SHIPPING in Western Port today avoids the large buoy that marks McHaffies Reef. In 1862 the only navigation aid in the area was a small wooden beacon supporting a lamp on the high land behind the reef. The lamp was tended by Georgiana McHaffie, nee Henderson.
From 1862 to 1883 Georgiana kept a diary which is still the best and most reliable source of information on the hard lives of the first settlers in Phillip Island. It tells of hardship endured and overcome, of love and of courage on a new frontier.
William James McHaffie came to Australia aboard the 'Palmyra' in November 1839. His younger brother, James, sailed with him but died on the voyage, probably from typhoid fever. William then sent to Canada for his other brother, John David McHaffie.
The brothers were the first real settlers on the island, though there were seven sealers living on the shore when they arrived. At first they had to negotiate the removal of a large herd of pigs belonging to Charles Manton, the so-called “Squire of Somerville”. Manton had a station on the Mornington Peninsula. Most of the pigs were eventually removed but those that escaped the roundup bred in the scrub and provided the McHaffies with an occasional change of diet.
After five years the government increased the annual licence fee to £17 pounds and 10 shillings for a total of 9841 hectares.
The land was cleared by the simple expedient of burning it off and then picking up the remaining logs from any area that was to be ploughed. This was a standard technique in those days. It was cheap, it was fast, it added potash to the soil and it allowed rapid germination of grass seed in the ashes.
William apparently decided Australia was not for him, because he returned to Scotland, though he later came back to Australia for a holiday. John McHaffie stayed behind on the land and in March 1861, almost 20 years after migrating, he married Georgiana Henderson, daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy. She was a very capable lady, possessed of singular grace, who'd come to Victoria in 1852 to seek work as a governess.
She was also the perfect settler's wife. A book on Phillip Island has said of her “She nursed her family and members of staff through various epidemics ... and also cared for cases of accident.
“She was an efficient housekeeper, pianist and keen gardener ... baked bread for the station, made large quantities of jam, could set up a cask of home-made sherry, was a dressmaker ... and apparently thought nothing of riding for the mail to the Eastern Passage, 12 miles distant, shooting game, mustering sheep or tending ewes during the lambing season."
These are from the diary for 1862:
“Saturday 10 May: Left St Kilda for home. Reached the Long Beach Restaurant at 9 o'clock.
“Sunday 11 May: Slept on the table; went on in a dogcart; met Cavell, who took us to Snapper Point.
“Monday 12 May: Left the 'Mornington' for Sandy point and reached the island just before dark."
Snapper Point was an early name for Mornington and the 'Mornington' to which she refers is almost certainly the Mornington Hotel, over which local historians have long argued, some placing it at Cranbourne, or even Narre Warren, while Georgiana places it, quite unsurprisingly, at Mornington.
The Acclimatisation Society used Phillip Island (once called the Ile des Anglais) as something of a proving ground and McHaffie supported its activities. Deer were the most successful introduction and for some years they bred well. In the 1860s he introduced three fallow deer, a buck and two does. Red deer were also released but it seems all the deer were gone by about 1920. They were believed to damage the chicory and potato crops, and sportsmen from Melbourne joined the local farmers in waging war on them.
Strangely enough, there is little recorded information on John D. McHaffie himself. It is known that he was a capable and diligent farmer. He saw the value in “dipping” sheep and had a dip built near the Newhaven lagoon in 1867, long before sheep dipping was common, let alone mandatory.
We know, too, that he struggled hard to keep the land from being thrown open for selection, although he was a great help to the selectors when that fight was lost.
His main opponent in the battle to keep his station intact was Dr L. L. Smith, who represented the area in the Legislative Assembly from 1859 to 1894. Smith was a man of great eloquence and he was tireless in his efforts to have the land thrown open to all. His main problem was that the government believed the island to be agriculturally worthless.
Smith managed to have a survey carried out and on November 3, 1868 Phillip Island had its first land sale. On 26 December, township allotments at Rhyll were auctioned and blocks at Cowes were sold on 26 January 1869 at prices ranging up to £41.
In 1868, with his holdings on the island reduced to 202 hectares, McHaffie bought a run at Yanakie, on the Wilsons Promontory isthmus. John Leeson went down to manage it in 1871 and the first load of wool from there came up to Melbourne in 1873. An entry in the McHaffie diary reads: "1873, January, Wednesday 1st. Lock came up from Yanakie with our first load of wool."
One tale that has survived is of the day McHaffie decided to save some gunpowder that had got wet in a boating accident. He dried the gunpowder in a frying pan over an open fire, bending over it to stir it with a spoon so that it would dry evenly! Apparently the rest of the household found work that needed doing at some considerable distance from the house until McHaffie's perilous task was completed. Perhaps it is true after all: the one thing a Scot cannot bear is waste.
John Wells is a Gippsland historian and author. His books include Colourful Tales of Old Gippsland and Gippsland - People, a Place and their Past. This essay was first published in the West Gippsland Trader.