-Apr-19

Prior to 1868, the McHaffies held a lease over the entirety of Phillip Island.  On 3rd November, 1868, 132 lots, totalling approximately 7,284 ha (18,000 acres) were sold by ballot.  The rest of the land (township areas of Cowes, Rhyll, Newhaven and Ventnor and 98 lots of approximately 0.8 ha (2 acres) to 16 ha (40 acres) around Cowes) was auctioned soon after.  Whilst most of the lots were sold early, many were not occupied for many years and some – e.g. Ventnor township – were never taken up and are now public open space.




In 1872 approximately 165 settlers held land on Phillip Island.  By 1902 the number was no more than 50 settlers.  In the 1860s and 1870s, Victoria had little transport between Melbourne and the potential wheat supplying areas.  Settlers saw Phillip Island as being suitable for wheat growing and within easy boating access to the increasing market in Melbourne.  Allotments, sold as fairly as possible via a ballot system, sold quickly to settlers from all over Victoria.


Generally they had little or no shelter when they arrived on the Island’s scrubby shores after a four-day trek from Melbourne.  They built wattle and daub huts.  They fenced their few animals in with tea-tree, and shovelled shallow dams, then lined these with tea-tree.  Tracks were corduroyed with tea-tree.  Implements were forged by black-smiths Messrs. Irvine or Kennon, or home-forged, such as those forged by Mr McGregor of Pyramid Rock, and then provided with tea-tree handles.  In fact, tea-tree was so widely used it became known here as “Phillip Island Hickory”.


However, even the ready availability of these materials could not save the wheat from the caterpillars and the weather.


From the early influx of keen settlers, the 1870s saw a general exodus away from Phillip Island, the land being then largely divided between two major landholders – Cleeland and Harbison.  Township areas were basically divided amongst six families:  West, Richardson, Anderson, Vaughan, Kennon and Grayden, with the rest holding individual allotments.


Both Harbison and Cleeland raised horses, sheep and some cows – all prime stock.  The remaining smaller landholders grew chicory and mustard.  Some, like the McGregors, also had cattle.  The remaining population comprised shopkeepers, farm hands, ship and house builders, horse breakers, or young men who worked on the Kilcunda to San Remo railway.  Some, like the Kennon, Walton, Grayden and Richardson families, netted fish which were rowed to Hastings, then sent by horse transport to the fish market, at that time on the present site of the Flinders Street Station clocks.


Phillip Island’s isolation and small population from 1869 until after World War 1, meant that settlers received little Government attention, and could not even support their own council.  Consequently, moving stock or a household was a major ordeal.


H E (Bert) Grayden’s father, Charles, was one of the oarsmen who helped swim cattle across the Passage from Newhaven to San Remo.  Bert Grayden remembered the spectacle well:

            “They used to have a crush going down where the Newhaven boat ramp is now and the men in the yards would rope a few animals into this crush.  When the boat backed in, they used to have a rope from the corner of the yard out to the rock called ‘The Little Rock’. The men in the boat would hang onto this rope. They’d always have two holders: one for each beast.  They’d open the crush.  The cattle were as wild as dingoes and they’d almost invariably charge the holders. They’d go for their lives, race down and jump into the boat with the beasts in hot pursuit.  While the holders jumped into the boat, the fellows




in the boat would be pushing off.  The beasts would make a lunge at the boat and down they’d go into deep water.”


The ropes to the rock provided a ‘race’, whilst the beasts were roped by the horns and were towed across to a stockyard on the San Remo side.  Because of the swift tide, the men had only a few hours between ebb and half-flood tides.  The average crossing was of 40 – 50 cattle a day.


This anecdote clearly demonstrated the hardships faced by Phillip Island’s early settlers, and the ingenuity and sheer hard work required to overcome the many problems.




During the earliest days of settlement, scrub and the elements prevented outlying settlers from socializing.  Mrs McGregor of Pyramid Rock did not bother going to Cowes for nine years after the family’s arrival here.


However, for those closer to Cowes, 1870 marked the beginnings of the centre of Phillip Island’s social life for many years – the opening of a church.  St Philip’s Church of England was the first church to be built and was ‘officially’ opened by Mrs McHaffie.


The importance of Sundays in the week’s social calendar cannot be under-estimated. Mrs A E McDonald describes a typical Sunday spent in the 1880s:


            “I often think of the lovely time we had when Mr Nicholson was our Minister at the Church of England.  We were all like a family, and we always attended services.  Went in the buggy to morning service, then after dinner walked to Sunday School, and after tea went to Church service.


            Coming home with us there would be Allan and Jack McIllwraith, the Morrisons, and the Smiths, who lived with their uncle Mr Dixon on blocks 73 and 78, Jim Forrest and a few friends.  They used to come to our house and sing hymns around the organ, then all leave at 10 o’clock.”


Evening choir practice was another highlight of the week, providing prospective beaus a chance to escort sweethearts home.


A little later, other denominations became established, including the Reorganised Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, the services for which were held in Jack Hall’s barn, Ventnor Beach Road, then later moved to the Ventnor school.


The first Catholic Church was opened on January 22 1933, although Mass had been celebrated in various venues from 1870.  The first Presbyterian services were held in the open under a gum tree.  The original Presbyterian Church was built in 1895.


Stan McFee Snr recalled another social activity associated with the churches: they were colloquially known as ‘tea fights’.  These were afternoon teas organized by church guilds, but due to the jealousy between the youth of Rhyll and Cowes (due to their taking inter-town sport so seriously!) free-for-all fights generally followed, a good time being had by all!


Team sports have been popular on Phillip Island since cricket teams became established in the 1880s.  St Philips tennis court was the venue for social and competitive tennis from the 1890s.  Bowls was first played on a special lawn at Rhylston Park, Cowes, from the 1890s.


“Easter Monday Sports”  were held as early as 1875.  These were held in Cowes along the Esplanade, and at Ventnor, on the foreshore near the Mooring Beach (Anchorage Road).  The sports ranged from Gentlemens High Jump to Ladies Rolling-Pin Throwing.  Spectacular events were also included, such as the Dray Race, where half the course was galloped in a dray, then the huge draught horses were swiftly unharnessed and ridden bare-back to the finish line.  Lots of children’s events were also held; usually run in bare feet.  Other farm-related competitions, such as Sheaf Tossing, formed the prestige events of those days.




Very little prompting was needed for early Phillip Islanders to get together for a dance or celebration once a few roads had been defined through the scrub.  During the 1870s, a chef from London named Francis Bauer established the original Isle of Wight Hotel.  In 1889, it was described as “a picturesque Swiss-looking house with its peaked gables, long galleries and verandahs…and such gardens.”


The “Isle” was the venue for many a crowded good night, including a banquet given by John West to celebrate the opening of the Island’s first kiln in the main street of Cowes.


Prior to halls being built, some adventurous young people made a clearing in the scrub near what is now the Boomerang Caravan Park, and danced there to tunes of Jew’s harps, played by the Misses Violet Jeury and Miriam West.


The need for a dancing teacher was fulfilled by Mr Alex McLardy Snr., from 1888.  Dances became extremely popular for many years, the halls being crammed, refreshments served and dancing to the music of squeeze-box, fiddle and broom-a-tin-za until well into the morning, when horse-drawn vehicles would be filled and the horses would find their own ways home.


Other popular social occasions included “Monster Picnics”  held at various locations around the Island, annually after Easter.  Picnics were also popular among courting couples and families, a sheltered beach providing a break away from the toil of the farm.


Possibly the biggest social event of the year was mutton bird egg collecting.  Groups from all over the Island and the Mornington Peninsula would camp at Cape Woolamai and spend the week ‘egging’.  This they did by hooking eggs out of burrows with plaited wire, or collected eggs from the surface of the colonies.  The collected eggs were stored in pickling drums, and were an extra source of food and income for Phillip Islanders.  During April many Islanders would also brave the gales to collect young fat mutton birds for food and sale.  Interference with the birds and their colonies is now illegal.




Bert Grayden recalled how when he and his brother and two sisters were young children they were like ‘piccaninnies’, roaming the Island together with, especially, the Kennon children, until they were old enough to work in the chicory paddocks.  Phillip Island was then “mainly scrub and a few huts in clearings” and the children survived no end of scrapes whilst their parents worked hard to keep holdings and large families intact.


Typical of the times, early Phillip Island settlers had large families. For example, during the 1870s Solomon West had 8 children, John West 8, Burton 8, Gall 8, Morrison 10, Richardson 11, Smith 13, McFee 10, Kennon 11.  The Kennon children’s ‘pet’ names read like the characters of a Victorian novel:  Bill, Hetty, Huey, Sissy, Florrie, Lizzie, Emmie, Edie, Ruth, Beatie and Maggie.


Phillip Island had no resident doctor until 1910.  Home nursing and midwifery were relied upon.  For more thorough medical attention, a doctor had to be rowed from San Remo, or the patient had to be boated to Hastings, or later to Stony Point, and then to Melbourne and hospital by coach and/or train.


Sometimes, as in the case of Mrs Winnifred Pickersgill, wife of Churchill Island’s first farmer Samuel Pickersgill, the woman in labour could be the only adult at the birth of a child.  Her grand-daughter recalled the story of how “when father was born, grand-father was away working (probably shearing).  Only the children were there, so grandmother attended to her babe as best she could, then heated some water and drank it.”


If a death occurred, the coffin had to be taken to the cemetery (surveyed in 1870) in very difficult circumstances.  John F Smith’s sister, Mary, died a child in 1870.  Because the cemetery was not then officially opened, her father had to sail to Hastings, walk to Mornington to obtain the right to make a grave, then walk and sail home again.  He then had to carry the coffin on his shoulder through the scrub for two miles, as no track existed, and dig the grave and bury his small child.  We can scarcely imagine his thoughts and feelings as he doggedly set about these tasks.





Others were buried on the family holdings.  A child of the Furze family is believed to be buried under the bend of the main Phillip Island Road at the Five-Ways cross-roads.


Large pioneering families meant that many chores could be shared out.  The Berry family was one of the many that left Phillip Island in the 1870s.  Between them they travelled the stock to the Eastern Passage, then swam them from Newhaven to San Remo.  They boated a dray and cart over, then, with Mr Berry driving the dray, Mrs Berry the cart, the girls and the cows, they set off for Avenel – 150 miles away!


Generally on the farms, the older boys would help in the fields, the next oldest would do heavy chores such as chopping wood (remember they used a lot of wood in those days) or hand-milking the cows, and the girls would help mother in the house, with small children, with washing, and with never-ending sewing and mending.  And even the younger children could feed the ‘chooks’!




When Phillip Island was first opened for settlement many of the first influx of settlers built wattle and daub huts whilst trying to make enough money to import housing materials.


Some of the wealthier residents built substantial homes.  Harrisons built “Innis Howen”  (Island Home) in 1869.  Cleeland’s “Wollomai House”, begun in 1869, was thoroughly established in 1889, when it was described as “a country home made beautiful by garden, orchard and fernery”.


Mr Robert Gall arrived from Melbourne in March 1869.  He waited two days for materials, and within 14 days had built a substantial weatherboard house for his family.  Mr Gall was a builder and timber-worker who kept a diary and detailed accounts.  In July 1869 he charged two pounds ten shillings to build a parlour chimney; three pounds to build a kitchen chimney and one shilling per yard for lathing and plastering the parlour, kitchen and bedroom of a new home.  All of this work left change out of twenty pounds (forty dollars).


Nevertheless, many of the first settlers never did build substantial dwellings, and after most left during the 1870s, their huts were quickly demolished by weather and wandering stock.


More settlers arrived near the turn of the century.  In 1900, when Charles Grayden moved his family from Newhaven to Ventnor, quite a few families were settled on 80 acre blocks between the Nobbies and Cowes.  Bert Grayden remembered Pat McGrath and Pat Phelan, neighbours near Swan Lake; a two-roomed cottage near the corner of Lyall Street and Ventnor Beach Road; Gillespie’s, who farmed where Justices now have a dairy farm on Ventnor Road; Harris’ The Pines;  Joseph Hall’s adjoining Saltwater Creek;  McGregors at Pyramid Rock; and Harrisons, of Innis Howen.


Once roads were defined and scrub cleared, houses and their gardens were more visible.  Avondale, which became Iona in Thompson Avenue was new in the 1890s, whilst Tallawalla, built around the same time was a showpiece in Church Street.  Rhylston Park was also built in that era.  This property was owned by Mr J Vaughan, who was sociable and imaginative as both a farmer and host, and this house reflects his personality.


Probably, more than anything else, the homes of the early settlers were indicators of the sliding scale of wealth on Phillip Island at that period.




After Phillip Island was opened up to closer settlement, the first schools were small private affairs.  R A McIllwraith recalled the first school as being run from a hut on the beach at Rhyll by a Mr J Cheyne, who later moved to the Back Beach area.  A Mrs Winning also had a school of some 30 pupils in a cottage near five Ways.  This was known as Gillian’s School; an old well still marks the spot, set back from Coghlan Road.







A school-house built in Newhaven during the 1880s was run by a Mr and Mrs Thompson, highly educated folk from England.  The building was so small that the Thompson’s daughters had to convert their sleeping quarters into a school-room every morning and back to a bedroom in the evening.  The

establishment could not afford a clock, so the 20 or so students were taught to read a sun-dial.  School hours were a bit chaotic on cloudy days!


St Philips Church of England building was also used as an early school from 1873 onwards by a Mr John Houston, one-time business-man.  Mr Brook and Mr Shepherd also taught there at various times.  A Miss Welch also ran a small school near the corner of Settlement Road and Thompson Avenue.


Cowes State School opened in 1872, due to the large numbers of children in the area, many of whom rode or walked up to seven miles to attend.


Rhyll School did not open until July 1891.  Stan McFee Snr recalled how, when he started school there in 1894:


            “We had a half time school then, with Rhyll and San Remo.  Rhyll til Wednesday dinner-time, the rest at San Remo.  I had to go to San Remo with the teacher.  Some of my older brothers would pick me up at Newhaven Pier and take me home in the horse and jinker.  We went over on the “Genesta”, which ran through the bay from San Remo to Stony Point.  We’d often come back with father when he had been to council meetings (Woolamai Shire at Dalyston: Phillip Island was included in this Shire at the time).  Charles Grayden Snr used to row us across in his small boat.  He’d be rowing, and he always had a sharp knife in his belt, and he’d look at us kids and touch the edge with his thumb.  I can remember my father saying: ‘Now then, Grayden, that’s enough of that…you frighten the life out of these kids’!”


Bert Grayden also went to half time school at Newhaven until third grade and remembers that the teachers would “whip the hide off you” for any mischief.


Many children lived outside the distance limit of compulsory schooling, and so had very little formal education.  Others were taken out of school during chicory digging season, or were unable to make the journey during weeks of seasonally rough weather.


Two of Samuel and Winnifred Pickersgill’s children, Lill and William, were employed by the McHaffie's as house-maid and stable-boy respectively.  Mrs McHaffie attended to their education, and it was so thorough that William was later able to educate his own daughter, Elizabeth Agnes, who was always kept home to look after the smaller children.


At Ventnor, prior to the State School opening in grand style in 1923, school was held in Ventnor Hall (now demolished) from 1914-23.  Prior to the hall being built, Ventnor children who were able to attend school, walked, or were driven in a dray to Cowes school by a jolly singing German.








Phillip Island : In Picture and Story, comp. by Joshua Wickett Gliddon (Phillip Island: Committee of Trust, 'Warley', Cowes Bush Nursing Hospital, 1958)



ORAL HISTORIES:  Stanley Joseph McFee (Snr) and Herbert Eric Grayden, both recorded by Christine Grayden (audio tape), 1974.