Key periods in Cardinia Shire's history

For thousands of years, the area that became Cardinia Shire was used and modified by the Bunurong people. In the northern part of the shire, in the Dandenong Ranges, they mixed with the Wurundjeri people. These peoples were known as the Kulin Nation people who spoke common language and shared sacred sites. The knowledge of these Indigenous communities was used by early explorers and settlers from the 1830s onwards to open up the land, and was reflected in the formation of some early stock routes and tracks used by the pioneers. This influenced the route of many of today’s main roads such as South Gippsland Highway and Princes Highway.

Indigenous communities are also remembered in the names and meanings given to places and landscapes, including the name of Cardinia Shire itself. Understanding the evidence of the pre-contact landscape and how it influenced the early settlement of the Shire is fundamental to an understanding of its later historic development. A number of place names in the Shire came from Indigenous names, including Cardinia (sunrise), Koo Wee Rup (black fish swimming), Lang Lang (grove of trees), Monomeith (good and beautiful), Yallock (water or creek), and Yannathan (to walk).

Land settlement in the pastoral era began with the arrival of the first squatters in the late 1830s, reaching its peak by the 1860s, and began to wane with the opening up of the land for selection from the 1860s onward. The primary activity associated with this stage was grazing, horse breeding and racing. This development phase established the potential of the area as a rich agricultural district.

The area now known as Cardinia Shire was significant for the unusually large number of pastoral leases and later pre-emptive rights around homesteads, especially in the central part of the Shire, as a reflection of the wealth of the settlers in the Western Port area. Most leases were held by the powerful Mickle, Bakewell and Lyell partnership, in areas elevated above the swampland.

Homestead sites, old trees and land forms survive from this era, with runs such as Mt Ararat, Gin Gin Bean, Mount Pleasant, Panty Gurn Gurn and others evident on old parish plans. While the mountainous areas were largely ignored by squatters, they were an attraction for gold seekers from the 1850s, especially the Emerald area. Early gold routes and the Menzies Creek alluvial gold field are signs of this period.

To allow for settlement of the influx of gold seekers in the 1850s, a series of Land Acts in the 1860s opened up much of Victoria for land selection. By the early 20th century, most of the land in Cardinia Shire had been taken up, particularly after the draining of the Koo Wee Rup Swamp opened the land for agriculture. This led to the decline of grazing and the development of a diverse farming community.

The rolling hills and densely vegetated northern areas of the shire, defined by hedgerows, windbreaks, tree rows and clusters of farm buildings and mature exotic trees, are an important part of Cardinia Shire’s character today. Gentlemen’s farms were also developed and places such as Upper Beaconsfield became a summer retreat for Melbourne’s wealthy and charitable institutions seeking sanatorium sites. Large houses in ornamental grounds survive today.

Economically, Cardinia Shire thrived from the late 19th century; major industries were stimulated greatly by the construction of rail lines from the 1870s which provided an outlet to markets. Many industries flourished in the region, including dairying, orchards, market gardens and nurseries, timber felling and sawmilling, and charcoal burning, eucalyptus oil extraction, quarrying, brick making and mining were also developed.

The coming of the railway created a new industry of tourism, especially in the mountainous areas to the north. The railways, and later improvements to roads in the 20th century, also had a great influence on the pattern of settlement attracting village townships along these arterials.

While some townships served the local farming community, others were focussed on a single industry such as timber towns and tourist resorts. The prosperity brought about by this era led to the construction of fine residential, civic and commercial buildings in the larger townships. Local government authorities were established, beginning with the road boards in the early 1860s, followed by municipal councils in the late 1860s.

After World War I and under the Discharged Soldier Settlement Act 1917 a number of large farming estates were subdivided into smaller holdings around the Koo Wee Rup, Bunyip, Gembrook, Iona and Tonimbuk areas, to promote more intensive working of rural land. Settlement was aided by construction of railway lines, including the Gippsland line, the Great Southern Railway and the Strzelecki line. In the northern part of the shire, the narrow-gauge Gembrook line was constructed in 1899–1900 (now Puffing Billy), providing access to Melbourne markets for fruit growers, nurseries, timber and potato producers and nursery owners, and made it an easily accessible weekend destination for tourists. Construction of guest houses and weekender cottages followed.

The shire’s townships continued to remain small and by the early 20th century, the landscape of the Shire, particularly the areas in and around Koo Wee Rup, had been transformed into the open farming landscape that exists today.

Existing townships grew during the postwar era and Pakenham emerged as the major township by the mid-1960s. From the 1970s Pakenham began to show aspects of a commuter suburb of Melbourne, though it still served the needs of the local farming community. Despite suburban expansion, most of Cardinia Shire’s settlements remain quite small. In the postwar period, new village settlements were still being formed; Maryknoll, a cooperative Christian community formed in 1952 is a notable example.

Outside the townships a rural and semi-rural character survives; farming has remained a major land use, especially in the former swamplands, and orchards survive in the mountainous regions. The tourist industry is important in the present day; however, other early extractive industries, such as quarrying, sawmilling and brickmaking, have greatly declined.

The Beaconsfield to Pakenham area, stretching along the Princes Highway has been identified for further suburban development as the farthest area in the south-east growth corridor designated in the Victorian Government’s Melbourne 2030 plan.