57 hectare Churchill Island is the knobbly little bit, on the already fairly knobbly Phillip Island, which creates one of the heads of Western Port Bay. Hopefully you can can see what I mean in the image below.
It is also one of the earliest farms in Victoria and today operates as a heritage farm. I have to admit, as well as the history, one of my primary reasons for visiting was the highland cattle so I’m going to start with a photo of them, and then move back into the history of the island and its farm.
So, the history of Churchill Island starts with the indigenous history. For the Bunurong; Churchill Island is known as Moonahmia. The name comes from the Moonah tree, a type of Melaleuca, that is prevalent on Churchill and is the subject of a really interesting Bunurong legend. It tells of two young lovers who spent all their time embraced in each others arms, they were told that they had to break their embrace to take part in the community and to work. When they refused, they were banished so they went off and they sank into their embrace and froze there. Their entwined bodies became the first Moonah tree on the island. Their children spread across the island covering it in Moonah trees. You can see some of them in the photo below. The trees below are heritage listed and over 500 years old.
The Bunurong used Churchill Island for its abundant marine life and coastal resources, they would have used the island for tens of thousands of years before the advent of European settlement. This was Bunurong land and it is worth noting that when Europeans colonised it, the Bunurong were not consulted.
The indigenous history of the island is worth more than the explanation I have given here, but sadly there isn’t a lot of information available, middens have been found on the island and the first European to land on the island- Lt James Grant- recorded seeing canoes and fires but didn’t record sighting any Bunurong themselves. As with much indigenous history in Victoria the oral record was shattered by European invasion, I have written about this before and you can read it here.
Writing about the early colonisation of Victoria is always fraught, but with a place like Churchill Island where the early European history is of statewide significance, it very much worthwhile exploring. I do so with the disclaimer that as a descendant of early settlers, not in this area but in other parts of Victoria, I have benefited from this colonisation and invasion. In the current climate I believe it is fundamentally important to acknowledge this legacy, that all descendants of early settlers hold. It is the only way to start a real conversation about the true and complex history of the colonisation of this country, and in these discussions we can come to a better understanding of our own history as a country, rather than a glorified fairytale.
But to return to Churchill Island. As previously stated, the first European to land on the island was Lt James Grant. He left England on the Lady Nelson in 1800 to travel to Australia in what would ultimately become several survey expeditions. I won’t go into detail about his travels, you can read his log book on Project Gutenberg, but he arrived in Western Port Bay in 1801 and disembarked on Churchill Island. He named it after a Mr. John Churchill from Devon, who “when the Lady Nelson left England, had given her commander vegetable seeds, the stones of peaches, and the pips of several sorts of apples, telling him “to plant them for the future benefit of our fellow-men, be they countrymen, Europeans or savages.””
Grant followed through on this command, he felled trees, built a block house and sowed a garden. They had no tools though, so he had to use a coal shovel. He described it as “I scarcely know a place I should sooner call mine than this little island.” He didn’t stay though as he continued on, and surveyed the coast down to Wilson’s Promontory before heading back to Sydney.
The next Europeans to settle on Churchill Island were Samuel Pickersgill, his wife Winifred and their three children. They did not own the island and travelled there by boat from French Island in roughly 1860. They built a small house and garden, but left by the middle of the 1860s, before John Rogers bought the lease rights.
So the first Europeans to ‘own’ Churchill Island were John Rogers and his family in the 1860s. He leased it as well as two other islands in Western Port. Churchill was supposed to only be used for grazing stock, but Rogers farmed the land in the face of government prohibition. No action was taken against him by the government though. He lived on the island with his wife Sarah and two of their three children were born there. Their original cottage is still standing and you can see it and some of the interior in the photos below, they also began the gardens.
Rogers mortgaged the Island in 1872.
The next person in Churchill’s story is Samuel Amess. He was a well known stonemason in Melbourne and he built Amess House in 1872, as a holiday house for his family. It remained as a holiday house for the next 57 years through three generations of the Amess family. You can see the beautifully preserved house and its interior in the photos below, the furniture is not original to the house and the rooms are an amalgam of different owners throughout the years.
Amess also introduced farm animals, including highland cattle which he said reminded him of home. A tradition that has continued in the animals at the heritage farm today.
Amess planted this amazing Norfolk pine in celebration of the completion of his house. It was probably propagated by the first Director of the Botanic Gardens Ferdinand Von Mueller
It was under the Amess Family that much of the gardens were laid out as well, and Samuel Amess was a diligent gardener, even extending the orchard.
He is also responsible for the canon from the Confederate warship the Shenandoah which stands in the middle of the garden, he claimed it was given to him by the ship’s captain in return for his hospitality.
Leaving the Amess family for the moment, in 1929 Gerald Neville Buckley bought Churchill Island. Buckley was the son of Mars Buckley who was one of the founders of the Buckley and Nunn drapery store. Buckley never lived on the island, employing brothers Bob and Ted Jeffrey to run the farm. The Jeffreys worked hard to improve the farm on the island, digging a dam and in the 1930s, winning Phillip Island Council’s Better Farming competition. The Comet windmill you can see in the photo below comes from the Jeffreys’ tenure.
As well as expanding the farm the Jeffreys laid a path to the mainland with guideposts indicating the tide level, so you could drive a horse and cart across to the Island at low tide. Buckley promised the brothers that Churchill would go to them on his death, but unfortunately he died suddenly before he could change his will and his relatives in England inherited it, selling off a lot of the furniture and then selling the Island itself to Doctor Harry Jenkins.
Dr Jenkins was a prominent Melbourne dentist and he bought Churchill Island partly as a haven and place of rehabilitation for his son Ted, who’d become paralysed from the waist down after an accident diving when he was 16. They didn’t live on Churchill full time, and employed Eve and Ern Garrett to manage the farm. Another resident was Sister Margaret Campbell, who was Ted’s nurse, but also helped to manage the farm and look after the family when they did visit. it was in this era when the first wooden bridge across to Churchill was built.
During World War Two Ted lived on the Island full time, helping Sister Campbell with the farm. Ted died in 1960 at the age of 41 and Dr Jenkins died three years later at the age of 80. The Island was left to Sister Campbell. She stayed on the Island until 1973 when ill health forced her to leave. Churchill Island was bought by Alex Classou, he was best known for Patra Orange Juice, and he intended to turn it into a horse stud. He was approached by Victorian Conservation Trust and asked if he’d sell Churchill Island to the government. He agreed in 1976 and over the next 30 years the volunteers looked after the island and helped preserve its heritage.
In 1996 Churchill Island was incorporated as part of the Phillip Island Nature Park and restoration of the buildings and the establishment of a working heritage farm commenced. During this period a concrete bridge was built to replace Mr Jenkins’ wooden bridge which was completely full of worms.
You can see the fruits of all the hard work today, as Churchill Island doesn’t only have the buildings, the gardens and the heritage animals it is very much a working farm. You can see some of the agricultural buildings and equipment in the photos below.
Today Churchill Island is part of Phillip Island Nature Parks and is run with the help of the dedicated Friends of Churchill Island Society. It’s a fascinating place to visit, with an excellent visitor’s centre. I also really loved the small details, like the shells as gravel in the gardens, and beautiful lavender hedge and birdbath.
I was also really pleased to discover, what looks like an Annis and George Bills water trough, though the usual epitaph isn’t present. You can read more about the history of these troughs here.
The history on this tiny island is multifaceted and it gives real insight into Victoria’s beginnings. If nothing else, the view is lovely.
Site visit 2020
The photos are all mine