The first recorded licence for grazing rights was taken out by Edward Hobson in 1838. His cattle run extended from Boneo to Point Nepean, the fee for this lease being £10 per annum.
He was followed in 1842/3 by James Sandle Ford who settled permanently at Portsea. He developed the land, brought in stock, rearing cattle and breeding horses, these being of use in stocking the runs of other settlers in the district, and held grazing rights extending over a large area of the Mornington Peninsula. He built his own lime kiln, planted crops and quickly developed a trade with ships arriving from England who were in urgent need of fresh foodstuffs. In addition to supplying the needs of the Peninsula he also exported produce to Melbourne.
Until 1865 an area of land near St. John’s Wood Road was used for the grazing of police horses. This area was near the back beach and had a great advantage in that there was a permanent spring which was available for watering the horses under any conditions. This spring still exists on a property now called “Possum Park”.
The Lime Burners
In 1838 much public and private building construction was under way in Melbourne and lime was urgently needed for cementing the stone blocks together. It was in this same year that the first recorded permit to burn lime at Point Nepean was granted to a Mr. Berry by the N.S.W. Government.
The limestone was found in thick layers about 18 inches below the surface, and was burned in kilns where it was stacked in alternate layers with wood. The residue was scraped out on a hearth, bagged and despatched to Melbourne. These early kilns were also known as bush kilns.
Soon a busy fleet of lime ships plied between The Heads and Melbourne. Nepean limestone was brought to the fore when J. P. Fawkner inserted this advertisement in his paper on 22nd July, 1839—
“The constant demand for lime and the great superiority of the Nepean Limestone has induced J. P. Fawkner to procure a large quantity of that useful article. It will be sold at the wharf at £2 per ton to persons wishing to purchase, and will be carted free of expense to any part of the town.”
The pioneer lime burners were followed by prospector lime burners who appreciated the significance of the availability of limestone within a reasonable distance of the expanding Melbourne and who were determined to establish themselves in what promised to be a lucrative industry.
Lime burning became the chief means of livelihood in the area from 1840 onwards. Some kilns were located by the foreshore when lime deposits were discovered nearby. The smaller kilns produced some 50 bags of lime every 24 hours, and the larger ones 75 bags. They were loaded by placing three feet or so of kindling at the base, then heavier wood, followed by 18in. layers of limestone and 12in. layers of wood alternately to the top of the kiln. The heights varied from 20ft. to 50ft. Later properly constructed conical kilns lined with hand made bricks were used, some being built into a cliff face.
Some of the early families and much of the work force used to operate the kilns came direct from the sailing ships which anchored off The Heads in order to take on board supplies of fresh meat and vegetables — sorely needed after months of dry rations. Thus, some settlers, Chinese and Portuguese emigrants and sailors deserted these ships and remained to do quarrying and carting. Their housing was of the most primitive, just wattle and daub huts, tents and bark humpies. Later houses and roads were made from the local limestone. Aborigines were also used in the labour force.
Early records indicate that by 1845 there were 17 kilns burning lime at The Heads and some 20 limecraft engaged in taking lime up to Melbourne and returning with stores. The bagged lime was taken by drays and bullock team to the beach at a spot where the craft could come close inshore, then it was carried through the shallows by men to loading boats and in turn loaded on the lime craft. Later small jetties were built so that the lime could more easily and directly be loaded into the schooners, which were generally of 30 to 40 tons capacity.
At the time of the advent of the lime burners the countryside was described as being similar to that noted by earlier expeditions, viz, the undulating country covered with she-oak, banksias and swamp gums growing in a carpet of thick grass. However the limeburners used great quantities of the banksias and she-oaks in their kilns and later large quantities of the wood were transported to Melbourne for use in the bakers’ ovens. Gradually the Tea-tree grew and covered the peninsula as can be seen today.
The years 1842 and 1843 were significant years at The Heads as they marked the arrival of the pioneer settlers. James Sandle Ford referred to previously, was closely followed by Edward Skelton who had already spent some time in the Colony living at Williamstown. He settled at Shelly Beach also known as Skelton’s Flat. The Sullivan family arrived by lime craft from Canvas Town (Melbourne) landing at Shelly Beach. After a dispute with the Skeltons they took up land, under licence, where the Quarantine Station was later built. A description of their house is available;
it was based on the style of an Irish bog hut, reminiscent of their homeland. It measured 60ft. x 12 ft. and was divided into compartments. The outer walls were 12in. thick and the roof was of split palings overlaid like shingles.
They raised cattle, grew potatoes and other crops. They built their kiln into the cliff face above the beach; it can be readily identified looking west from Portsea pier, it appears as a tunnel shaped hole in the middle of Weeroona Bay cliff. Unfortunately they found the limestone too flinty to burn properly.
These neighbours were joined by James McGrath who settled on an adjacent property. These four families were the earliest permanent residents at The Heads; needless to say they intermarried and many of their descendants still live on the peninsula.
The settlement grew and by 1845 Ford’s farm, known as the Station, was well developed. The Ford Homestead was erected and also several small huts for the limeburners, and outbuildings with a well near by. Grazing paddocks and a garden were situated in low land – water being obtained from two large lagoons. The general location was in the vicinity of the Portsea Back Beach Road and Franklin Road being approximately in the centre of the fenced area. The cypress trees bordering Nepean Highway, a feature of Portsea, were planted by Ford. About 1860 he built the first pier at Portsea. Additions were made to it by the Harbour Trust and, in later rebuilding, the original structure disappeared, although the site is the original one.
Today little remains of the many jetties, quarries or the schooners, although traces of the kilns remain, several being in a good state of preservation.
The Fishing Industry
Of all the groups of commercial fishermen who operated in the Sorrento-Portsea area, perhaps the best known was the Watson family: three brothers, James, Henry and John left Scotland in 1855 and all eventually arrived at Portsea, establishing themselves in the industry to which they had been born and bred. They selected an area on Weeroona Bay which was already being operated by a man called Jack Inglis who turned it over to them and left for Queenscliff. They were later joined by a younger brother, Alec, who as well as being a fisherman, tried his hand at growing tobacco which, however, he was unable to cure properly. He also applied himself to lime burning and later built a cottage to which he added a bar, obtained a licence and thus started the Portsea Hotel. However he lived mainly on the beach where he and his Scottish wife raised a family of ten children.
The four brothers operated a very well organised fishing set up, consisting of a camp on the beach near their own huts, where all gear was stored and where there were bunks for the men to have a nap. Straight up the cliff, 104 feet, they built a look-out at a spot where the shoals of fish entering the main channel between the sand banks could be readily discerned. This look-out was manned from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and immediately the lookout man sighted the grey cloud in the water he gave the alarm through their system consisting of two bells, each one being erected on a hut at opposite ends of the camp, attached by a strong wire to the look-out. When giving the signal, the look-out man would pull the wire ringing the bell attached to the hut nearest the shoal. Immediately there would be activity, all men rushing to the boats, pushing them out and rowing with muffled oars, all the time watching for signals from the look-out man. If he waved his left hand they took out the 200 fathoms net, but if his right, then the 100 fathom net was used. One hand up meant, go quietly, as there was a porpoise close behind, both hands conveyed that there were a hundred dozen boxes in the shoal and to take the biggest net, but a blow on the whistle indicated look out for sharks. When they returned with their catch, women and children, in fact, everyone in the vicinity, helped to haul in the nets, it being no light task. In time they built their own jetty and pens in which to house the fish until they were able to transport them to market. The catch usually consisted of salmon, trout, mullet with sometimes yellowtail giants weighing as much as 90lbs.
Some of the fishermen lived In stone houses on top of the cliff and others in the cottages on the beach; for these latter they paid no rates as they were on Government land by right of their fishing licences.
John later set up his camp in the area now occupied by the Sorrento Sailing Club, and used the Western Sister for his look-out.
The cottages on the beach have now been pulled down (in 1965) owing to the expiration of their fishing rights licence.