French Island is situated in Western Port Bay, about 70 km south-east of Melbourne. Phillip Island lies to the south at the entrance of the bay. French Island is approximately 20 km long and 14 km wide and covers 154 sq km. Much of the coastline is surrounded by mangroves, and natural heathland covers a large part of the island. The highest point is Mount Wellington, 96 metres above sea level. There are two settlements, Tankerton and Fairhaven, on the western side of the island.
In 1802 the island was circumnavigated by a French scientific expedition and named Ile de Francais, hence its name. Although some middens and stone axes have been found, it appears that Aborigines only visited the island seasonally to hunt and collect birds' eggs.
The island was first occupied in 1844 when two men briefly manufactured barilla from mangroves. Burnt mangroves produced an ash then used in the manufacture of soap and glass. In 1850, the island was leased as a pastoral run. Land was subdivided from 1867. Attempts to establish salt works were not successful.
During the 1890s economic depression six settlements were planned for the unemployed. These were named Energy, Star of Hope, Industrial, Perseverance, Callanan's and Kiernan's. Lack of roads, fresh water and building materials doomed the settlements to failure and few of the settlers stayed on the island.
During this time, chicory was first planted on French Island. It was grown until the 1960s and at its peak there were 22 chicory kilns. Potatoes, peas and onions have been grown commercially but now the raising of fat lambs and beef cattle is the main enterprise. The islanders also harvest seaweed which is dried for use as home insulation.
In 1916 the McLeod prison settlement was set up in the south-east of the island. It was named after the Chief Secretary at the time. The inmates worked on the prison farm and planted pines on deforested land. Concrete cells, begun in 1946, eventually housed 127 prisoners. The prison was closed in 1975. The National Fitness Council ran camps there until the 1980s.
During the 1960s and 1970s industrial development on the nearby mainland attracted attention to French Island. Proposals ranged from a nuclear power station to petrochemical plant and jet airport. BHP, Hooker Rex and the State Electricity Commission paid inflated prices for land, inducing land owners to sell up and move off the island. An outcry from environmentalists led to scientific studies of the flora and fauna of the island. These investigations found a varied wildlife, including the rare White-breasted Sea Eagle and Short-nosed Potoroo. Koalas, although introduced, breed so prolifically that they are used to restock depleted colonies elsewhere. The vegetation is diverse, with the coastal mangroves and the large number of orchids of special interest. This knowledge led to the reservation of a State Park in 1978 covering about 40% of the island, increasing to 70% in 1997. The waters north of the island are a marine park (2002).
The island has its own independent character. It is not included in a local government area so residents pay no rates. As there is no reticulated electricity, generators and kerosene and gas appliances provide basic comforts. There are only dirt roads. Access to the island has always been a problem, there being no deep water close to high tide mark. A tidal jetty was built at Tankerton about 1890 but was not adequate. Jetties at Fairhaven and at Long Point on the south coast were also not satisfactory. Eventually the Tankerton jetty was extended. Now, a ferry service operates between Cowes on Phillip Island and Stony Point on the mainland, calling at Tankerton. Livestock are shipped by barge during high tide from the east side of the island to Corinella on the mainland.
In 1911, the population was 149, in 1933 it was 204. The prison had a population of about 150 in its later years while the rest of the population dropped to about 70. There have been several schools at times, including one at the prison farm. Now, the Perseverance primary school (16 pupils, 2014) operates and secondary school students travel by ferry to Hastings. There is a Memorial Hall, a general store, tennis court and cricket and football field.
Many historically significant buildings remain on the island. Isolation forced the use of local materials and several chicory kilns and old buildings exhibit early building methods.
French Island's census populations have been:
|French Island and McLeod||2006||89|
On census night in 2011, 44 of the 99 dwellings were occupied.
J. Bognuda, French Island: preserving the future, 1983
Des Quinn, Birds of French Island wetlands, Richmond, 1999