The first inhabitants of Phillip Island were the aboriginal Bunurong tribe based around Western Port. They were not permanent residents but most likely visited during the mutton bird season to feast on the abundant eggs and young birds.
George Bass was the first European to visit Western Port on the 5th January 1798 after a voyage down the coast from Port Jackson in a 28ft whale boat. He named it Western Port because it was west of Port Jackson. Sealers soon followed, harvesting the seals on the Bass Strait islands and Seal Rocks near the Nobbies.
The McHaffie brothers took out a lease of the whole of Phillip Island in 1842 and grazed sheep here. They lost all bar 640 acres around the homestead when the Island was opened up for closer settlement during 1868-69. Conditions were very harsh for the settlers and many left because of drought, failed crops and lack of water. Chicory was one of the first crops grown and proved suitable for the Island’s climate, a lack of frosts being a main requirement. It was grown here for over 100 years and the remaining chicory kilns with their pyramid shaped roofs are a Phillip Island icon.
All supplies and farm produce had to be transported by sea as the Koo Wee Rup swamp blocked access around the bay. Much of this cargo was carried by Captain John Lock who owned several trading ketches based at Rhyll.
The tourist industry started soon after subdivision, the first hotel the Isle of Wight opening in 1870 with the nearby Phillip Island Hotel soon after. The first regular ferry service began in 1878 making access much easier for visitors. The small paddle steamer Eclipse began running from Hastings to San Remo with stops at Cowes, Rhyll and Newhaven.
The guest house era began in the 1880’s with the main period during the 1920’s to the 1950’s. Visitors during this time could hire a horse drawn vehicle and visit one of the many scenic ocean beaches or the small village of Rhyll and dine on strawberries at the Strawberry Farm. Tourists went out to the southern side of the Island in the evenings, not to visit the penguins, but to watch the return of thousands of mutton birds to their burrows on the cliff tops. Visits to the nightly return of the penguins at Summerland Beach began in the 1920’s and soon overtook the mutton birds in popularity.
The first car ferry, the ex Sydney ferry Killara began running in1933 and the first bridge was opened in 1940, greatly increasing the number of tourists visiting here.
Motor racing, both car and bike began in 1928 with the circuit around the Island’s dirt roads. The Australian Grand Prix for cars was held for a number of years but the dust from the unsealed roads was a great problem and the major races moved elsewhere after 1938.
In 1952 the Phillip Island Auto Racing Club opened up a new circuit on private land adjacent to the south coast. It went into decline in the 60’s until bought by Len Lukey who resurrected the circuit. Major reconstruction work was done on the track and buildings to stage the 1989 motorbike GP and it has operated continuously since then.
The present bridge was opened in 1969. This allowed increased development as the old bridge was subject to strict load limits. Tourists on large buses had to walk across the bridge and trucks were limited to 6 tons maximum.
Written by John Jansson
Discovering Phillip Island’s history can be as easy as enjoying these self guided walks.