SCENIC Estate Reserve is a new 28-hectare (70-acres) conservation reserve on Phillip Island, in the area formerly known as “Chinamans”, located on the north side of the Tourist Road opposite Forrest Caves.
Pre-settlement vegetation consisted of mostly swamp paperbark scrub, with moonah woodland along the coast (Seddon 1975). There was little or no grassland.
Boon Wurrung people were frequent and regular visitors to the south coast of Phillip Island but probably only occasional visitors to the bay coast in this area. A 2014 survey as part of a Cultural Heritage Management Plan uncovered two small artefacts on the foreshore, quartz chips probably use as scrapers. Hence the site is a designated “Aboriginal Place” but of low significance.
In 1868, Phillip Island was divided into many small lots. Scenic Estate Reserve now occupies half of the original Lot 150, which was 140 acres. We are indebted to local schoolteacher and long-time resident June Watkins , a member of the Forrest family, for recording her recollections of the area in 1999.
The first owner of Lot 150 was John Love, from Scotland, who with his wife, built a wattle and daub hut on the block, farmed there, and had a garden. When Mr Love died, Mrs Love moved back to Scotland. In 1883, Captain John Cleeland acquired the land and grazed sheep there. When June was a child, the block was “covered in teatree”.
In 1950, Cleelands split Lot 150 into two, and sold the western 70 acres to Arthur Heritage from Longwarry. He came with a dairy farming background, possibly also in forestry. June Watkins, Sue Chambers and Ted Jeffery all have good recollections of this period. Arthur and his wife Myrtle built a simple wooden house right on the edge of the foreshore, with a substantial vegetable garden inland, and established a dairy farm on the property. They were keen fisher folk, and constructed a slipway across the shore for their small dinghy. Remains of the house chimney, slipway posts, pipeline and dairy shed gutter are still evident today.
Except for some of the coastal moonahs, a saltmarsh area in the north-east corner and scrub along the western boundary, the whole block was cleared for the sowing of pasture. After the larger scrub was bulldozed, smaller patches ploughed in, Ted Jeffery remembers having the job, as a 16-year-old, of discing the whole block prior to sowing of the pasture. The farm was judged by others to be a “good farm” and grew good hay in the higher paddocks. However, by the end of the `50s, small dairy farms were becoming less viable, and the Heritages decided to sell up.
In 1960, the Heritages sold to a Mervyn Frank Falls, and the 70 acres was quickly subdivided into 332 blocks, with road construction starting in January of that year. The saltmarsh area in the north-east corner was set aside as a public purposes reserve. The development was also known as “Holiday Isle Estate” and blocks were marketed overseas, particularly in Hong Kong where many blocks were sold. Hence the locals referring to it as “Chinamans”. Some Phillip Islanders also bought blocks. Eventually, most of the blocks were sold.
The late 1950s and early 60s was a time of subdivision madness on Phillip Island. Alarmed at the rapid decline of the rural landscape, the State Government of the time, via its Town and Country Planning Board, placed an interim development order over the Island in 1961. This prevented further subdivision, and controlled the issuing of building permits. Because of the low-lying, swampy nature of most of “Chinamans” estate, it was deemed too wet to build on. Many irate owners expressed their frustration, and several tested the resolve of the Council and the Government by constructing holiday shacks on their blocks, but were soon directed to remove them. The situation was not fully clarified until 1983 when Scenic Estate was finally placed, by the State Government, on a list of subdivisions that were inappropriate and never to be built on.
The roads of the Estate remained open to the public, and people could legitimately access the coast for picnicking and walking. However, the site soon became notorious for illegal camping, rubbish dumping, wild parties and drinking and drugs. One local sporting club had a regular fundraiser on Sundays when a barrel was on tap, and that part of the coast became popularly known as “Bottlenecks”.
Broken glass certainly became a feature, and June Watkins recounts how she picked up, over a period, enough glass to fill four 44-gallon drums, which council staff removed for her. In later years, dirt bikes and four-wheel drive vehicles took to the roads on the estate and created their own tracks through the scrub, damaging vegetation and creating large compacted and rutted areas. Dismayed conservationists and other locals frequently voiced their anger to the council and in the press, but little action was forthcoming.
Despite the mistreatment and disturbance over these years, an amazing thing was happening over the old estate. The farmland was slowly reverting to bush. Gradually, native grassland took over from pasture, and swamp paperbark scrub encroached on grassland. Even the moonah woodland strengthened its hold. Three aerial photos covering the 40 years from 1969 to 2009 graphically illustrate this.
The creation of the Churchill Island Marine National Park in 2001-03 was probably the catalyst for ending the impasse. The park abutted the coastline of Scenic Estate, and a major clean-up of rubbish, including many old, dumped cars on the beach, was required. This demanded a co-operative effort between Parks Victoria, Bass Coast Shire Council and the Phillip Island Nature Parks, paving the way for clean-up efforts to be extended over the rest of the estate. A vegetation survey of the area by the Landcare Network in 2012 revealed that the regenerating native vegetation was of very high conservation significance. Gradually over some years, the council had acquired title to a majority of the blocks. Together with the continuing public outcry over environmental damage and safety issues, the stage was now set for decisive action. In 2012, with police support, the council finally locked up the old Chinamans Estate.
In April 2013, Bass Coast Shire Council formally set aside all the council-owned blocks in the old estate as the Scenic Estate Conservation Reserve. Diana Whittington was the council staff member responsible for the project. Many truckloads of rubbish were carted away, and a Landscape Design Master Plan, and a Cultural Heritage Management Plan were produced in 2014. Regional Development Victoria contributed $300,000, the council contributed $73,000, and there were smaller contributions from Phillip Island Nature Parks and Parks Victoria. During 2014-15, tracks, wetlands, a boardwalk, picnic shelters and a viewing platform were put in place, carefully designed to avoid blocks still in private ownership. Weed and rabbit control was undertaken, and the iconic Butterfly sculpture erected in the carpark.
On July 1, 2015, the new Conservation Reserve was finally opened to the public. The official opening, by the then Minister for Environment, Lisa Neville, was celebrated on March 3, 2016.
At a public meeting on September 1, 2015, the Friends of Scenic Estate Reserve was officially formed. The formation was marked by an official launch by the Bass Coast Mayor, Kimberley Brown, at the reserve on 1st Nov 2015.
John Eddy is co-ordinator of the Friends of Scenic Estate Reserve. This is an edited version of a talk he gave to the Phillip Island District Historical Society on March 8, 2017.This essay was first published on the Phillip Island District Historical Society website.