GEORGE BASS was the first European to sight Phillip Island when he entered Westernport Bay in January, 1798. Long before this it had been part of the lands of the coastal Bunurong Aboriginal people.
Bass returned with Matthew Flinders in 1798, landing at what is now Rhyll on Phillip Island’s protected eastern shore. George Bass named it “Snapper Island” because he thought the Cape Woolamai headland resembled the head of a snapper.
A memorial to this landing can now be found near the pier at Rhyll.
Later, a lieutenant James Grant, sent by Governor King in 1801, built a simple cottage on Churchill Island, a smaller island nestled into a quiet cove near Phillp Island’s eastern tip (and accessed today by a low bridge).
With seeds given to him by his friend John Churchill, he made a small planting of corn and wheat there and also took the time to name the island after his friend.
Grant’s cottage was the first European settlement in what is now Victoria. Phillip Island then became known as Grant’s Island; a name that persisted for some years until renamed after the first Governor of the colonies, Governor Phillip.
It wasn’t until the 1840s that the McHaffie brothers, the first permanent settlers, took up residence with a pastoral lease that covered the entire island, a lease they held for nearly 20 years.
The island was surveyed in 1868, following which came the first recorded land sale at Rhyll in that year. Land around Cowes, which had been known as Mussel Point until 1865, was also broken up into selections and sold in 1869.
By the 1870s, more than one hundred and sixty settlers called Phillip Island home, mostly engaged in farming , although crayfishing and sealing was also pursued. The first Isle of Wight Hotel had also been built by this time.
For over 100 years, little penguins (fairy penguins) who are native to Phillip Island, have fascinated visitors to the island.
While locals and a few hardy tourists were aware of the little penguin colonies on Summerland Beach, the building of an access track to the penguin colony in the 1920s, and the expansion of the ferry service, saw the island began to develop as a tourist destination.
It was a Mr Bert West who organised the first torch-light excursion to view the penguins returning to shore in 1928.
Soon, sometimes hundreds of tourists, making the long road and ferry trip from Melbourne, would gather on weekends and holidays to view their nightly return.
The location of the Penguin Parade and ten acres of nesting dunes around it was donated to the people of Victoria by a Mrs Spencer Jackson in the 1930s.
Tourist numbers visiting the Penguine Parade gathered momentum with the opening of the bridge at San Remo in 1940, linking the island to the mainland for the first time. Remarkably, it took until 1961 before the State Government put a structure in place to manage the reserve.
The local roads became the home of the first Australian Grand Prix in 1928. Then, and until 1938, race cars and motorcycles were ferried over to race on the Island’s dirt roads.
Later, following the construction of a racing circuit in the 1950s overlooking Cunningham Bay and Bass Strait, Phillip Island became a popular production car racing venue, hosting the Armstrong 500 in the early sixties, the forerunner to today’s Bathurst 1000.
Today the Phillip Island Grand Prix circuit, rescued in a state of disrepair and revitalised by the local Cameron farming family, is firmly on the world stage as one of the premier circuits in the world MotoGPchampionship and World Superbike championship.
It also now hosts numerous club events, historic car and motorcycle racing, and other premier events on the national motor racing calendar.
However, it is the conservation and preservation of Phillip Island’s natural wonders and wildlife, as well as the revegation and recovery of native trees and grasses, that has ensured a significant year-round tourism industry.
Many local farmers, landowners and businesses like the Phillip Island Winery work with Landcare to preserve the natural beauty of the island and to revegetate and carefully conserve areas for wildlife.
Here, at various places on Phillip Island, visitors can come face-to-face with koalas, penguins, wallabies and fur seals.
They can also see an extraordinary range of native bird-life including spectacular black cockatoos, peregrine falcons, Cape Barren geese and a host of sea birds along the island’s spectacular beaches and dramatic southern coastline.
Phillip Island is one of Australia’s key tourism destinations for overseas visitors, matching in importance Uluru, Kakadu, Katherine Gorge and the Gold Coast.
(Thanks to Christine Grayden and the Phillip Island & District Historical Society for help and information with this article. Photos courtesy of Destination Phillip Island)