The Discovery of Port Phillip Bay, Victoria, Australia, and its early settlement 1802 - 1835

The discovery of this large bay on the southern coast of Australia is largely tied up with a small brig Lady Nelson. When fully loaded, her freeboard was just under three feet. Lieutenant James Grant in 1799, had been commissioned by the then First Lord of the Admiralty The Duke of Portland, to survey the south and south west coast of Australia. He was given Lady Nelson with a crew of twelve and stored for a nine months voyage.

Grant sets out, then sails the southern coast of Victoria.
Lady Nelson sailed from Portsmouth on the 17th. of March 1800, reaching the Cape of Good Hope on the 8th. of July, and stayed in that port until the 7th. of October.

Replica of the Lady Nelson 200 years later than when she sailed into Port Phillip Bay.
Replica of the Lady Nelson

By the 3rd. of December he raised a promontory which he called Cape Northumberland, and the two mountains behind it Gambier and Schank, he altered course to the south, passed two islands at the entrance of a bight which he now named Portland Bay after his First Lord.

Grant coasted eastwards, passed the already named Cape Otway, until reaching Wilson’s Promontory where he was unsuccessful in trying to go ashore there. He passed through Bass Strait and pressed on up the east coast to Sydney where he arrived on the 16th. of December.

Lady Nelson was the first ship to go “sounding on, a dim and perilous way” through the Strait named after the explorer Bass, and now used by all ships proceeding along the south of Australia to Sydney or other ports of the Pacific Ocean.

Grant’s second exploration.
James Grant, again in Lady Nelson, set out from Sydney on a second voyage on the 8th. of March in 1801. He sailed south, passed Wilson’s Promontory, named Cape Patterson, then entered Western Port. On Churchill’s Island he planted a garden, surveyed the coast between this inlet and the Prom, and retraced his steps to Sydney, arriving on the 14th. of May. Grant now sailed from the colony to return to England, and John Murray, his chief officer assumed command of Lady Nelson.

Murray sails south.
Lieutenant Murray now sailed Lady Nelson out of Port Jackson on the 12th. of November 1801, to visit Western Port, here he reaped the grain sown by Grant earlier in that year, then tried to sail to the north west to explore that coast.

Grant was thwarted by the prevailing winds, and was unable to enter what seemed to be an inlet leading  perhaps to an estuary, but was really the narrow entrance to Port Phillip Bay.

He sent off Bower, his first mate, with five sailors in a launch to examine this inlet, Bower rounded the promontory which Grant had named Point Nepean, and his launch was swept by the rushing tide of the rip through the narrow entrance into the wide expanse of this new waterway on the 1st. day of February 1802.

Bower and his crew now viewed a great inland sea opening up before them, they stayed until the 4th. when they returned to Lady Nelson to report the exciting news.

Now, on the 15th. of February, the brig sailed through the heads into this new found expanse of water.

I do not know who first penned the following four lines:

The fair breeze blew,
The white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
They were the first that ever burst Into that silent sea.

Lieutenant Murray was pleased with the landscape scenery of the “noble harbour” that unfolded before his eyes, and compared it with that of Greenwich Park and Blackheath. When he went ashore he found native huts, and several hundred acres which had been cleared by fire. An island sitting in the West channel he called Swan Island, and on the eastern shore a lofty rise was named Arthur’s Seat, as it reminded him of the massive hill behind Edinburgh.

A tourist chair lift which ran from the base to the top of Arthur’s seat had one of the pylons that supported the chair lift structure collapsed only a few days ago, it stranded many of the passengers, leaving them stuck up in the air for hours before they could be rescued. A number of the riders on the chair lift facility were injured, some seriously, and they are still hospitalised. Fortunately there were no fatalities, it is doubtful that the chair lift will ever run again.

The reason that a pylon collapsed is still to be established.

Grant spent three weeks exploring the land adjacent to where his ship was anchored, and on the 9th. of March took formal possession of the country in the name of the King, hoisted a flag on Point Patterson, and discharged three volleys of small arms, and artillery.

On the 12th. he sailed his ship through the rip, on an ebb tide, and returned to Port Jackson by the 24th of March 1802.

Lady Nelson faded from history, the last heard of her was in January 1825, she was reported trading in Torres Straits, where she fell into the hands of the Malays, her crew massacred, and the ship seemingly destroyed, she was not heard of again.

Flinders enters Port Phillip Bay.
On the 27th. of April 1802, Flinders sailed into Port Phillip Bay, at first he thought he was in Western Port, but soon found his mistake, and sailed towards its western arm , although impressed with the fine grazing possibilities of the country he failed to find fresh water, although he was actually but three miles from such a supply.

On returning to Sydney his favourable report to Governor King found him urging the Duke of Portland to authorise the formation of a settlement at Port Phillip, as it appeared to have both good soil and a suitable climate, and also to stop the French from colonising this area.

Before King could get a decision from the authorities in England, he told his Surveyor General Grimes, and Lieutenant Charles Robbins to survey the area around the harbour. Grimes now discovered the Yarra River, but his report on the suitability of the area for settlement was strangely negative.

Meantime, the British Government had decided to go ahead with setting up a settlement at Port Phillip, and ordered Lieutenant Governor Collins to proceed to Port Phillip and establish a settlement there.

His choice was unfortunate, he seems to have come to Australia with a preconceived idea that his mission was bound to fail.

Collins sailed on the 24th. of April 1803, in Calcutta, with the storeship Ocean in company, on board were 299 male convicts, 16 married women, a few settlers, and 50 men and Petty Officers of the Royal Marines.

Calcutta made the journey to enter Port Phillip Bay on the 18th. of October, only to find that Ocean had already arrived. A landing was made just inside the heads at what is now Sorrento, and Lieutenant Tuckey and two assistants were sent off in Calcutta’s launch to survey the harbour, this task occupied the next 9 days.

Collins did not like what he saw, “The disadvantage of Port Phillip, and the unsuitability of the bay itself, when viewed in a commercial light, for the purposes of a colonial settlement” were strongly dwelt upon by Collins in his report to the Admiralty, he predicted that the harbour would never “ never be resorted to by speculative men.”

Lord Hobart now ordered Collins to break up the settlement and proceed to the River Derwent, in Van Dieman’s Land, Collins happily pulled up stumps and quit, leaving the area on the 27th. of January, 1804.

Although the settlement had only been in existence over 15 weeks, there had been 21 deaths, one birth, the first white child to be born in Victoria on the 25th. of November 1803, was named William James Hobart Thorne, but the wedding did not take place until the 28th. of that month between a convince Richard Garratt and Hannah Harvey a free woman, the first deal was that of a settler, John Skilhorne on the 10th. of October.

Victoria unexplored for the next 20 years.
The interior of Victoria remained unknown and unexplored for the next 20 years, until Hamilton Hume and Captain Hovell with a party of eight set off on the 3rd. of October 1824 traveling south west, they crossed the Murray River on the 17th. of November, found the Goulburn River, and reached the shores of Corio Bay on the western side of Port Phillip on the 17th. of December, they commenced their homeward journey to arrive back near Lake George on the 18th. of January 1825

Another attempt to Colonise in the Port Phillip area is made.
Although Hume and Hovell had arrived at Corio, Hovell a former sea Captain had mistakenly made and error in recording the longitude and thought he was in Western Port, although Hume insisted they had made it to Port Phillip Bay, but the Governor chose to accept the report of a retired sea Captain, and he now sent off a glowing report to Earl Bathurst the Secretary of State of colonies.

He in turn asked that a formal colony now be set up there, and Sir Ralph Darling as the new Governor at Port Jackson sent off 20 soldiers and 20 convicts to colonise the area on the 9th. of November 1826, although he was confused by previous reports of poor land, etc. from Collins.

HMS Fly sailed into Western Port on the 2nd. of December, and a settlement was started on the eastern shore near Corinella. Hovell, who had been sent along with this group to continue exploration of the area had to admit this was not the same area he had previously explored with Hume.

The site soon proved very unsuitable, little fresh water was found, the shore line mudflats and mangroves made life difficult for the new settlers. The colony did not last long, by July the next year 1827 the colony was no more.

Even today, Corinella has a very limited population and is an essentially farming area, my wife Denise, has a brother there, Kevin O'Brien with his wife Tanith have a large land holding, Lauriston, where they breed and train race horses, run cattle, have a vineyard, and olive groves. A beautiful new home faces the waters of Western Port with French Island in the distance, as one looks out to sea it is virtually the scene that Bass might seen in 1798.

Civilian interests move into Victoria.
All official attempts at settling Port Phillip and its surrounds had failed when using both soldiers and their convict charges, as land ran out in Van Dieman’s Land, the land hungry squatters now cast their eyes on the Western District of Victoria, to the west of Port Phillip Bay.

Around Portland Bay had been used annually by whalers and sealers during the season each year from April to October.

William Dutton in 1828 appears to be the first to have landed here when he in December of that year he went sealing later than normal, the next July he was back again, put up a hut, stayed a few months and planted potatoes to help feed his party.

He claimed to have lived in this area at different times from March 1831 to March of 1833, and always wanted to be known as the founder of the first settlement in Victoria.

But our history gives that honour to Edward Henty, one of seven sons of Thomas Henty, a farmer from Sussex England, who had become unhappy with his prospects in both New South Wales and Van Dieman’s Land.

Edward had got wind of the good land on the south coast of the mainland, and in July 1833 had visited Dutton at Portland Bay, returning to urge his father to take a look at the Portland area, and then make moves to secure land there.

Another brother James, approached the Secretary of State for the Colonies seeking to purchase land in the Portland Bay district, Lieutenant Governor Arthur, of Van Dieman’s Land, gave his support to this request, he could see this was a way to extend his authority across Bass Strait into the mainland in Victoria.

Edward Henty decided he would not wait for a formal approval from the Home Government in England, off he went, to land at Portland on the 19th. of November 1834, and by the middle of 1836, this new colony was well and truly up and away, much involved in whaling.

James Henty went off to London to try and legally purchase the land where the family had squatted, he was unsuccessful, but this first settlement in Victoria continued to thrive, although it was founded illegally.

By 1836, Crown land grants had ceased in the now called Tasmania, and the Port Phillip District became a viable option.

John Batman. Founder of Melbourne.
John Batman. Founder of Melbourne.

A number of people moved across the water from Tasmania to Portland and into the Western District, and now a Tasmanian farmer John Batman, sailed the Rebecca across the strait into Port Phillip Bay on the 29th. of May 1835.

In the northern Tasmanian town of Launceston, Batman had earlier formed the Port Phillip Association, and had wanted to settle there for some seven years.

With his crew they explored the bay, liked the look of the land, made friends with the local aborigines, he now did a deal with the Dutigalla Aboriginals, for 30 small tomahawk axes, 100 knives, 40 blankets, 200 handkerchiefs, some flour, scissors, small mirrors, a few shirts and beads, he obtained 240, 000 hectares of land ( all the way from Point Lonsdale to Black Rock. )

John Batman meets aboriginals to conclude treaty with them for 600,000 acres of land at Port Phillip.
John Batman meets aboriginals

He marked out a spot on the Yarra River for a settlement ( this is the place for a village, so our folk history records ) he settled three servants and five Aboriginals from Sydney at Indented Head to mark his purchaser, and returned to Launceston to report back to the Port Phillip Association, and get ready for consolidating this new settlement on the Australian mainland.

These Batman servants were very suprised a few weeks later when a tall white man dressed in kangaroo skins arrived, it was William Buckley, a convict who had made good his escape from the ill fated Collins settlement at Sorrento back in 1804.

He had lived with the local aborigines for 30 years, and had come to warn the small party of a planned attack on them by the Aboriginals, for this act, he was pardoned by Governor Arthur, he returned to Tasmania in 1837.

William Buckley escaped convict meets Batman's party 30 years after escaping from the Collins settlement at Sorrento.
William Buckley escaped convict meets Batman's

Batman, back in Launceston and trumpeting how he had become “the largest land holder in the world” sparked the interest of another farmer, John Pascoe Fawkner.

He organised an expedition, and under Captain John Lancey they sailed in the Enterprise through the heads of Port Phillip Bay on the 16th. of August 1835. They soon found the Yarra River having no idea that Batman had already been here, they landed, built a sod house to hold stock, but were soon visited by John Wedge who had arrived to survey Batman’s acquisition, he warned the new party they were on private property. Lancey stayed on, and Wedge soon moved the Indented Head settlement to a site by the Yarra.

John Pascoe Fawkner, Rival leader to John Batman in settling Melbourne.
John Pascoe Fawkner
Fawkner came over from Launceston on the 10th. of October, and wanted to name the river after himself, as had Batman before him, but it was already called it Yarrow Yarrow by Wedge, who found out later that Yarra Yarra meant waterfall, a native name for the rocky falls they used to exist at the end of what in modern Melbourne is Queen Street, this is the area where Batman chose for his house and a future settlement.

Fawkner made an agreement with Batman, and moved his settlement to the south bank of the Yarra River, in November 1835, Batman returned with 500 sheep and 50 cattle, and by April of 1836 had finally established the township near today’s Queen’s Bridge.

History of St Francis Church, Melbourne.
The first Catholic Church in the new colony of Port Phillip. Established in 1841.

Picture of St.Francis Church Melbourne 4th. October 1841

Picture of St.Francis Church Melbourne 4th. October 1841

St Francis Church Melbourne December 1956.

St Francis Church Melbourne December 1956.


Fawkner always saw himself as the founder of the Port Phillip settlement, and disputed Batman’s treaty with the Aboriginals, but Batman believed he had acquired all his land legally, and viewed Fawkner as an interloper upon his property. They remained bitter rivals and harassed each other for years, even after Batman had died, Fawkner continued to be bitter about the man who set up a small settlement that blossomed to become the world class city of Melbourne, with a population of over two million people, and the place I call home.


Batman's Treaty made with the aboriginals for 600,000 acres of land around Port Phillip Bay and Mebourne. Click the picture for a full sized version.
Batman's Treaty made with the aboriginals

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