Phillip Island & District Historical Society

Our July Newsletter

Last updated on 13-Jul-21

July 2021 Newsletter

Welcome to the PIDHS July Newsletter,

Happy end of financial year to you all. If you haven’t already received your membership renewals, they are on their way. At this point in time, membership subscriptions and donations are the only source of income the Society receives, so it is vital and appreciated that all members renew their membership. For single membership the annual subscription is $30 and the family membership is $40.

Well winter is truly upon us and the one positive about this time of the year, is that after June 22nd, the days start to get longer! I, along with many other southerners, will be heading northward, subject to COVID lockdown restrictions, and consequently will not be publishing an August Newsletter as I shall be out of radio range. 

In this edition of the newsletter, I continue our monthly instalment of the Pioneer Palaces Tour of Rhyll, with a visit to Heath Hill, the beautiful property originally owned by the McIlwraith family.

NAA Collection Saved


I am sure many of you have heard the great news that the Federal Government has agreed to fund the National Archives of Australia, the desperately needed $67.7 million called for in the Tune Report for conservation and preservation work for the fragile and irreplaceable film and paper records in the NAA collection, which face disintegration. The work to be carried out by the National Archives is eye wateringly massive – they must digitise more than 11 million photographic items and more than 400,000 audio-visual items on magnetic tape and film. The PIDHS wrote letters to both our Federal Member and the Minister in Charge supporting the funding and urging the Government to reconsider its previous position of not allocating the necessary funding. Of course, we believe it was out letter which convinced the Govt. to alter its course (cough, cough) and are naturally delighted with the outcome. 

The packing up the Museum is now rapidly moving along. As one of our members mentioned recently, it is a bittersweet thing saying goodbye to the Society’s home for the past forty years, but there are exciting opportunities ahead. Removalists are now in the museum dismantling racking and moving many of our 200+ boxes. 

Here is a snapshot of those items which are too big or bulky to be boxed up!



During the course of the last month, we discovered a rather large leadlight window stashed behind an even larger cupboard. We were all scratching our heads as to the whys and wherefores of this charming piece (pictured below) and so commenced the research into its provenance.



The window was in the portico above the doorway, in the second Shire Hall, which was located in Thompson Avenue Cowes (just below Pino’s). I have collected a bit of information on our first two Shire Halls in Cowes featured below in this newsletter.

Don’t forget - Victorian Collections website holds many thousands of photographs relating to Phillip Island’s history, which our dedicated group of cataloguers continue to digitise and upload for everyone’s easy access. It’s free and fun.

Spread the word – New Members are welcome!


Pamela Rothfield



Remember, the Phillip Island and District Historical Society depends on increasing our membership. A healthy membership ensures that we can continue to catalogue our collection, as well as embark on various projects which preserve and capture our region’s history. Spread the word!




Our AGM is scheduled for 14 September at the RSL – details on last page!


Pioneer Palaces of Rhyll Tour


Heath Hill – McIlwraith’s cottage

This cottage, Heath Hill, was built in early 1869 – one of the earliest homes on the Island. It was originally a wattle and daub construction in the centre section and was subsequently extended with weatherboard additions to each side and the rear.

The McIlwraith family was headed by James and Annie, who were farmers in Melton before moving to the Island. James was the second person to select land on Phillip Island after it was opened for subdivision in November 1868. They arrived at Rhyll to build their home in December 1868. 

At the age of 84, in 1943, Robert Allan McIlwraith, the oldest surviving son of James and Annie wrote some 19 pages of recollections of his early days on Phillip Island, which are held in our collection.

Robert wrote: 

“A succession of dry years rendered farming at Melton unprofitable so that when, in 1868, the land at Phillip Island was thrown open for selection, my father after a visit of inspection decided to make the change.……..

Having sold out in Melton, my father embarked on the journey to their new home, travelling in a covered dray in which they slept at night, during the trip. Christmas 1868 was spent with friends at Merri Creek. Mordialloc was reached on the following day and the night spent there. The route followed beyond that point was through Frankston and Somerville and Tyabb, thence round the head of Westernport by way of Lang Lang and the Bass to Griffiths Point. From there the crossing was made by punt….. 

The crossing of stock which were swum behind the punt at suitable tidal intervals occupied two or three days. The family preceded the cattle and camped for the first night after crossing, believed by me to have been 1st January 1869, on the water reserve at the Narrows.” (This location has been identified as being the foreshore reserve near Forrest Caves).”



Next day the location of their future home site was accomplished and thereafter the process of settling in began. One of the earliest tasks was the erection of a dwelling. In this, the assistance of Bob Barrie, the carpenter, was of much value and it was not long before a good-sized living room with three bedrooms and a kitchen were in being. Additional sleeping accommodation was provided in a hut erected at a distance of a few hundred yards.”


Tragically the month following their arrival on the Island, their 16-month-old baby daughter Elizabeth Sterling McIlwraith, died of pneumonia. She was buried on the property, as no cemetery existed on the island. 

James was a highly respected member of the community involved in the Cemetery Trust and a Sire Councillor. 

James and Annie (pictured below ) had six children and continued to live at Heath Hill until their respective deaths in 1894 and 1900. 


Their son, Allan, followed in his father’s footsteps being heavily involved in the Phillip Island community. He was a Shire Councillor from 1898 - 1927 including being President on three occasions as well as being very involved in the Church of England in Cowes, assisting in the Sunday School for some fifty years. Upon his retirement from Council, the community presented Allan with a beautiful Certificate of Appreciation (pictured left).



A Story of Two Halls

The First Hall

The very first Shire and Public Hall (pictured below) was built in Chapel Street on land donated by Solomon West and his very good friend Henry Fowler Norton in 1882, which we now call the ‘old kindergarten’ (interestingly enough – the future temporary home of  the Historical Society, pending the permanent move into the new Cultural Centre). This first Shire Hall was opened in April 1884 and was intended as the Cowes Free Public Library – a room 20 feet X 40 feet in size and for a place of entertainment. This hall was extended a number of times and in 1923 substantial extensions were carried out which included the addition of a cloak room, supper room as well as club rooms for the local branch of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia, who had contributed to the renovation. The hall was then known as the Mechanics and Soldiers Hall and was used as a picture theatre as well. In 1928, after Phillip Island gained its independence and formed its own Council, the Hall became the Shire Offices and Council Chambers.



At about 1am on the morning of 16 March 1933, a fire began in the kitchen area – just minutes after the departure of a party of people playing euchre. It is said that the fire was deliberately lit, and that the perpetrator owned up to the deed years later. 


Despite burning to the ground within an hour it was reported in The Age shortly afterwards that the municipal books and over £100 in notes were found in the ashes. The covers of the books were charred, and the corners of some leaves burnt, but the entries were quite legible. (No, we haven’t discovered these books in our packing up operation!).

Second Shire Hall

Within a few weeks of the first Shire Hall’s destruction, at a public meeting on 3 April 1933 arobust debate took place in relation to the erection of a new building at a new site. At this meeting, the suggestion was made (possibly by Mr Sambell) that another site be purchased. This suggestion was greatly opposed by those present – but history tells us that indeed a new site was acquired, and the second Shire Hall for Phillip Island was built in Thompson Avenue (just below Pinos) in 1934.

This second Shire Hall served the community well until 1978 despite the rear wall collapsing in 1968. 

This second hall (pictured  below) included a commodious auditorium with a stage, which also served as a picture theatre: there was a library, Council chambers as well as a one bedroom plus living room accommodation in the basement section of the building.


 The third hall was opened in December 1978 and that story will be contained in the next newsletter.

When the second hall was demolished in the mid 1980s a bottle was found under the building which contained a note 

with a message from the bricklayers, brickmakers and concreters, all of whom worked on building the hall with their names and addresses and a poem, written half a century earlier:

Ashes to ashes and dust to dust,

If liquor don’t get us, well Cowes must.

Below is the note found in a bottle under the second Shire Hall during its demolition in 1985, showing the names of the brickmakers, bricklayers and contractor, dated 18th day of July 1934.



At the bottom of this note, George Hanton who had the chemist shop on the west side of ‘Main’ Street’ (today called Thompson Avenue) Cowes, signed his name as the ‘Chief Onlooker’.


George is fondly remembered by older residents of Phillip Island as a very kind man who always had time for his customers.








The next General Meeting which is also the AGM of PIDHS will take in the ANZAC Room at the Cowes RSL on Tuesday 14 September.  The cost will be $25 per head, which includes a two-course lunch. We are delighted to have Maureen Matthews speaking for us about the amazing works and life of renown botanical artist Euphemia Henderson (sister of Georgianna McHaffie).


Please ensure your place by booking by Friday 10th September with our Treasurer Judy Gittus -