Over 180 years ago Edward Henty arrived in Portland. Journalist Jenny McLaren discovers his story with the help of Graeme Firth, who says Henty, as the founder of Victoria, has not gained the recognition he deserves.
FOR most Victorians, last Sunday, November 19 was memorable for little more than being a glorious sunny day to finish the weekend.
If you’re a Beatles tragic, there’s a slim chance you might connect November 19 with the 1967 release of their Magical Mystery Tour LP.
US history buffs might recognise it as the date President Abraham Lincoln delivered his historic 1863 Gettysburg Address of the American Civil War.
But the event that shaped Victoria’s history and happened right on our doorstep here in the south-west is barely recognised.
On November 19, 1834, nearly 30 years before Lincoln’s defining speech, 24-year-old Edward Henty dropped anchor in Portland Bay after a tumultuous, 34-day Bass Strait crossing from Launceston in the modest family brigantine schooner, the Thistle.
That he, and later his band of brothers chose to put down roots in this remote whaling outpost would enshrine Edward Henty’s name in the history books as the first white settler of what would become Victoria.
Last weekend’s passing of the 183rd anniversary of Henty’s arrival, without fanfare and barely a ripple of public interest, has prompted some local history buffs to call for greater recognition of the date with an eye on the looming 2034 bicentenary.
Passionate Portland amateur historian Graeme Firth said he was disappointed by the lack of public acknowledgement of this year’s anniversary.
“I feel not enough attention is being paid to the founder of Victoria,” Mr Firth said.
“Edward and his brother Stephen did a hell of a lot in founding this area in permanency.
“Henty’s arrival in Portland and what he did, affected the heritage of this area and we need to be celebrating not only his arrival but also going back thousands of years with the indigenous heritage.”
Mr Firth said he believed a strong heritage base was vital to help bind the community together.
Portland resident Gilbert Wilson said the city needed to prepare for the bicentenary and soon, proposing the 185th anniversary in 2019 as the ideal springboard.
“With 2034 approaching fairly quickly, the community ought to start looking at planning for that. I think the 185th could be the catalyst we need to start the ball rolling.”
A Glenelg shire councillor, Mr Wilson stressed it was his personal view, rather than that of council, that November 19 should be regarded as the state’s birthday.
“But it is also a time when the Aboriginal community feel the pain of the white man coming into their area. There were a lot of atrocities that happened that the community don’t necessarily know about and I am mindful that to this day, cause a sector of our community some grief.”
Mr Wilson advocated a “united community approach with our Aboriginal partners” to celebrate the day.
“We need to celebrate our heritage more extensively no matter what culture.”
Local Gunditjmara elder Denis Rose views a Henty bicentenary as a possible opportunity to recognise the impact of European settlement on indigenous culture.
“If we are going to do something (for the bicentenary), it certainly needs the involvement of the Gunditjmara,” Mr Rose said.
“We need to take these steps to really see Australia as starting, not just from 1770 or 1834, but that it has a deeper history. We need to share that history and we need to share it truthfully,” he said.
“The story needs to be looked at from our point of view, of the dispossession of our country, and this happened very quickly in our part of Victoria. We have been excluded from our lands for many years and we are only now starting to get some of it back.
“We need to have the opportunity to tell that story.”
Portland historian and author Bernard Wallace regards the Henty anniversary as a significant one for the state, crediting Edward and his siblings with bestowing an indelible footprint of a rich historical legacy on the district.
Describing the Hentys as “a family of high achievers”, Mr Wallace said while Edward was the acknowledged founder of Victoria’s first permanent white settlement, he regarded his brother Stephen as more valuable in promoting the area. Described variously as a merchant, ship owner, explorer, whaler and magistrate, Stephen was said to be active in all civic affairs.
“As a family unit the Hentys were the men of the moment for the first 15 years of European settlement, probably up until the gold rush. They were a very energetic family,” Mr Wallace said.
“It would be fair to say that settlement of Victoria would have been delayed by several years if not for the Hentys.
“They were in everything: public life, politics, industry, shipping, the opening up of the inland. They were good citizens.”
“People tend to think of them now as rich old men, but when they were young, their diaries show they were out and about and they led from the front. They were good quality yeomen farmers who employed people and worked alongside them.”
He agreed that where once the November 19 date was used to celebrate the city’s milestones; becoming a town in 1949, the opening of the port in 1960, the centenary and sesquicentenary in 1934 and 1984 respectively; its significance had waned in more recent times.
“With the passing of time, it really has been forgotten somewhat, our memories fade a bit.”
He said it was up to local residents to agitate for greater recognition for the anniversary.
Glenelg Shire Council said it would consider a bicentenary event and welcomed suggestions for an annual celebration to recognise the Henty family.
Shire acting CEO Edith Farrell said the Henty family featured prominently in the shire’s annual April National Trust Heritage Week activities and through the work of shire cultural collection officer Trevor Smith who manages an extensive cultural collection.
Ms Farrell said the shire was proud of its cultural heritage which included both Victoria’s first European settlers and the Gunditjmara people whose heritage dated back more than 6000 years.
“Our shire has one of the busiest event schedules in regional Victoria and we work tirelessly to showcase our rich cultural heritage at all of our events.” She cited the upcoming inaugural Hooked on Portland festival on next year’s Australia Day long weekend as a showcase of the shire’s “deep cultural roots”.
Of the shire’s considerable cultural collection, it is a Henty relic, a single-furrow plough used to turn the first sod of Victorian soil in Portland Bay, that is regarded as one of the two most culturally significant artefacts not only to the city, but the state. The other is the Portland lifeboat used in the Admella shipwreck rescue of 1859.
Just a fortnight after Henty’s arrival in 1834, on the windswept clifftop paddock known today as The Ploughed Field on modern-day Bentinck Street, his workman Robert Crowley used the plough to till the soil for Victoria’s first crop of potatoes.
Pre-dating Melbourne’s existence by six months, the plough is recorded in the Thistle’s manifest of November 19, 1834, among Henty’s assorted necessities for settlement. He also brought with him 2500 bricks, three kegs of nails, a bundle of saws, chain and tools, plenty of timber to build houses, as well as cattle, pigs, dogs, turkeys, plants and vines.
Trevor Smith is hopeful that Henty treasures like the plough, now the centrepiece of Portland’s History House display, will form part of a substantial exhibition of Henty family memorabilia to be curated for the 185th anniversary in 2019.
Edward Henty’s November 19, 1834 arrival in Portland Bay was followed a month later by that of his brother Francis, bringing with him the first Merino sheep to the future state.
Brothers Stephen and John joined them in 1936, heralding the start of a diverse and extensive family enterprise from which they would ultimately make their fortunes.
The Hentys initially began whaling at Portland Bay before setting their sights on pastoral pursuits, pushing inland with their flocks of sheep and herds of cattle to open up rich tracts of land along the Wannon River. By 1840 they owned six sheep stations, three along the coast and three inland on the Merino Downs. Currently undergoing restoration, the Georgian-style mansion, Burswood, built by Edward and his wife Anne remains a Portland landmark.
Both Edward and Stephen later served in Parliament, Edward as the member for Normanby in the Legislative Assembly from 1851-61 and Stephen as member for Western Province in the Legislative Council from 1856-70.