Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Victoria's First European Settlers

Beside the Yarra will normally keep this blog confined to Melbourne History topics, but I was away in Port Fairy over New Years and felt that a small diversion was in order. For this small coastal town, about 300 km's south west of Melbourne, is one of the oldest settlements in the state and, as such, has a rich history.

It is interesting to note that Melbourne, while Victoria's capital, was not the first place in the state to be settled by Europeans. In 1834 Edward Henty, a British farmer who had settled in Van Diemen's land, brought his family and stock to Portland Bay on Victoria's south coast and established a farm there. A few months later Henty was joined by his brother and the first kernel of a town was established. 

Etching of Edward Henty in the 1860s.


A drawing of Portland Bay from 1852.

John Batman would sail into the Yarra and establish what would become Melbourne a year later, in 1835.

But even Portland may not be Victoria's oldest settlement. 

The south west coast had been an attractive destination for adventurous young men since the beginning of the 19th century. With seals and whales in abundance in the ocean, and kangaroos on the land, fisherman and trappers were able to make a good living from the area. A number of temporary camps sprang up to support these fledgling industries, dotting the rugged coastline.

John Brabyn Mills was born in Launceston in 1810 and grew up on a farm in the Northern part of Van Diemen's Land. Hungry for adventure, John (and his younger brother Charles, born in 1812) left home as a teenager and went to sea. The south coast of Victoria, a short if treacherous voyage across the straits to the north, was an obvious destination for someone like Mills.


Captain John B. Mills as an older man.

According to local tradition, Port Fairy, east of Portland,  had been discovered in 1810 when captain James Wishart sailed his vessel, Fairy, into the harbour to shelter from a storm. This story has it that John Mills would later sail with Wishart and the older captain would pass on his charts of the area to Mills. Charts which indicated Port Fairy. This lead to Mills visiting the area himself and establishing a camp there in 1826.

But all the details of this story have been questioned, to varying degrees. It is not known exactly when John Mills first came to the Port Fairy area, nor when he established himself there, nor how permanent his camp was when he did settle in the area. It is not even known when Wishart bestowed the name Port Fairy on the harbour, although most historians think it likely it was later than 1810.

Mills' camp certainly seems to have been less well organised than Henty's farm further along the coast, which is why Henty is normally considered Victoria's first European settler. But there is still a view that John Mills should occupy this place in history. His grand niece Olive Mills stated:

John and Charles Mills, who settled permanently in Victoria in 1826 and remained there until the death of Charles in 1855 and John in 1877, should be recognised as Victoria's first settlers.

And this latter part of the story can certainly be confirmed.

Another ambitious young man, John Griffiths, established a whaling station at Port Fairy in 1835 and shortly afterward founded a town on the Moyne River that fed into the Bay.


A sketch of 'Belfast' from 1856.


Port Fairy, 1857


Griffiths named the town Belfast, after his place of birth, a name it would bear until 1887.

Having suffered financial losses in the shipping trade, John Mills took a position as Belfast's harbour master in 1851, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1871. The cottage he lived in during these years, one of Victoria's oldest, is still intact on the Port Fairy harbourside. 





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