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The history of Phillip Island

The history of Phillip Island

The human history of Phillip Island dates back thousands of years, to the Bunurong people. While the island may be most famous today for its feathered residents – the Little Penguins – the time since European settlement has seen many changes made to the island.

Indigenous History

For thousands of years Phillip Island has been part of the lands roamed by the Bunurong people, the coastal to inland indigenous people of Australia. The Bunurong called the island “Beang Gurt” and are thought to have come to the area about 40,000 years ago. At this time, Phillip Island would have still been attached to the mainland, as the sea levels were much lower than they are today.

European settlement

For European purposes, Phillip Island was discovered by George Bass in January, 1798. Bass he entered Westernport Bay on a journey south from Sydney in a nine metre flat-bottomed whale boat, to determine existence of a strait between mainland and Tasmania. That strait is today named after him. After being known by numerous names, the island was eventually named after Sir Arthur Phillip, Governor of the First Fleet which sailed from England to Australia in 1788.

Farming and early industries

In 1842 two enterprising Scottish brothers, William and John McHaffie, the first permanent settlers, took up residence with a pastoral lease that covered the entire island. For ten pounds they took out a Pre-emptive Right Lease to occupy “Waste Lands of the Crown known as Phillip Island”.

The McHaffies quickly cleared the dense tea tree scrub by lighting a fire that burnt for several days. They then swam cattle across the shallows at low tide and established pastoral runs.

By the 1870’s industries including brickmaking, ship-building, oyster-getting, fishing and gathering of mutton-bird eggs were in operation on the island. Chicory one of the earliest crops on the island and today chicory kilns are dotted across the island as a reminder of the time when chicory was an important part of the economy.

The island today

Today the island’s economy is largely based on the tourism industry. With 97km of coastline and a population of around 7,500, the island receives approximately 3.5 million visitors annually, about half of which come to see the nightly spectacle of the Penguin Parade, which is many Little Penguins crossing the sand at Summerland Beach.

To protect the Island’s natural wonders and wildlife, the Phillip Island Nature Park was formed in the late 1990’s.

Join us on tour

You can visit Phillip Island on our Phillip Island Penguin Parade Day Tour or Phillip Island Penguin Parade Express Tour.