Immigration Story

The original inhabitants of Gippsland, the Kurnai Aboriginal people, have lived in this region for 20,000 years. They numbered about 4,000 when the first Europeans entered Gippsland around 1840. The explorers were mainly Highland Scots, led by Angus McMillan, as well as the Polish Count Strzelecki.

After exploration, prospective squatters came south over the alps and settled on the central Gippsland plain, the Scots to the north, the English around Sale, and the Irish in the south around Yarram. The Highland Scot Alan McLean of Maffra, who came to Gippsland as a young boy in 1842, eventually became Premier of Victoria and Deputy Prime Minister of Australia.

At the same time squatters moved out from Melbourne and settled in the Pakenham district. From that period, the European population has been increasing. Gippsland has experienced a series of immigration waves continuing down to the present.

It was only in the 1860s, with the coming of thousands of goldminers in the mountains of north Gippsland, that the European population exceeded the Aboriginal one. Most miners came from the British Isles. The discoverers of gold-bearing reefs on the Goulburn fields like Gaffney’s Creek were predominantly Irish.

Walhalla had a great cosmopolitan mix, with Germans and Swiss prominent (Walhalla was once known as the ‘Switzerland of the South’). Northern Italians and Swiss from the European Alps were the woodcutters who provided fuel for the boilers at Walhalla. French Canadians and southern Chinese were present on the Omeo goldfields. After gold ran out, some Chinese moved south to the lakes and sold cured fish.

Gold brought in traders, who opened up transport routes. Jewish merchants supplied the gold towns, and Scandinavian and Baltic merchants, builders and seafarers helped set up the infrastructure of the lower lakes. The Danish trader-businessman John Dahlsen of Bairnsdale was representative of this group.

The next big immigration wave was the selectors who moved in from 1875 onwards to set up small dairy farms all over Gippsland, but mainly in the Strzelecki ranges of west and south Gippsland. They were mainly of British Isles origin, but came into Gippsland from western Victoria and Melbourne rather than from overseas. There was a Danish colony at Poowong, and a sprinkling of Swiss families.

Black coal at Wonthaggi from 1910 brought British, Scots and Italian miners among others. Brown coal in the Latrobe valley attracted Australian and British Isles workers to Yallourn in the 1920s.

Further developments from the late 1940s onwards, based on Morwell, brought in the biggest ethnic migration in Gippsland’s history, many of them the victims of the second world war: Italians, Maltese, Greeks and Yugoslavs from southern Europe, and Dutch, Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and Baltic peoples from northern Europe, as well as more immigrants from the British Isles. There was at this time a holding centre for refugees and displaced people at West Sale. The migrants of the Latrobe Valley, especially the large Italian and Greek groups, made significant contributions to the business, cultural and sporting life of their communities.

The numbers in recent immigration waves have not been as great. New Zealanders (including Maoris) started up a rugby team in the Latrobe Valley, Asian students came to Monash University, the Japanese set up a coal-to-oil plant, and small influxes of Russians, Chinese, Europeans and South Americans occurred in the last decade of the 20th century. Sudanese have settled in West and South Gippsland in this century.