A Brief History of the Margaret River Region

What a long history; human settlement goes back 48,000 years!

People have been in the Margaret River Region for an astoundingly long time. Artefacts and traces of the Noongar people dating back 48,000 years still lie in a cave called Devil’s Lair within the Boranup Forest. The Noongar people lived in balance with the land and sea for tens of thousands of years and had a unique identity and strong sense of family and culture. But as we are all now aware, it became a very sad story of conflict, oppression and marginalisation over the 200 years of colonisation by the Europeans.

Europeans arrive

The first European sighting of the area was in 1621 when the Dutch vessel ‘Leeuwin’ spotted a tip of land that was later named Cape Leeuwin. In 1801, Nicholas Baudin named Geographe Bay and Cape Naturaliste after his ships, the Geographe and the Naturaliste.

Leeuwin Replica sails

Replica of the Leeuwin still sails out of Fremantle today. Image from www.marinetraffic.com.

Augusta, on the southern tip, was settled in 1830 after Albany (1826) and the Swan River Colony (1829). However, clearing the land occupied by the Karri forest was an insurmountable task, which once accomplished left behind infertile soil. So in 1832, the Bussell, Turner, Molloy, Chapman and Layman families headed north to settle and in 1836 the Busselton town site was established.

Busselton became popular with whalers working on the Southern Ocean. A whaling station was established at Castle Bay near Dunsborough in 1845, and operated until whaling ceased in 1872.

Eventually, the land was found to be suitable for grazing and began to supply the Swan River colony in Perth. In 1865 the first leg of the Busselton Jetty was constructed to support the export of the growing timber and agriculture industries. The jetty was extended a few times, reaching 1.8 kilometres long by about 1955.

Group settlement policy is a disaster

Busselton remained a small settlement until the ‘Group Settlement Policy’ moved people into the area in 1921. This Policy, which promised European settlers free ownership of a lush green farm with a comfortable house, was a disaster. Settlers were given small, windowless humpies that baked in the heat and they were subjected to great deprivation, poverty, incredibly hard work, flies and ants.

The land and humpies were free, but by 1924 other costs borne by the settlers left 1/3 so indebted that they abandoned the farms. These costs included the voyage, land surveying, buying farming implements and animals, and building decent homes. When the Great Depression hit most remaining new settlers abandoned the area.

Jetties, timber mills and railways support new industry

In 1864, work on the 1.8 km long Busselton Jetty began, and its first stage was completed in 1865 with a length of 176 meters. Over the next 95 years, many extensions were built to accommodate bigger ships and constant silting of the bay. It reached its final length in 1960.

Busselton Jetty now stands at 1.8 km long.

Busselton Jetty image courtesy of Christian Fletcher.

In 1881, MC Davies had built jetties near Augusta at Hamelin and Flinders Bays. In 1882, he built a mill at Karridale, followed by another mill at Boranup.

Not much is left of the Hamelin Bay jetty

Hamelin Bay jetty burnt down sometime in the early 1900s. Image courtesy of Tourism WA.

In 1895, MC Davies and Mr Wishart then built the Cape Leeuwin lighthouse and three cottages. The lighthouse was operational on Dec 10 1896.

Margaret River township was also part of the ‘Group Settlement Policy’. In the 1920s, wheat and dairy farming were prospering, so government completed the Busselton-Margaret River Railway. The railway was closed in 1957. Today, part of the old railway line forms the Wadandi biking and walking track.

And then came grapevines and surfing

Beef, dairy and sheep farming remained the main agricultural activities until the late 1960s, when grape vines were planted and wine started to be made. Mr Bill Vasse and Dr Tom Cullity are credited with planting the first vines; half an acre of Cabernet Sauvignon and Rhine Riesling. In 1971, Dr Cullity established the first winery in the area, Vasse Felix.

Grapevines by Christian Fletcher

Image courtesy of Christian Fletcher.

Surfing really took hold in the Region in 1985, when the first professional surfing competition, the Margaret River Thriller, was held. Today, the yearly Margaret River Pro surfing competition attracts competitors from all over the world. For an intermediate to advanced surfer, the coastline is littered with fantastic surf spots, although its popularity means that crowds abound in summer. Winter is a lot quieter, when the surf is said to be far better. And because the Leeuwin Current flows just offshore, the winter water temperatures are quite reasonable.

Surfer near Margaret River

Image courtesy of Tourism WA.

Today there is a thriving wine industry in the region that helps to attract over 2.4 million visitors a year. Whale watching, fishing, boating, hiking, cycling, beach going, wine touring, music and sporting events are all great reasons to visit the region.

We’ll see you here soon!