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Preamble – family group emigration from England to Port Phillip, 1849-50

Preamble – family group emigration from England to Port Phillip, 1849-50

During research in 2010 into my family history I was surprised to discover three adult Peck siblings plus an uncle, had come, along with their families, in a migrant party of twenty from southern England to the colonial District of Port Phillip arriving in March 1850, to be joined eight years later by another sibling and his family1. A Minter cousin joined them in the early 1860s, and two sisters of a Peck spouse joined the emigrants. Beginning before gold was discovered in the Australian colonies, twenty four closely related members of the Hedley/ Peck/ Minter families left apparently well established professional households in southeast England for the uncertainties, adventures and opportunities of the new settlement of Port Phillip.

The first permanent European settlement of the District of Port Phillip [the future colony, then state, of Victoria] was from Hobart in 1836 when the future city of Melbourne was founded on the banks of the Yarra River at the head of the large and relatively shallow Port Phillip Bay. For its first fifteen years, the District formed part of the colony of New South Wales (NSW), administered from Sydney. The easily accessible northern and western parts of the District were rapidly opened up for settlement both overland from NSW, and by sea via Melbourne and other coastal ports – notably Geelong and Portland to the west. The rapid growth of the Port Phillip District led to its becoming proclaimed the separate colony of Victoria in July 1851, with Melbourne as its capital city. The discovery of gold in Victoria in November 1851 led to a flood of further immigration and enormous wealth – an early phase of Australia’s series of resources booms. Population in Victoria grew from close to 100,000 in 1851 to over 500,000 by 1861.

But, when Melbourne was first settled in the mid 1830s, the large eastern part of the then District of Port Phillip was unknown and inaccessible to the European settlers. There was no evident port access; east of Melbourne and across northeastern Victoria were steep mountain ranges; southeast of Melbourne was the Koo-wee-rup swamp which made overland travel south of the mountains extremely difficult. Gippsland – as the area later became known - was well protected by natural barriers.

It was not until 1840 that drought affected pastoralists in the Monaro area of the southern highlands of New South Wales began to seek new pasture lands to their south. Angus McMillan was the first European to reach the Gippsland plains via this mountain route from the north along the Tambo River valley. The Polish-born explorer Count Strzelecki followed soon after, eventually reaching Melbourne after a difficult traverse. Very quickly other pastoralists followed McMillan. These squatters staked claims in the extensive grassy plains of inland Gippsland. While squatting led to quick take-up of large areas of Crown land, squatters were obliged to use all the land they claimed, or yield their government leases to others. At an annual rental of some ten pounds per lease, the land was cheap, but to use it required considerable capital in the purchase of sheep and cattle, and the hiring of workers to manage the flocks. Squatting runs came first, with clusters of people living around the different homesteads – towns came later to Gippsland. Sheep proved unsuited to the climate and it was cattle which thrived, with a ready market for beef in the penal settlement of Van Dieman’s land to the south. In 1847 squatting leases were extended for 14 years, after which squatters had first right to purchase part of their runs at the time that Gippsland was gradually opened up to more intensive agricultural uses and settlement.

Central and Eastern Victoria – extracted and drawn from Map of Victoria including the pastoral runs & c. with alterations to 1869…70 [cartographic material] by William Owen 1869. (Source: Map.RM 3596/1 National Library of Australia)

The shallow port of Port Albert was discovered in 1841 – both from land and from sea. For twenty years Port Albert thrived as the shipping gateway to Gippsland – supplanted initially by Lakes Entrance for shipping and then by the arrival of rail and road overland from Melbourne in the 1870s.

Migration is at the basis of all settlement in Australia – first Aboriginal, tens of thousands of years ago – then European, beginning some 230 years ago – more recently people from a wide range of origins have arrived seeking to settle in Australia. Why do they come? What has been the importance of family-based migration? What has been the experience of individuals and groups after arrival? In what ways do they maintain contact within the group which migrated?

These questions, applied to the Hedley - Peck - Minter party, are central to this text and will be explored in different ways throughout. I return to review these questions in the concluding section.

Click on the following link to read the next section of the story: Why leave England?

1 I am a direct descendant of four of the migrants who arrived at Port Phillip on the ship Brothers in March 1850: Michael Minter and his wife Eleanor Edmonds Minter née Jeffery; and their daughter Ada who married her cousin, James Peck, in 1864.