King Island is in Bass Strait, midway between Cape Otway, Victoria, and Cape Grim, Tasmania. Its area is 1,100 square kilometres, and it is part of Tasmania. Its sixty-five kilometres of western coastline faces the roaring forties.
The island was sighted, but probably not landed on, in 1797. It was further sighted by Lt. Matthew Flinders and Captain John Black in 1789 and 1801. Black named it after Governor King of New South Wales. It was frequented by sealing vessels. In 1802 Lt. Charles Robbins in the “Cumberland”, acting on instructions to forestall French occupation, met the Baudin expedition’s ships in Sea Elephant Bay on the east side of the island. Robbins formally took possession of King Island. By 1813 seals and sea elephants were virtually exterminated.
Evidence has been found of Aboriginal occupation, dating from 14,500 years ago to 1,100 years ago. Sites include a cave, middens and stone scatters.
King Island is low-lying, with a maximum elevation of about 160 metres at the south near Grassy. The west side is predominantly undulating grassed sandy loams, once forested but reduced to tea-tree and melaleuca scrub, and windbreaks where remaining. There are many lagoons and lakes, one perched. The east side had greater scenic value and the larger area of tree cover (Pegarah forest and pine plantation). The ecology has been much altered: forests were harvested, the remains falling victim to occasional fierce fires; the King Island emu, seals and sea elephants, wombats and a tiger cat were hunted to extinction. As a balancing item foxes and rabbits have been kept off the island, and introduced turkeys, peacocks and pheasants have multiplied. Cypress-hedge windbreaks are a dominant aspect of the landscape, along with some box thorn hedges. Bracken infestation has become evident on some farms in the north of the island.
Apart from sealing parties, the island was not settled by white people until a lessee took up pastoral occupation in 1855. Farm selections began in 1888. A road trust was formed in 1900, to be superseded by the King Island municipality in 1907. The main town is Currie.
After the first world war a scheelite mine was developed at Grassy (1917) and soldier-settlement farms were taken up in 1919-20. It is believed that the first or second farmers usually failed, but left behind sufficient improvements for the third to succeed. Beginning with the fattening of sheep and cattle, dairying increased in importance. The application of mineral trace elements to coastal farms corrected poor stock conditions, due to an animal ailment known as coastiness. There was further soldier settlement in 1948, and by the 1969s sheep and meat cattle holdings had increased.
The climate of King Island gives moderate winter and summer temperatures, providing all-year pasture growth. This has been good for milk supply, which ensures a stable rate of cream and cheese making at the King Island cheese factory.
Since 1933 when aircraft first began a regular service to King Island, the island has been promoted for tourism. The most successful promotion has been through King Island’s growing reputation for gourmet foods – dairy products, beef and preserved meats and crayfish. There are regular air services from Moorabbin (two), Melbourne Airport and Geelong (1998), as well as from Tasmania. Currie has the large Parer Hotel, a motel and numerous other accommodation units. There is also accommodation at Naracoopa and Yarra Creek.
Educational facilities are restricted to Currie (years 1-10). Schools have been closed at Reckara (1997), Grassy, Yambacoona and Yarra Creek. The original King Island dairy at Yambacoona lies derelict, and the present factory is a few kilometres north of Currie.
King Island’s western coastline is littered with ship wrecks. The “Cataraqui” is Australia’s worst civilian shipping disaster (400 persons lost, 1845). Strong westerly weather also blows in bull kelp which is harvested and processed at Currie. There are lighthouses at the northerly Cape Wickham (1861, Australia’s tallest lighthouse), Currie (1879) and the southerly Stokes Point (1952). The first two lighthouses and the museum near the one at Currie are registered historic buildings.
King Island’s census populations have been 2,554 (1954), 2,784 (1961), 1989 (1986) and 1797 (1996). The median income of residents aged 15 years of more was $324 a week in 1996. The median for Tasmania was $257 a week.
Edgecombe, Jean, Discovering King Island, Western Bass Strait, the author, 1993.
Hooper, R.H., The King Island Story, Peko-Wallsend Ltd., 1973.
Wood Michael, Story of King Island, King Island Quik Print, 1990.